Ritualistic Magic: An Overview

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Not all mages channel magic into spells. Some instead invoke specific rituals or follow other rules to channel their magic. This is called ritualistic magic, because the mage must perform specific actions in a specific order, sometimes at a specific place or time, in order to perform the spell.

Ritualistic magic can be divided into three broad categories:

  • Open-ended or rules-based ritualistic magic. This refers to magic that follows a separate set of rules from standard channelling. It’s possible to recombine these rules in new ways to produce effects that were not previously known. Examples of this type of magic include alchemy and sympathetic magic.
  • Fixed-set rituals. This is more like what one would generally think of when hearing the term “ritual magic”. There are a set of fixed rituals or activities, and the mage need only learn each and perform it. Examples of this type of magic include black magic, Japanese onmyoudo, various forms of shamanism, and ninjutsu.
  • Personal rituals. Occasionally there exist rituals that function only for a single person. If anyone else performs the ritual, there is no effect. These are often part of the powers gained from a blessing, but can occasionally arise in other ways as well.

Open-ended Rituals

The two best-known forms of ritualistic magic are probably alchemy and sympathetic magic, neither of which involve fixed rituals.

Alchemy is, in essence, a form of magical cooking. Each substance or plant is ascribed specific magical properties, and they can be mixed together in numerous ways to produce new properties. The order in which ingredients are mixed, how long a concoction is stewed, even the time when you prepare it (for example, under a full moon) can have an effect on the final product. Alchemy isn’t just potions, either – it can produce solid products such as mithril or even living beings such as a homunculus.

Sympathetic magic is quite a bit simpler than alchemy, relying as it does on two relatively simple rules – the Law of Similarity, which dictates that an effect resembles its cause, and the Law of Contagion, which dictates that things that were once in contact can continue to affect each other once they have been separated. Sympathetic magic typically involves the creation of some kind of effigy of the person, place, or thing you want to affect (satisfying the law of similarity) which is then infused with a piece of your target (satisfying the law of contagion). Thereafter, anything done to the effigy will be mirrored on the real thing (again satisfying the law of similarity). The connection can be broken either by dismantling the effigy (easy, provided you can get ahold of it) or by channelled magic (quite difficult).

Fixed Rituals

Black magic is what most people would think of when someone says “ritual magic” – most rituals involve drawing a diagram (a mandala1, also called a magic circle) and then performing specific gestures or incanting something (or both). If you drew the diagram correctly and performed the actions correctly, the spell effect then happens spontaneously. Not all black magic rituals involve a mandala, and not all rituals involving a mandala are black magic. For example, the animectomy2 procedure uses a mandala yet is alchemical in nature, while astral projection, sometimes considered part of black magic, only requires a strong focus and a thought-incantation.

There are several other types of fixed-ritual magics, too. For example, in Japanese onmyoudo, spells typically require either specific Japanese characters written on paper in a special ink or special hand signs to focus intent, rather than a mandala (though a few onmyoudo spells do use a mandala). Ninjutsu on the other hand uses exclusively hand signs, but unlike with onmyoudo, the techniques won’t work for just anyone who learns the proper motions – they need to be granted authority to perform the technique by someone with the authority to grant techniques. As the inventors of ninjutsu, all tengu have this authority, but over the centuries, quite a few humans have also possessed it.

Personal Rituals

Personal rituals can be further divided into two categories: transferrable rituals, and non-transferrable rituals. A non-transferrable ritual works only for one person, and once that person dies, it will never again work for anyone.

A transferrable ritual, on the other hand, has some mechanism for designating a new person who can perform it. It might be something that the previous owner of the ritual must designate, similar to ninjutsu; this leaves open the possibility that they designate no-one, letting the ritual die out. Or, it could automatically pass on to a descendant or nearest of kin when they die.

Personal rituals are quite rare, and little is understood about how they come to exist or why they work at all. Though the powers of blessings are usually ritualistic in nature, there are some records of people who did not have a blessing yet did have personal rituals. Presumably there must be some way to craft these rituals, but no-one seems to know how it is done.

The Ministry of Magic keeps track of the owners of a handful of known transferrable rituals which have been passed down from person to person for centuries.

  1. Note that mandalas are also used as a focus in channelled magic, which is an entirely different thing. 

  2. A procedure designed to permanently and safely separate a soul from its body, primarily used for people who have sold their soul to a devil and then had second thoughts; since the soul is unrecoverable once sold, the only cure is to remove it so that the person can survive as themselves. 

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