You need some magic, but you’re all out of spellbooks and fancy crystals. Maybe the gods can help? This week, we’re talking about divine magic. What exactly is divine magic? What special challenges does it bring, and what can it do for your story? We answer those questions, plus take a run down of pantheons, eldritch beings, and whether gods are just very powerful wizards.
Generously transcribed by SpacePineapple. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: And welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is—
Oren: And I would like to start this podcast with a prayer to Podcastia, the goddess of podcasts, so that we may all receive +1 microphone.
Wes: Thank you for your faith, Oren. My microphone gloweth with power.
Oren: It was that easy, too. All we had to do was perform a fairly non-intensive religious ritual, and then we got magic for it. Sounds great. What’s the downside? The downside is that you have to listen to us talk about divine magic systems today. First, we should define what a divine magic system is, and this will go great, considering the last time we tried to define what a wizard was, that took five hours and made everyone angry. So I’m sure this will go great.
Chris: Well, to be fair, it’s not like there’s classic books talking about divine magic systems, those exact words.
Wes: Schools of divine magic. We’re not getting into that kind of school territory, but it’s gonna get messy, anyway.
Oren: Yeah. So, I typically define a divine magic system as a setting in which magic is granted by some kind of higher being. That higher being is often divine, or godly, or benevolent, but not always. Sometimes they’re evil. Is “Call of Cthulhu” a divine magic system? Sure. Why not? If not in form, it has a lot of the same functions. Bending (Avatar, the Last Airbender) isn’t, even if you accept the lion turtle explanation of where bending comes from, where it was given to humans by lion turtles. By the time the shows take place, humans all have their own power and lion turtles don’t control access to it anymore. So that’s not really a divine system. I’m not a fan of the lion turtle retcon, is what I’m saying.
Wes: No one should be.
Chris: I mean, if we say the lion turtles are divine beings, then that does make the end of Avatar, the Last Airbender literally a deus ex machina.
Oren: Yes. I was already willing to call it that. Not a big fan of lion turtles in general, in that show.
Wes: Do these divine or evil or whatever—what is their mortality status, in order to bestow magic, Oren? Can they be killed? Is that an important question? Or are they functionally immortal?
Oren: It’s a whole range. There’s a question of, what is a God? Is a God just a very powerful wizard?
Oren: There’s a scale of how similar a divine being is to a human with powerful magic. You know, it’ll get messy around the edges. You could have a wizard who is very powerful and gives magic to their apprentices. I wouldn’t typically call that a divine magic system. I would usually draw the line at, is there something that makes these beings non-human in some way? But again, that’s also hazy, ‘cuz what exactly makes the Greek gods not human, other than being very powerful? Who knows? They are just powerful wizards, but if Zeus came along and was giving people magic, I’d probably call that a divine magic system.
Chris: There are certainly a lot of magic systems where demons are the source of magic. Generally the idea is, demons are hard to kill. But you usually think of them as … you can kill them. I do think that when you say the word divine, it certainly implies that it’s not just evil beings. At the same time, a lot of these systems work in similar ways, right? If we’re talking about, for practical purposes, how to construct a divine magic system, there’s not going to be that much different between a powerful, benevolent god, and a demon. I mean, there might be some thematic differences in your work, and you might make different choices, but the ups and downs are probably going to be about the same. So it’s a little weird to call “Call of Cthulhu,” or magic that’s in cosmic horror, a divine magic system, but it does kind of operate like that.
Oren: If you have to do a ritual in which you beseech an entity for some kind of supernatural assistance, and you make some kind of ritual observance, and you perhaps make a sacrifice, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of the same situations, regardless of whether or not that being is called Athena or Azathoth. So you can decide whether you want to give it that label or not, but it’ll definitely fall under a lot of the same stuff we’re talking about.
Chris: I would define it as saying that there is another personality that is giving the magic that exists in a non-superficial way. That actually matters, that there’s a personality behind the magic, and that’s kinda what makes these magic systems different. But the big question, of course, are they just powerful wizards? Because it can vary how much they just feel like powerful wizards. (laughs)
Wes: But I feel a key component here that needs to be said to differentiate this—coming in hot—is that, maybe they’re just powerful wizards that can give you magic, but you have to worship them. That has to be a key component here. Chris, if you’re a super powerful wizard and I say, “can I get some power?” And you’re like, “sure, you just have to occasionally do stuff for me.” And I say, “cool, like what, a few murders?” And you’re like, “no Wes, calm down.” (laughs) There’s more of a transactional relationship in some types of magic systems. Notably, being a D&D warlock patron is not divine magic. The object of your faith is what’s rewarding you with power.
Chris: I suppose. I mean, the only thing I would say there is, what is the line between the transactional relationship and a worship relationship? A god that you worship will generally have—you’re doing things that meet the conditions of worship, of what is worship to that god, whether you’re paying them in prayers, or you’re a vegetarian, ‘cuz that’s what the god requires. Or, if you can have a demon, which you consider a more transactional relationship, they also require you to do things in exchange for magic. I mean, thematically, they’re very different, but I’m almost thinking that if we’re talking about—on a conceptual, how-to-do-a-magic-system level, I’m not sure they’re that different.
Wes: If you’re operating under this assumption that there’s three types of ways to do magic in this world, like your own weird grit, making a transactional deal, or praying to something that doesn’t talk to you, but you get power somehow from it. There’s some kind of absentee component from a god.
Chris: Depends on the god, though, right? Because the Greek gods were definitely portrayed as very invasive, sometimes.
Oren: Again, this depends on how you want to build your world, right? If you want to build a world where what defines a god’s relationship with magic power is that you get power from a God by living in a way that God approves of and worshiping and having faith, versus, say, you get power from a demon by giving that demon tangible things in the form of a sacrifice, or maybe just calling the demon up and handing it to them. You can make that distinction in your setting. It isn’t inherent in the concept, is all I’m saying. And you’re always going to get edge cases on edge cases on edge cases.
One of my favorite weird edge cases is from the Dresden Files, where there’s a character named Sanya, and he is an atheist, but he is chosen to be one of the Knights of the Cross and given a holy sword by one of the archangels, I forget which one. And then he’s like, but I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God and the Archangel. Yeah, whatever, but you’re a real cool dude, and we’re pretty sure you’ll do cool things that we like and approve of if we give you the sword. So have at it, my man. And that’s a really interesting character who I really like, and that certainly still feels like divine magic to me, even if Sanya does not worship the being that has given him this power. Again, there’s a lot of room for creativity and for applying different aesthetics, based on what you want.
Wes: Yes. And I just feel like, if your divine being who is bestowing power is playing maybe a more vocal or active role, as it were, for magical reasons, then why isn’t that godly being just doing everything itself?
Chris: To what extent do your gods just feel like they were super powerful wizards, more like the Greek gods, where they feel like people with personalities screwing around that are just really powerful, as opposed to a really distant god? I think the risks can be … okay, it feels like they’re not really the source of magic any more, because we’re wondering, where did they get their magic from? And all you’re doing is just moving the magic system from one place to another. Now you’re trying to come up with a magic system for your gods to use so that they’re not super powerful and breaking the plot all the time.
Oren: Yeah. And I mean, regardless of the specifics, any kind of divine magic system, you are going to have to look at questions of, well, if these beings exist and have agendas, what is stopping them from interfering in the plot in ways that you probably don’t want? And there are a lot of ways to answer that. You can have it so that the gods aren’t actually that concerned with these specific happenings of human beings, or whatever your mortal character is. You can have it that they have a limited ability to interact. That’s a popular one. They could be super weird, like non-human, and have their own bizarre agendas that don’t really make sense, and only happened to intersect with humans at odd points. There are a lot of things you can do, but if you’re not careful, you can end up with a situation where it really feels like you should just call God up on the God-phone and be like, “Hey God, that thing that you want to happen, it’s not happening because the villain’s in my way. Can you get rid of him?”
Wes: Since Chris brought up Greek gods, there’s that other god type of just petulant and spontaneous and lazy. Well, the god would do everything, but it just can’t be bothered right now. It’s too many things going on. I need to eat this stuff. And then, oh my gosh, you guys are doing bad—smite. And then it happens.
Chris: I think it probably would help if the gods are not omniscient. So they can’t actually see everything happening everywhere.
Oren: I would be cautious about trying to use the idea of the gods just being too lazy or chaotic, because it won’t be too long, in most of these stories before you run up against something where, yeah, sure. Even if the gods don’t like getting off their butts, if you’re dealing with a high-stakes story, this is still going to be stuff that affects them quite a bit. The Iliad is just full of the gods showing up to be like, “okay, well, here, now we’re going to intervene.” And it’s like, why did you not any other time? Well, ‘cuz this was ancient times and we didn’t care about story consistency back then.
Chris: Right. That’s the other issue, is: does it end up feeling contrived? I think having gods that are very weird and do weird things and have weird agendas is completely viable, but you still need to think through, in what situations do they do what? And if it’s just like, “oh, it’s just chaos,” and you don’t come up with a system for reasoning through the way they think and what they respond to and what they don’t respond to in some manner, I think it’s just going to come off really contrived. It’s going to feel like you arbitrarily decided when they were going to intervene because that’s what happened?
Wes: What if there’s divine magic and your protagonist is a wielder of said power. Like whatever godly persona has bestowed said power on the protagonist needs to have skin in the game, that needs to be important to that god, too. Otherwise, it may as well just be arcane magic. It doesn’t matter.
Oren: Yeah. And you also have to ask questions like, if this god actually doesn’t care about what’s happening, why are they handing out magic? And it’s not like you couldn’t answer that question, but it’s a question that will come up, and you would need an answer for it.
Chris: You could have a benefit that they get from doing this worship, a magic transaction.
Oren: Another common challenge for divine magic settings is, why doesn’t everybody have divine magic? And again, there are ways to answer this. It’s not an insurmountable issue, but in a lot of settings—in particular, a lot of role-playing settings—I think there’s this kind of implication that you can just get magic by praying real hard, and I feel like everyone would do that. It’s like, why isn’t everyone in D&D a cleric?
Wes: (laughs) And then he can create food, create water, all kinds of good stuff.
Oren: Clerics are really powerful. And being a Druid requires you to go and live in the woods, and being a wizard means you have to go to school for a long time. That takes too long. Nah, I’m gonna be a cleric. I’m just going to worship the god of being a good person and be rewarded for the thing I was already trying to do.
Chris: There has to be some kind of cost involved in it. In order for it to feel like a divine magic system, it has to not feel superficial. We don’t want to just take a regular magic system like Avatar, the Last Airbender, a rational system like that, and be like, oh, but didn’t you know? Every time the fire benders are creating fire, they’re actually worshiping the fire lion turtle. That wouldn’t make it a divine magic system because it certainly doesn’t substantially change anything about what they’re doing. So what is enough? If they stopped and prayed, but then they just cast it as spells like normal, it’s like, okay, well, you added prayer on there and that might change the aesthetics a bit, but doesn’t actually change the nature of casting magic or its effect on the story, for instance.
Oren: You’re just swapping out prayer for a spell incantation. I do think that, if you’re going to use a divine system of some kind, you really are gonna need to build whatever your pantheon is, or your belief system, more than you might otherwise. Although, in honesty, often it feels kind of like this happens in reverse, where an author does a lot of work building their pantheon for that setting. And then it’s like, well, I did all this work building this pantheon, and I should probably make them plot relevant somehow by making them give magic. You could also make them relevant by tying them to religious and social implications in your setting. But that’s a lot of work. So sometimes you just have them give magic, instead.
Wes: Divine magic really seems to be the one that isn’t rational to me. And so then I have stronger expectations of, protagonist has divine magic from source, but protagonist can only do this thing. I know that we’ve written good posts on non-rational magic systems. You have to keep it really tight. You have to decide that the spells work this way. And there’s maybe a limited number. I feel like that kind of works best, because if it’s a god, what would stop the god from just making you into a tiny godly avatar? If you’re getting divine magic from a being, why would it stop giving you the ability to shoot lasers out of your eyes when you could just be a god? It’s inherently not rational.
Chris: This is where having gods have a limited ability to affect the human world comes in really handy. Going back to what Oren said about weird motivations. If we’re going to mix up the transactional system with a divine system, and we use a belief mechanic the gods become more powerful if people believe them. Maybe the god doesn’t care, but if you believe in me and worship me, then I will pay you by giving you some magic. But I don’t really want to give you a lot. I only want to give you enough that people will believe in me.
Oren: People are really fond of that whole concept of gods getting more powerful the more people believe in them. I get why everyone likes that. ‘Cuz Neil Gaiman made it very popular. It does come with some very important implications that I would say you should probably take a moment to think if that’s actually the thing that you want. There’s really no way to explain, if your setting is in the real world, why only the cool pagan gods would have that mechanic. ‘Cuz everyone who does that in a modern fantasy setting, they’d never want Jesus to be running around. By that logic, Jesus would be the most powerful god and should be handing out magic to everybody, if that’s a thing gods do in this setting. It’s a big question mark, because no one actually wants that. They want Anubis and Athena and Odin. ‘Cuz those are the fun ones.
Chris: It’s fun and slightly less controversial.
Wes: Maybe it’s not rational, but you’re right at pointing out, everybody kind of wants a pantheon, because then you can theme it. My god, who bestows divine magic upon me, is the God of Hazelnuts. And my magic is hazelnut-oriented. So that gives you some flavor. Whereas the arcane magic users have their schools of magic and different types of stuff. And instead, yours is the God of the Forge, and you’ve forged things with its magic. I don’t know.
Chris: It’s kind of equivalent to an elemental system, where you just divide magic up into different casting categories that usually have different effects. And I think creating a pantheon to give different powers is kind of similar to an elemental system, in that you’re looking to either have carefully curated roles that are meant to feel even and equivalent to each other, like a God of Life and a God of Death, you know, that kind of thing. Alternately, you can just go in the reverse direction where it’s all chaos. It’s Terry Pratchett, Small Gods, and there’s a god for absolutely everything. And it’s very naturalistic, and we don’t have to carefully curate all of our god categories anymore.
Oren: If you’re looking for ways to limit how much power a god would give to its followers, there are actually two books that I would recommend as examples on opposite ends of the spectrum, as far as how much magic there is in the setting. First, there’s The Curse of Chalion, which has very little magic. It’s a very low magic setting. It is a divine magic system. In that one, they use the explanation of, the gods have a very limited ability to affect the human world. And also their communication is very limited, so it’s hard for them to even tell their followers what it is they want. And that allows for some interesting mysteries where the characters try to figure out what it is the gods are actually trying to do, and what they need to do to be part of that plan. And that’s all kind of cool and the plot.
And then the other one that I’d recommend looking at is Three Parts Dead, which is the complete opposite. It’s magic, everywhere. It’s almost a magic-tech system. And in that setting, what keeps the gods from running amok through your story is that they all have tons of commitments, so their power is being spread a bunch of different ways. The god of the city has a lot of things to do to keep the city running properly. That story is about magic tech support wizard lawyers who come in to adjudicate when a divine contract goes wrong. And it’s very interesting, but it just shows you another option for if you want to have these powerful beings and explain why they don’t just do whatever they want.
One thing that is particularly annoying is when you have a system or a setting where the magic is, by default, pretty standard. Where it’s like, I want a lightning bolt. So I do some magic symbols, or some motions, or whatever, and a lightning bolt comes out. That’s fine. But then you try to make a divine component to that, and this is very weird. This happens a lot in systems like mage D&D or Burning Wheel (RPG) where it’s like, hey, I’m going to cast this flame strike that I got from my god, and I’m constantly doing it. So it just makes it feel like you’re really demanding of this god you serve. It’s like, “hey god, give me this thing.” (sigh) “Ugh, you’ve already asked for five flame strikes today, man. What do you want from me?”
Chris: I do think it’s a little weird in a setting when magic comes from multiple sources that aren’t linked in some way. It just feels like the world is less organized or the theme is scattered. I don’t know. If I were to mix divine magic with a system where there are wizards who can just cast magic without the gods, I would probably try to link those together by saying, yeah, so the gods are wizards that became so powerful, they ascended. So those two things are kind of inherently linked in some way. Because magic, otherwise, is something that you made up, that’s not part of the real world. Just being like, oh, these rocks happened to have magic and also, there’s these divine beings that happened to have magic. It just starts to feel kind of random.
Wes: Well, that’s when you just decide that a god in your pantheon is the God of Magic. And then, every time you cast magic, you can praise her whole existence. (laughs) Which would really bum out those atheist wizards that are just like, “aw yeah,” and then they realize that there’s a God of Magic that’s been bestowing power on them all the time. I think it’s funny. And you mentioned druids earlier, at least in gaming systems, like D&D and such, they wrap up druidic magic as also divine magic. Yeah. The planet can bestow power on me. I’m fine with that.
Chris: Mother Earth is a goddess and she just bestows divine magic. I think you could totally do that.
Wes: Then it’s kind of back to small gods. All the aspects of the natural world is somehow bestowing power, or there’s something in the core that’s doing it. And I don’t know, but I think that’s kind of funny that they just wrapped the natural world up as kind of divine. Well, it probably was a good idea to not split hairs and think of something new, also.
Chris: Well, if we go back to our elemental categories, if you want to do something that wasn’t just, everything in nature has divine magic and can give you, you can just do distinct categories. Like, there are two gods in this setting. There is Mother Earth and Father Sky, and perhaps a third god that is non-binary. The point is that, if you have a limited set and they feel equivalent, then you’re going to have the burden of, well, what about a God of this? And what about a God of that? If you have a God of Trees, what about a God of Grass? But if you do decide to do random, like, okay, I have a God of Trees. I have Podcastia, blessed be her name. Now you will have the ability to have things that are missing. Maybe there is another God of Blogging somewhere. The gods come and go, and nobody’s been able to get ahold of the Blogging God for hundreds of years, (laughs) possibly ‘cuz blogging hasn’t existed for hundreds of years.
Oren: It sort of comes down to making sure that your gods feel like they are in the same scale of category. And if they’re not, then having some kind of tiered system. You’ve got your gods of really big concepts. Like, this is the Sky God. And the sky is pretty big. Underneath that, you have … this god is specifically the Wind God. And this one is specifically the Cloud God, or what have you. And those all could fall under Sky, but you have a hierarchy of gods going on here.
Chris: I think another good thing to do is have gods have some sort of relationship with each other. I think that’s a way that you can make them feel more like they are personalities. A reason why a god doesn’t cast a spell could be like, oh, well I don’t want to go at war with this other god. So if I bring somebody back from the dead, it’ll piss off the God of the Dead. Not really interested in getting in that fight right now.
Oren: If you look at a lot of mythology, most magic is what we would now consider divine magic, by fantasy standards. It’s not unheard of for characters to just have magic that’s internal or somehow that doesn’t come from a divine being. But certainly, at least in the mythological tales which I have been able to find, the vast majority of magic powers come from a god being like, “hey, would you like some super fast sweet shoes?” and people being like, “yeah, I would like those things. Thank you.”
Chris: That reminds me of Cinderella, which is a couple thousand years old. So, a really, really old story. But if you look at it over time, there’s always a supernatural element that is helping Cinderella go to the ball, but the nature of it changes, what it’s attributed to. So the oldest version people have that they think is linked to the Cinderella story, it comes from the god Horus, that specifically picks up her shoe and just puts it in a pharaoh’s lap. The thing I love about this is it explains why the prince can’t recognize Cinderella. He’s using a shoe. You just danced with her all evening. You really can’t recognize what she looks? But in this oldest version of Cinderella, they had never met. A shoe was dropped in the pharaoh’s lap and like, hey, this is a sexy shoe. I’m going to find who fits this shoe.
Oren: Whoever’s shoe this is has excellent taste.
Chris: So it starts with the god Horus. And then you have some versions where it’s her dead mother. It’s a ghost. And some versions where it’s fairies, and some versions where it’s god. It changes what it’s attributed to, but it is always attributed to something else that’s gifting Cinderella with powers, so that she can dress up real nice and go to a ball.
Oren: What is a fairy godmother, if not a very powerful wizard? (laughs) All right. Well, I think on that note, we will go ahead and call this podcast to an end, now that we’ve gotten some history involved in our divine magic nerdiness. And look at that, we didn’t even have to spend the first five hours arguing about what a divine magic system is. We’re making so much progress, everybody.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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