Hey Mythcreants, I have an oppressed mages question for you. You’ve correctly mentioned that real victims of witch hunts didn’t have any supernatural powers to defend themselves, but it was often believed that they did by those conducting the hunt, be they state officials, clergy, or angry mobs. While there were many factors at play, religious beliefs often held that witchcraft was real and aligned with demonic forces, particularly in Europe and Colonial America.
Given that, could real mages be forced to operate in secret because of religious zeal against witchcraft? The mages here would be few in number and have powers minor enough not to make them invulnerable against mundane humans.Anonymous
Hey Anon, thanks for writing in!
What you’re describing is a classic oppressed-mage scenario, and to understand the issue with it, we have to zoom out a bit. By default, it’s easy to imagine a situation where we take real witch hunts and then give the Salem 25 some minor magical powers. Depending on what the powers are, that very well might not be enough to save them.
This is where we have to take a step back and consider how the existence of these powers would affect the world of our story. Most importantly, the religious zeal against magic would not have formed in the first place if magic were real. Magic would have been incorporated into religious doctrine because, like any human organization, churches know better than to discard something so useful.
Likewise, magical individuals would be able to use their powers to gain social and financial clout for their entire lives, not just the moment they’re accused of witchcraft. This advantage would build up over generations, the same way regular wealth does. Mages wouldn’t be the pariahs targeted by real witch hunts; they would be influential pillars of the community.
Things might be different if you have a world where magic has only recently appeared. If there’s an existing prejudice against imagined magic, that could very well be turned against the newly awakened real mages as well. But this phase is also unlikely to last long. Just about every religion on Earth is happy to accept supernatural powers into its belief system so long as they’re presented properly, including medieval Christianity.
Once the usefulness of magic was clear, it’s likely that church leaders would find ways to justify it as being a divine blessing of some sort, so they could make use of this new power for the church’s benefit. This is doubly true because it’s unlikely that any recently arrived magic would only appear in the social outcasts that usually get targeted by real witch hunts. Even if it somehow did, they would still be targets primarily because of their outcast status, not their supernatural powers.
If you want a fantasy story with similar aesthetics to a classic witch hunt, the best solution is for one group of mages to be hunting another. You could have one dominant form of magic, and anyone who practices a different form is considered heretical. This is both useful for explaining how mages can be hunted in the first place, since the hunters have their own powers, but it also keeps the broader social dynamics intact, as it avoids the inherent problem of the powerful being oppressed by those with less power.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!
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Comments on Would Mages Hide From Witch Hunts?
Two oppressed mage questions in a row
Is there a pattern appearing here?
Then again, it might be because it’s this blog’s de facto trademark trope. Like “fremen mirage” is in “A Collection Of Unmitigated Pedantry”
All that’s missing now is an article on the problems with the “oppressor mage” variant (The ones on Age of Myth and Crescent City were a good start).
Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners series would also work
People would randomly gain superpowers, some trivial (your gun never runs out of bullets), some powerful (Steelheart was essentially Superman)
But gaining powers meant you became evil, and various powered people took over the world, set up their own little kingdoms
Basically, the world was what the mutant-haters in Marvel feared their world would become
These questions tend to come in waves. I publish one, which leads to several more that get published a few weeks later.
Also, for the record, I don’t think it’s inherently unworkable to put mages in the roll of oppressing non-mages. There are a lot of ways to mess it up, but the core concept functions just fine, most directly as a parallel for ableism.
Yeah, that would explain it.
And Oppressor Mage trope’s problem isn’t that it doesn’t work. It does. It’s all the unfortunate implications that come with it.
Oppressed Mage is ultimately a sympathy trope, an easy, if very (very) clumsy way of making the audience root for the protagonist by making them awesome and distinct.
In fact, you could consider inspirational disabled a form of oppressed mage. The purpose is pretty much the same. Make the character cool in their disability, so the audience is on their side.
It is this association of coolness with sympathy why oppressor mage is troublesome. When the mage with awesome powers is the one in charge, the reader is likelier to root for them than the average, boring non-mages they victimize. We have enough trouble with the “divine right of kings” as it is, and making the privileged mightier than the marginalized doesn’t help at all.
Now, while the ultimate reason for Sarah J. Maar’s reason to give the human resistance of Crescent City mecha suits, remains to herself, I wouldn’t be surprised that it was to increase their coolness factor, so that the readers would root for them instead of the magic folk they fight. (this is even a problem in-universe, with Bryce preferring to associate with her awesome Fae half rather than the boring human half)
This is also why in Oppressed Mage stories the mages rarely if ever triumph. Once they stop being the underdogs, all the nasty implications become visible. House of X is a great example of this.
Then there is the fact that Oppressor Mage doesn’t bring anything new to the table in regards to how non-mages are supposed to fight mages. Superior numbers, mundane technology, anti-mage abilities, weak powers, the same failed justifications used for Oppressed Mage stories repeat themselves in Oppressor Mage stories. The only thing that has changed is that the ones fighting the mages are the heroes.
There is no logical reason for Marshal Law to be the only character to use guns in his job as a super hero hunter, yet only the gangs with lesser powers face him with heavy arsenal of their own, never the big “heroes”.
We’re having enough trouble with mages being effectively invincible, when their opponents are the antagonists. But if we can’t have a logical reason for the protagonists to defeat the oppressors, how do you think it will reflect on the readers?
“You can’t improve your lot in life. Those that reign over you are too strong, and quite frankly, better than you are. Give up!”
Because of this, I find the idea of giving only one side powers a bad idea. Heroes or villains, it will either not make sense, or it makes sense, and because of that has unfortunate implications. You either give everyone something, or leave them as they are.
Either that or find a way to stop people associating awesomeness with sympathy, which I doubt is even possible.
You could have a situation where a powerful, established mage exploits the religious fervor of a population to stir up mage hunts.
The mage could pretend their magic is a result of divine blessing and take over the local religion because of such incontrovertible proof as the sick getting healed whenever the mage leads the congregation in prayer, etc.
But that’s the how. The more important question in storytelling is the WHY!
Why would an established mage go after any fledgling mages? A story needs a good enough reason that stands up to scrutiny. Obviously, the established mage is evil, going after those weaker than themself and exploiting an entire belief system to do so.
(this is a hypothetical about a setting where mages cannot divinate information out of thin air via magical means and need a network of observers and informants):
My suggestion is to make mages’ magical powers weak on their own. Mages need mystical components to amplify their powers.
For instance! A mage on their own could close up a superficial wound by holding it closed and weaving magic on it, but internal wounds are beyond a mage’s ability – unless they were to brew up a magical potion beforehand and feed it to the patient and then the potion within the body lets the mage play “Operation” with the patient and cure a myriad of conditions. The magical plants needed to brew this highly profitable potion can only grow in certain places at certain times of the year and thus the established mage has a motive to keep any other would-be mages away from their mana-yielding crops.
That’s just an example, but remember, if a mage partakes in oppression of other mages, use religious fervor as an excuse and personal gain and profit as the real motivation. Much more believable that way.
My personal theory is that there are two ways the “oppressed magic-users” trope could work (for a very elastic definition of “work”):
The first way, still with a bunch of caveats and edge cases, is if the magic powers are unpredictable and uncontrollable, or at the very least extremely difficult and time consuming to control.
The second way, basically the only realistic way that covers all the issues with the trope, is if the *mages* are the one using the oppression. So the only oppressed mages are the one that don’t conform.
The third way is if most mages are willing to accede to it, but that requires assembling a lot of factors to explain why they would – the only setting that’s pulled it off IMO is Dragon Age.
For the record, I talked about the option for making mages inherently dangerous to those around them, way back in the original post: https://mythcreants.com/blog/the-problem-with-oppressed-mages/
The TL:DR is that you can justify all kinds of harsh treatment that way, but it no longer works as a parallel for IRL bigotry, specifically because you’re justifying it.
I don’t see where justification comes into play here.
Bigotry has no real justification. You just think all members of group X ought to have less rights and be oppressed – usually because it gives you advantages. Once the members of group X really are dangerous and need to be controlled, it’s not bigotry any longer.
It sounded like that’s what you were talking about with making magic uncontrollable, which is a fairly common trope.
If mages can accidentally set the town on fire by getting upset, it explains why people would treat them differently, it’s just not a good bigotry parallel anymore.
Did you mean something else?
No, that is exactly what I meant. But also yes, because I wasn’t looking for a “good bigotry parallel”, that seems to be your focus.
In that case, I’d recommend not referring to it as a case of mages being “oppressed,” since that carries an inherent assumption that their is bigotry against mages.
A variety of the first way is that magic exists but is simultaneously weak enough for mages to not be able to threaten ordinary humans directly with it but also enough to spook out ordinary humans. This will require some very careful planning and writing. A lot of real life witch hunts revolved around witches causing crop failures with their magic. That’s bad but not directly harmful like being hit with a fireball. The problem is that magic has to be able to do anything technologically possible for the audience or more. So because we have napalm in real life, the fireball came into existence in fantasy literature. The magical expectations of the audience makes this sort of low level but still scary magic beyond the willing suspension of disbelief for a modern audience.
If we’re talking specifically about European witch hunts during the Renaissance and Baroque eras, I figure one way that religious authorities could hunt actual mages would be alchemy (like actual functional alchemy; think FMA). I seem to recall the Catholic Church, and at least some Protestants (like the Elizabethan English; see John Dee) didn’t have a problem with that.
The Catholic Church for all its other problems were not that big on hunting witches with the exception of France. The witch hunts of the 16th and 17th century were mainly a Protestant phenomenon. If you accept the Little Ice Age thesis behind the Witch Hunts, that is the Little Ice Age was causing a lot of crop failure and the women and some men burned as witches were basically scapegoats for this, the explanation was that since the Catholic Church tended to be dominate in the warmer climates, the Little Ice Age caused fewer agricultural failures except in France.
The Habsburg Empire was another exception: in Germany and the Low Countries, Catholic-dominated regions had more intense witch trials. On the other hand, even in those areas, the Church itself often let the local government deal with suspected witches. Certainly the Catholic Church didn’t take the infamous Malleus Maleficarum seriously, though that didn’t stop secular authorities in majority-Catholic areas from relying on it.
One group of mages oppressing another group of mages reminds me of Owl House. Love that show!
As for history, nobody in the Middle Ages denied the existence of magic. Like you said, there are a lot of instances of “divine magic” used by Christian missionaries. The only oppression of mages you would have seen would have been the oppression of “Satanic magic,” which the church leaders claimed came from any source not of God.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is another good example, with the Fire Nation forbidding conquered peoples from bending their native elements.
Yes, another Owl House fan!
I would suggest looking at the complex role of the cunning folk in the European witch trials.
There is a common misconception that the cunning folk were targeted in witch hunts. In fact, they were more likely to be accusers than accused. Their communities valued them too much to target them even if they feared them, precisely because of the perception that they had magical powers. But at the same time they were often viewed with suspicion and resentment by religious authorities, to whom they could represent a form of competition: snd as a result they *were* occasionally caught up in top-down witch hunts. A world in which people analogous to the cunning folk have real low level magic need not be too different from ours – especially if the equivalent to the Church also has real magic and claims a monopoly on it.
(Long time reader, first time commenter.)
The response to the question today seems to operate on the assumption that a witch’s source of magic is some kind of neutral force or a quirk of physics.
But witchcraft seems like an interesting case of oppressed mages, since the power source of a witch’s magic is often something deeply and inherently evil, like a pact or bond with a demon or devil. In this case, mages might oppressed because they’re in service of these evil beings. The witches are doing evil in the world, or at least giving the demons a foothold into the world to further exert their influence.
Maybe it’s reasonable for a Good society (e.g. Christian/Protestant-inspired) to oppress such evil witches, especially if the magic powers of those witches are too weak to provide an effective defense? Even if the magic had some utility to help society or make the witch wealthy, a Good society may believe that oppressing them is still a moral imperative despite the advantages of magic.
Put another way: If all magic is inherently evil, maybe one can build a sensible story about a society’s oppression of evil people?
(This oppression would naturally extend to any muggles who work for, or with, the witches. Demon is evil 🡒 witch works for demon 🡒 muggle assistant works for witch. Oppress them all!)
If witches are evil, then fighting them is not oppression, even if anti-witch measures are overly harsh, so the trope no longer applies. Simple as that. This is before you get into the ickiness of writing a story where the historical injustices of witch trials were actually justified.
Ah, that makes sense. The original question didn’t touch much on the alignment of the witches in question, so I overlooked that nuance.
And to be clear, the historical witch trials were super icky. I was suggesting a fictional world where witches had real powers derived from some evil connection. Not realistic at all.
Thanks for the reply!
Whether the source of thier powers is good or bad don’t matter. It’s a matter of capability. If the witches are more powerful than the inquisitors, they won’t be oppressed, isf the inquisitors are at least equally powerful than the witches, it don’t fall into the trope.
The Witch hunt narrative is that God is more powerful than the devil and hence the inquisitors are able to imprison, torture and kill witches “in His name”. But what is obvious to anyone is that is all a way for powerful people to use weak people as a scapegoat. And of course the message is that the opressed is the evil one and hence deserve to be opressed.
What amazes me is that in a lot of cases the “Opressed mages”trope is set up as the opressing party fearing that the opressed party would use their powers to kill them, and it is what happens in the end, proving their point .
If you ask me, magic being inherently good would work better
Encanto is probably the most sensible oppressed mage story I’ve seen so far. The genius in it is that said oppression doesn’t come from outside, but inside.
The Madrigals see their gifts as a blessing, a miracle. But rather than reigning over the town, they spend their time serving the people there. In fact, they define their entire existence to contributing to Encanto to the point of working themselves to exhaustion. They are the slaves of the town, not its masters.
Not only that, but those Madrigals that fail to contribute are made into pariahs. The main character, Mirabel, has no gift, and as such is barely even associated with the rest of the family. Meanwhile her uncle Bruno has a gift, precognition, but nobody sees his future visions as anything but bringers of misery, declare him a curse-casting bully and shun his memory.
Then there is Abuela, an oppressive non-mage if there ever was one. She squeezes every ounce of labor out of her family members she can, treats them as breeding stock, and hypocritically shuns Mirabel.
Usually when we think of Oppressed Mage, we think of some large organization or society, but actually, a simple extended family with lots of personal baggage can do the same.
It seems like a lot of the biggest problems with the Oppressed Mages trope and its Oppressor Mage counterpart come from magic being an innate trait that a person either has or doesn’t. A magic system where magic is a learned skill sidesteps or presents a lot of opportunities to work around some of these logical inconsistencies and unfortunate implications.
Suppressing the study of magic amongst the general populace makes much more sense for an authority figure or organization that fears a competitor, especially if magic is a relatively new feature or discovery, and they’re working on cracking that mystery for themselves at the same time they’re preventing anyone else from learning it. Just remember that the longer something has been around, the more widespread and harder to contain it is. This model still really only works if magical knowledge is already highly limited or constrained.
Muggle witch hunters can also still work if you change the approach to how they operate. Witch hunters taking witches down in head-on conflicts makes no sense unless the witches are so weak that why is anyone bothering to oppress them in the first place, but that’s hardly the only way they could go about it.
Witch hunters in my story, for example, are non-magical agents of a witch queen who maintains a very tight leash on magical knowledge spreading outside her family line. To that end, her hunters live undercover amongst the general population, positioning themselves in the social underbelly as people who burgeoning witches just starting to learn the powers should seek out for help, at which point the hunters quietly betray and dispose of them. A little poison or cutting a sleeping throat gets the job done much more efficiently and discreetly than trying to take down someone with supernatural powers you don’t have in a straight up fight.
So they just kill normal people. You said that the knowledge is strongly controlled and the hunters kill people that want to be witches. Do you realize that by a Witch sponsoring and supporting the hunters they are not “unpowered” anymore? In your story the opression comes from the powerful (the experienced Witch Queen and his trained hunters) towards the powerless (someone that don’t know what they are doing and look for help)? Where is the opressed mage? Also, why teaching witchcraft to someone you will betray instead of not teaching them and prevent them to become a threat?
You are correct. The scenario I described from my story is not Oppressed Mages, because the oppression is flowing from more powerful mages to less powerful mages. Which is why I was not citing my story as an example of Oppressed Mages working, but as an example of non-magical witch hunters (which the ones in my story are, regardless of working for a witch) presenting a valid threat to mages by way of subterfuge instead of head-to-head combat.
(They also don’t actually teach the new mages anything. They… y’know… lie.)
But… if they don’t teach magic , then the victim is not a witch, since the magic knowledge is controlled by the Queen, so they are just murderers.
Anyway, if they take on full fledged witches, they’d still just kill the dumber ones, the ones naive enough to trust them, cause what use do the magic have if it can’t keep you safe? A “witch hunter” that have to rely on their target to be trustful, unaware or powerless is kinda useless; you’d want to have witch hunters to fight powerful, smart witches.
If an unpowered character can take out a powered character, there is something wrong with the powered one. And i’m using “power” as a wide representative on the skills and proficence of the character; whoever has advantage is more powerful than the other.
Yes, they are witches, they do have magic, just very little. They start figuring it out on their own, because having a monopoly on the codified collective knowledge of generations of witches does not mean the queen has a monopoly on the magical equivalent of physics. I could go into a full breakdown of my setting’s magic system, history, and sociopolitical structures, but this is growing increasingly besides the point.
Mages are still people, regardless of power level. They are still subject to poor judgement in all its forms. Witch hunters who approach taking them on more like conmen than hitmen have much more room to be effective. You talk about “smart” mages like they’re making Int saves against Deception rolls, but in real life it’s been shown that intelligent people are just as susceptible to fake news and conspiracy theories as anyone else, if not more-so because they’re better at rationalizing conflicting beliefs.
The only way in which magic would render mages immune to this is if a given magic system includes things like highly accessible truth spells, which frankly is a pretty bad idea to include in your world as a writer because reliable divination magic quickly becomes plot-breaking and shuts down a lot of avenues for developing tension.
If witches are people, there will be as many gullible witches that fall for the con, as witches that don’t, and hence the witch hunters wouldn’t reach them to kill them. You speak like the witch hunters consistently success on killing witches, which mean that they have a consistent advantage over their victims. Since you say thet they use poison and slit throats i just assume the witches don’t take any preparation just in case someone try to kill them, despite the fact that a huge amount of new witches just dissapear. Don’t witches talk to eachother? Don’t they have friends that worry about their well being?
If your witch hunters are masters on deceit, manipulation and assassination, they are effectively more powerful than their victims, because you, as a writer, are enforcing the victims to make enough mistakes for them to success.
The point is always the same, Wizards have the same traits as everyone else PLUS magic, so in same footing they have advantage. You can have a witch that is a master in deceit, manipulation and assassination in your setting, and they will have an easier time not only surviving, but kiling the witch hunters, cause they will have magic so they aren’t tied to mundane means. They could charm the hunters, summon previous victims spirits to gather information… If no witch realizes what is happening, witches (as a collective) are dumber than hunters; if they aren’t, then it must be a point where the percentage of surviving witches gives the hunters operation away, and then it will stop working.
In real life there were (and are) serial killers that won’t be caught, but they always prey on the weak, and the moment they don’t they are caught or killed.
I’m just pointing to details that would make me question things as a reader of your setting.
Well, no, you’re not, because you don’t know enough about my setting’s details to be pointing out inconsistencies in them. A lot of your objections are based on assumptions about my magic system and the social landscape of my world which are, in fact, incorrect. But again, I’m not here to go into a deep breakdown of my setting; I was using it (in apparently poor judgement, seeing as how far it’s distracted from the point) as an example of an approach to witch hunters that doesn’t rely on non-magical hunters being a serious threat to mages in open combat.
Yes, subterfuge-based witch hunters are still not a one-size-fits-all element. They will be highly contextual to a given setting’s magic system and its scope and limitations, and to its sociopolitical structure. They will work better in settings where mages are a newer development that haven’t had a chance to become widespread or organized yet, or as a secondary threat in a setting where mages are already being forced to exist in secret by some other, greater threat, as well as in settings with more limited magic systems that can’t auto-detect deception or maintain 24 hour wards against piercing damage without concentration. But when those factors line up for them, they have room to work much better logically than warrior-style witch hunters being a serious threat to mages in a standup fight.
They can even present an added avenue for tension for a mage character, as thwarting witch hunters no longer becomes just a matter of winning fights, but a need for constant vigilance and suspicion of anyone offering assistance or being too friendly, driving them toward paranoia and isolation.
Magic cannot be just a learned skill because the person has to have the ability to not die horribily the first time they do magic or they won’t live enough to be oppressed by anyone, the amount of energy a non magic can survive running through them is too small to do much of anything with
Remember that we’re talking about fiction here. There’s no reason magic has to be so dangerous that an improper use results in death, and even if that is the case, there’s no reason it has to be worse for a learned-magic system vs an innate-magic system.
My take is, the only way Witch Hunts by normal folks against mages could work, require a combination of factors:
1. Mages are a previously unknown or unrevealed phenomenon, so society at large has not yet benefitted from their powers.
2. The mages themselves cannot control or have not yet learned to weaponize their powers to strike back effectively.
3. The mages are somehow seen as a threat to be feared, either physically dangerous to those around them, or damaging to the existing authorities or social structure. Lighting fires at random, for example, or reading the thoughts (and secrets) of others.
I think under those conditions there could plausibly be Witch Hunts, lasting up until the mages actually become a true threat. Control of their power, organized resistance, blackmail or threats, etc will allow the mages to actually fight back effectively, at which point the Witch Hunters/angry mob can become the hunted, or bravely run away.
That’s about as close to Oppressed Mages as you could get. And it’s important to note that this is a temporary, unstable situation. Once the mages come into their power, the threat is inverted.
Yes, mages could be hunted by non magicals for a while particularly as power scales with rarity and unstable powers get more dangerous further up the scale, one or more mages will eventually master their craft and how badly they want revenge will depend on how badly the earlier witch hunts treated them.
It could be revenge, but self defense is a factor too. If a group with power are actively violent against you and those like you, fighting against that group is not revenge, it’s simply survival.
Even if the attackers are trying to “merely” enslave or drive out the mages, that’s still something to fight back against. The details of what the mages (and former Witch Hunters) do once the fight is over will vary from one storyteller to the next. Revenge might or might not be on the menu. Maybe the mages choose to leave, or stay and assume power, or divide themselves into multiple groups and do both.
Mages may not be a unified society or subculture, especially if their power is recently discovered. Variations of who has the powers, why, and what their interactions with each other and the greater community are and had been, will provide much of the background of the story, and influence the resulting new order.
Suppose for example that the mages are being hunted as witches with a religious motivation, and then the religious leader of the Witch Hunters finds out he himself is a mage. This could change the playing field considerably, and depending on circumstances, could even end the witch hunts and get mages approved as “divine messengers” or some such. Of course the whiplash of cognitive dissonance will mean at least some former Witch Hunters or their supporters/pitchfork mob, will still hate witches as their God intended, and try to continue the crusade/jihad without their former leader.
Theres self defense and theres punishing everyone in entire communities because some of them acted out of justified fear, the latter is to be avoided
There are issues of storyteller bias in my own stories particularly regarding the Fae Wars, its commonly believed that all the Elves were on one side but thats probably not true for a number of reasons.
Mages have divided into two sides and a variable number of factions since then some of which were helping the Witch Hunters for their own reasons, on the other side the currently most famous Witch Hunter actually works for the Witch Council because Bi nding and supression magic is spoiler alert a magic specialism.
Witch Hunts without magical support tend to end badly even with modern technology and most societies with even better tech don’t hunt Mages.
There are a few options for how this can work.
1) Some other mage group is doing the oppressing. Think the necromancers vs. Mages Guild in the Elder Scrolls series. At that point, power becomes irrelevant because it’s not mages as such being oppressed, but certain groups.
2) Some other supernatural force is involved. In the Middle Ages magic was considered evil, a pact with the Devil or demons. Divine power was something else entirely–a force for good. This is somewhat related to the former point, but with a subtle difference. This would require a robust magical and religious system.
3) Magic isn’t showy. Most of the time we think of magic we think of fireballs and magic missile, but many fantasy stories have FAR more subtle forms of magic. Such subtle forces may not make the mage invulnerable to witch hunts. It’s going to be harder to write, because it’s going to require subtlety on the part of the writer, but it’s not impossible. I’ve seen some good examples of this in stories set in Neolithic time periods (the characters treated animal training as such magic, for example).
4) Magic takes time/effort. Casting fireball in DnD isn’t hard, but many fantasy stories involve ritual magic, which takes time. When the mage isn’t doing the ritual, they’re normal humans (or maybe have some residual magical effects, but not active ones). This would be the best option, I think. First, because it explains why a guy with a pointy bit of metal can win the fight–because the person losing the fight is just a normal person. Second, it would explain how the mage hides–they just need to hide or disguise the ritual. This has a lot of historic counterparts; for example, the Mystery Cults of the Roman Empire (I didn’t name them, and “cult” is used as a neutral descriptor) operated like this. Being hidden was part of the point.
To the oppressed mages theory I would like to add another one:
The mages think they are oppressed/hunted once so they shut themselves off from society and never found out that the normal humans evolved.
Case in Point: Harry Potter.
According to the books the wizards were still thinking that the muggles were out to burn them and therefore had nearly no contact with muggles.
Except that wizards born to muggles were invited to Hogwarts.
When I read the books I was close to screaming about this insanity.
Didnt the wizards not notice that nobody was burned / put into stocks / drawn and quartered or put into a gibbet anymore?
Why didnt Hermione, the know-it-all-girl- didnt tell the teacher for muggle studies about the Declaration of Human Rights?