Weird Books for Gamers IX: The History of Magic – From Alchemy to Witchcraft, From the Ice Age to the Present

This is the ninth in my series of capsule reviews of non-fiction books from my library that would be useful or inspiring in RPGs – Weird Books for Gamers

The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, From the Ice Age to the Present (Goodreads)

In Chris Gosden’s book, he covers the history of magic from 40,000 BC to modern times. He presents the idea that human history can be described as a triple helix, with the strands made of science, religion, and magic. Godsen suggests that there still exists a need for magical practices, and promotes the idea that magic still can be useful in the modern world.

I’m not sure if Godsen really makes his case, but the book is full of useful ideas and flavor that could easily be plugged into any fantasy game.

The book is a broad survey, so he doesn’t go into any great detail on any one area or time period, but he covers the fundamental ideas behind magical systems quite well.

He starts by discussing the “Deep History of magic” from the Ice Age to the beginning of recorded history. It’s all based on archeological evidence. Godsen is an archeologist, so this is probably the strongest chapter of the book. He moves on to the discuss the basic magic practices of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. There’s a chapter covering all of Chinese magical history. The chapter on Shamanism in Eurasia has a lot of interesting details about how shamans on the steppes lived and worked. It’s enough to make you want to run some kind of Eurasian Steppes-based fantasy game.

As Godsen moves into more modern eras, the information becomes a little less surprising and lot more well-known, but is still a decent overview of magical practices.

Throughout the book, Godsen separates magical practices into three categories: transcendence, transformation, and transactions.

Transcendence is defined as when the universe has an effect on people, but people cannot effect the universe. Astrology is the classic example.

Transformation magic is when people can affect the world. He uses the examples of alchemy and Eurasian shamans inhabiting other creatures.

In Transaction magic, people make bargains with the universe. The Oracle at Delphi or leaving offerings to saints are good examples of these.

Godsen makes it clear that many, if not most magical practices are combinations of these three ideas.

Gameable Bits

The book is full of gameable ideas, these are just my favorites:

  • In the First World War, in an attempt to magically deflect bullets, soldiers carried bullets with their name inscribed on them, and crucifixes made of bullets. This would make a good detail for Weird War games set during the Great War.
  • The whole transcendence/transformation/transaction ideas seems like it’d be a good starting point for developing a custom RPG magic system.
  • During the Ice Age, Central European magicians would create detailed clay figurines, and then explode them in hot furnaces, presumably for hunting purposes. Perhaps something PCs could do before going on a monster hunt.
  • In 11,000 BC, people would often keep the heads of the departed for a long periods of time before burial, even traveling with them. In essence, they were still members of the tribe, although dead. This seems very much like a Mörk Borg thing.
  • The āšipu magicians of ancient Mesopotamia had” Exorcism manuals” that were essentially spell books. They served the powerful in society, while on the lower level of society people were served by figures such as the snake-charmers (mušlahhu), the eššebû, or ‘owlman’, and the qadištu-woman. These lower-level magic practitioners were considered much sketchier, and were often accused of witchcraft.
  • To make magic amulets the Egyptians had to engrave a gem, and carry out invocations to multiple gods over them for 14 days. Then they sacrificed a rooster, and left the gem in its belly for a day. Only then was the amulet activated. Stuff like this provides a lot more flavor for creating magic items than a simple die roll.
  • In Shang Dynasty, magicians would heat cattle scapula or turtle shells in a furnace. When they cracked, they could interpret the cracks to divine the future. This is a much more colorful way of casting an augury spell.
  • Across Central Asia and Mongolia, littering the steppes, there are ancient barrows called khirigsuurs and ancient megaliths called deer stones. Their purposes are completely unknown. This makes them perfect sites for all kinds of magical nonsense.
  • The Azande poison oracle is described. When there were questions to be answered, a magician would poison a chicken. The chicken was asked a series of questions. If it died in a certain period of time, an answer was revealed.
  • On the banks of Danube, in what is now modern Serbia, many carved boulders from around 6000 BC have been unearthed. They depict human/fish hybrid creatures. Are you thinking about Deep Ones on the Danube? I am.

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