Ritual Magic

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One of the oldest conceptions of magic is Ritual Magic, a method of casting spells based on the performance of specific words, gestures, actions and offerings at specific places and times. Magic isn't a question of talent, spiritual enlightenment, or a power you're born with. It's something that anyone can learn, even (perhaps dangerously) a Muggle. This puts Ritual Magic closer to technology than other forms of Functional Magic; it works because of knowledge that has been collected about the natural world and used in a certain way, and witches and wizards are essentially "engineers" of magic. This concept of magic is very old, going back to Ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices.

Stories that feature Ritual Magic can certainly have characters who know more rituals and are better at casting them be perceived to be powerful wizards, but much like arts and sports, anyone can potentially learn and master Ritual Magic. This is why intelligence is a justified trait of ritualists, and why Hard Work Hardly Works is usually averted.

The ritual usually requires one of the following to cast: a somatic (physical), verbal, or material component, as well as having restrictions on time and place. These may include a Magical Gesture or dancing a Magic Dance. Ritualists may need to speak in the Language of Magic or sing Magic Music. It might require material offerings like an Eye of Newt or a Virgin Sacrifice. The ritual might only work if done in a Place of Power, or need the ritualist to draw a figure of Geometric Magic (this is especially common when using a Summoning Ritual). The ritual might need to be performed during a Total Eclipse of the Plot or When the Clock Strikes Twelve.

If the setting also has magicians who get their magic from innate powers, you can expect both natural magicians and ritualists to engage in smug Fantastic Racism over their Un-Equal Rites. Of course, if someone with innate magic were to learn ritual magic, the results would be... interesting. In settings with multiple coexisting forms of Functional Magic, it could be considered a kind of "leveler" for the playing field, giving even the non-magical a chance to "wield" comparable forces to those born into a Witch Species. Even if their powers aren't quite up to par, it keeps everyone on their toes.

Most worlds use a little of both when they create their system, perhaps requiring a mix of raw magical talent and mental acuity. Interestingly, there is a notable shift as you move from one side of the scale to the other. On one end, you are likely to find Magitech as the studious "magic engineers" research new rituals and their applications, and the general populace using said inventions in Magic Realism. On the other, purely innate magic setting you have (usually) fewer mages with various ages and personalities, and are much more likely to have trained other skills as well (eg. being a good physical fighter) since having their magic come naturally allows them to devote more effort to other things.

Examples of Ritual Magic include:

Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • The Magico universe has a booming ritual magic economy.
    • And the titular ritual of magico is also a prime example.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Young Wizards operates on Ritual Magic; there is an entire fundamental language of the universe (with many dialects) that is used to precisely describe the intended effect. Interestingly, their personal power level also plays a part in determining the scope of what they can do.
  • In Le Morte d'Arthur, a certain priest "conjures on a book" to force a demon to reveal secrets about a certain deceased knight.
  • A common form of magic in the works of Katherine Kurtz, such as the Deryni series, in which it has a dual purpose: to foster the deep concentration needed to use the more demanding Deryni powers, and to draw the esoteric connections of Hermetic Magic. Most of the typical traits are present in Deryni arcana:
    • Magical Gestures can be as simple as snapping one's fingers to light a candle or torch. Other gestures facilitate the drawing of geometric or esoteric figures as focal points for summoning divine/angelic beings.
    • A polyglot Language of Magic sees much use. (See the examples above.) The short story "Healer's Song" features a sung prayer normally performed at the consecration of a Healer on completion of his training; Lord Rhys Thuryn sings it to welcome his newborn Healer son to the family.
    • Rituals intended to emphasize bonds between people, such as Naming and triggering the Haldane potential, involve token sacrifices, generally burning incense and shedding a few drops of blood.
    • Some rooms become places of power from repeated ritual use, notably chapels in larger churches or in private suites/homes. A specific Place of Power is a plot point in Deryni Rising.
    • Geometric Magic most often crops up in the protective circles invoked in Warding, both to protect mages from interference during a ritual and to protect outsiders from the energies unleashed in duels. When creating a Transfer Portal, the shape delineates the area to be enchanted.
  • In The Bartimaeus Trilogy, the entirety of magic is based on saying the right words and using the right symbols, and although it is draining beyond the sheer physical act, anyone can do it. This is a fact the magicians are keen for people not to pick up on, and exaggerate the risks and difficulty as well as discouraging higher education among non-magicians to make it less apparent.
  • Magic in The Elric Saga is mostly ritualistic in nature. Essentially, doing a spell means summoning a supernatural creature with the desired power through a ritual, and having it perform the task for you.
  • This is also the most common form of magic in the Cthulhu Mythos, and is usually implied to be in fact highly sophisticated science unrecognisable to humans.
  • In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "Beyond the Black River", Balthus and the other captive deduce they are to be Human Sacrifices as part of Zogar's ritual. A ritual is also used to ressurect Xaltotun in Hour of the Dragon.
  • In Angelology, the nuns of St. Rose use a ritual to summon an angel in their defense when attacked by Gibborim.
  • The Canim Ritualists of the Codex Alera do this. The precise mechanics by which it works are never explored (the Ritualists are a secretive bunch who aren't about to share their secrets with just anyone), but the ritual shedding of blood (their own or someone else's) is essential, and sometimes they use incantations as well.
  • Jakub Wedrowycz uses complex rituals to perform his exorcisms. He also knows some other ones, such as the ritual that opens a gate to Hell.
  • Ritual Magic exists in Dresdenverse. Basically, any person who knows the ritual, wizard or not, can perform this ritual and obtain the magical result. Alas, the magical power behind such rituals always comes from something unpleasant, and a ritualistic caster becomes an Unwitting Pawn of it. What's interesting is that, according to Harry, the best way to disable a particular ritual is to make it general knowledge, only a limited amount of power can be channel into the world. If numerous people are trying a ritual only a very small amount of power can get through per person.
    • In one of the side stories there appears an organization devoted to erasing the names of these supernatural beings, and thus cutting their connection to this world. This brings them into direct conflict with the White Council on occasion, since the latter's SOP is to publicize the shit out of the names of ritual-powering-beings. Apparently, the Brothers Grimm were Council.
  • There is a big difference between sorcery and wizardry in The Witch Watch. Wizardry seems to be a natural ability but sorcery depends mainly on laying out the correct magic circle with the right words and well-mapped spacing.


Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • In the Buffy Verse, ideally magic is done by adepts, but we've seen on at least one occasion Mooks with no magical abilities just reading it out of a book, as if it were a recipe.
    • As with most cases, The Verse has Ritual Magic for other stuff.
  • in Once Upon a Time a ritual is used to invoke the curse that sends the inhabitants of the Fairy Tale World to ors.


Theater[edit | hide]

  • In The Devil To Pay, Dorothy L. Sayers's take on the Faust legend, Mephistopheles is conjured by rituals that Sayers found in actual Renaissance grimoires.


Tabletop RPG[edit | hide]

  • Dungeons and Dragons (3.5 Edition at least) had Sorcerers, who were gifted with Puberty Superpowers, allegedly due to having highly diluted draconic blood, and Wizards, who memorized their spells from books. It should be noted, however, that Sorcerers and Wizards have access to the same spells, even those named for a specific person (and, you would expect, were discovered by that person at some point after the dawn of magic), and that Sorcerers learn new spells as they advance in power.
    • D20 Modern and the 3.5 version of Unearthed Arcana have Incantations, a magic variant that can be used by anyone, and that involves complex and sometimes dangerous rituals. 4E also makes use of rituals, which can be used by anyone with the appropriate skills.
  • GURPS has a well-developed set of rules to distinguish between Rituals and Spells.
  • The majority of spells in Call of Cthulhu (tabletop game) are rituals; they are extremely costly and/or dangerous to do.
  • In Exalted, it's called Sorcery and Necromancy respectively, as opposed to Charms that can be used in the thick of battle.
    • More close is the thaumaturgy available to most everybody with enough of an "Occult" score. Some thaumaturgy is so basic that it's not even necessary to specifically learn its Arts and rituals; all that is required is a single dot of Occult and you know how to use it. Thaumaturgy is also more frequent and consistent in its need for rituals and ingredients.


Web Original[edit | hide]