Random Thoughts on Renaissance “Clerics”

I’ve previously written about how I’ve found it helpful to think of worldbuilding in terms of RPG game mechanics. I’ve shared with you a little of how the magic of my current WIP can be quantified in terms of the Fate Core RPG rules, not because it’s necessarily the best system out there but because the rule set seems rather intuitive and well-suited to what I’m aiming for as a writer. I’ve described the rules for faery magic as well as (human-centered) arcane magic. With both systems, I’ve attempted to stay reasonably true to beliefs about what magic could or could not do as perceived in the late Medieval and early Modern periods, circa 1350–1700.

Old-school D&D nerds might well be wondering about divine magic: the realm of those characters that Gary Gygax dubbed “clerics.” And the truth is, I don’t foresee the need for any “clerics” in my WIP. But if I did, how might one go about quantifying the religious-oriented magic of this time period? I don’t have any suggestions for actual game mechanics here, just a few random notes about how I might proceed.

Arcane Magic, Re-skinned

The first thing to note is that the boundary between “arcane” and “divine” magic is blurry and often contentious. What one person may describe as “sacraments” and “prayers,” another might perceive as “spells” and “incantations.” Much of what I’ve already described as arcane magic could simply be “re-skinned” and applied to divine magic.

In rural areas especially, the practices of old religions often live on beneath the veneer of orthodox faith. The parish priest, for example, might well be called upon to perform rituals that mix “magic” or “superstition” with orthodox rites. For example, they might perform a ritual of sympathetic magic to make fields fertile. In general, these kinds of folk magic were permitted as long as they were used to help people and never to harm.

So, in keeping with what I previously proposed for mages, clerics might take levels of “Arcane Magic” skill, but instead of specializing in “Folk Magic,” for example, they might specialize in “Sacramentals,” minor rituals or prayers that vary in flavor depending on the specifics of the religious tradition.

In Judaism, for example, the “practical kabbalah” related to mystic contemplations of the divine names of God would be an appropriate template. Instead of an arcane ritual, the kabbalist might simply recite a divine name or formula, or perhaps inscribe it on a piece of parchment or some other surface.

For a parish priest in the Highlands of Scotland, the prayers, incantations, charms, and poems of the Carmina Gadelica might be an excellent place to start in depicting the flavor of such a re-skinned system.

Healing rituals would pretty much be a no-brainer for clerics of nearly any tradition. One might also propose “Insight” or “Prophecy” as a re-skinned version of “Divination.” Note, however, that the actual practice of divination through horoscopes, tarot cards, crystal balls, etc., is generally forbidden in the monotheistic religions. If you really wanted a high-powered divine magic system (which I don’t think would be period-accurate), you could allow a cleric to specialize in “Miracles” as a re-skinned version of “Theurgy”—though definitely impose limits on what sorts of miracles are possible based on the specific spiritual tradition the cleric follows.

Arcane Magic and Orthodox Faith

Christian and Jewish clerics in fact pursued certain disciplines of arcane magic during the Renaissance. Leonardo de Candia Pistoia and Marsilio Ficina, responsible for bringing the Corpus Hermeticum to the West, were a Byzantine monk and a Catholic priest, respectively. The Baal Shem of London was both an alchemist and a rabbi.

The great monotheistic faiths generally drew lines to distinguish “permitted” and “forbidden” arcane magic. Depending on the specifics of each religious tradition, the forbidden category generally involved magic that summoned supernatural entities (demons, angels, etc.) to do a mage’s bidding as well as magic intended to harm others in any way.

The Power of Faith

Divine magic, the kind of things that D&D clerics can do but D&D wizards can’t, works on the principle of faith. Rather than bending to the will of the practitioner, these forms of magic bend the practitioner to the will of his or her perceived ultimate reality—God, the gods, the universe, or what have you. Divine magic can only be practiced by someone of amazing piety and upstanding morals (as interpreted by the faith community). It can only be performed to advance the agenda of the highest values and aspirations of the practitioner’s spiritual worldview.

Different spiritual paths manifest different divine powers. In general, divine magic in the monotheistic religions should be quite rare, with the most spectacular displays of power tied to saints or bearers of sacred relics.

Indigenous Religions of Europe

Some spiritual paths followed in Renaissance Europe originated in indigenous traditions that predate the coming of Christianity. Sometimes, these faiths have themselves been re-skinned as Christian: gods or spirits have been made into saints, for example, or rituals have been recast to incorporate Christian iconography and patterns of belief. This spiritual “makeover” is more thoroughgoing in some cases than in others, and in at least one case never happened at all. Here are two examples:


The Benandanti or “good walkers” were the Christianized remnant of an older pagan fertility cult from the Friuli region of northern Italy. Rather than a learned skill, they believed their magic was something bestowed upon them at birth. They regarded themselves as Christian, fighters in service of Christ against malevolent witches to preserve the well-being of their lands. The Inquisition accused some of them of being witches or heretics, and benandante remains a regional term synonymous with stregha or “witch.” They were closely associated with the arcane specialties of “Spirit-riding” and “Healing.”


The vaidilos or pagan priests of Lithuania are probably the closest to ancient Druids to be found in Renaissance Europe. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania only formally embraced Christianity in 1387, and the new religion was not accepted by its various states until the fifteenth century—and only then for political reasons.

The modern revival of Lithuanian paganism is called Romuva, meaning “temple” or “sanctuary.” The old religion apparently emphasized the sanctity of nature as well as ancestor worship. The divine is represented by fire, and ceremonies are performed before a fire altar.

For the most part, Lithuanian pagan priests can be “re-skinned” druids with maybe a few tweaks.

The Larger World

Of course, other systems of divine magic could be identified and quantified for this period. This was an era of growing global trade, and the mages and divines of Europe were coming into more frequent contact with other spiritual traditions.

Someone who can do it justice might work out how “magic” might work in terms of practitioners of Vodun, Santería, or the spiritual traditions of other indigenous groups. But such a project should only be attempted by someone with the necessary sensitivity and permission from the relevant groups, who must be the final arbiters of what is an offensive appropriation and what is an acceptable depiction of their spiritual traditions.

A Sevenfold Medieval Magic System

This is a follow-up to a previous post in which I talked about using role-playing game rules to work out a magic system for my current work-in-progress. In that post, I described a magic system that works well with my conception of faery or supernatural beings, but then my story took an unexpected detour, and I realized I needed to flesh out how the magic of mortal practitioners works.

One thing I knew I wanted was something that felt like it could be at home in the same historical era from which I drew my faery folk—namely, the Renaissance/Elizabethan era. This was the era not only of witch trials but of alchemists and esoteric philosophers who dabbled in the arcane arts.

From an RPG point of view, the mechanics work pretty much the same. A hypothetical player spends a point of Refresh to buy the Arcane Magic skill. They can then build stunts off of that skill if they so choose.

There is, however, a twist in that Arcane Magic can be divided into a number of discrete disciplines. Each of these correspond to some aspect of magic at it was understood in Europe circa 1400–1700. Our hypothetical player can learn one of these disciplines for free; after that, he can only get more by buying them as stunts. A truly versatile wizard, therefore, must allocate most if not all of his or her “character build” into magic, with little room for other pursuits.

Here are the arcane disciplines I have in mind. In terms of the Fate Core system, each discipline works in conjunction with a different “supporting” skill:

Alchemy (Crafts) involves the transmutation of substances as preparatory to the “Great Work” of personal spiritual transformation.

Divination (Lore) is a technique of magical self-analysis and a help in learning the language of symbols. Using a divinatory device (a scrying bowl, runes, tarot cards, casting bones, etc.), the diviner sees the world from a higher perspective, from which he or she examines the probabilities of what may happen next.

Goety (Provoke) involves channeling one’s primal emotions in order to manifest the power and “will” of some cosmic force or entity to which the mage is beholden. (D&D calls this kind of mage a “warlock,” but with very little linguistic justification, in my opinion.)

Healing (Empathy) uses herbs, incantations, amulets, etc., to effect healing of mind, body, and spirit.

Spirit-Riding (Investigate) employs astral projection to gather information, attack enemies, or to engage in dealings with “otherworld folk”—either to make pacts with them to gain their supernatural assistance or to battle against those who threaten others.

Theurgy (Will) involves wending elemental forces to create tangible effects in the world: what most people understand as “magic.”

Witchcraft (Various skills) uses sympathetic magic to harness the magical potentialities of herbs, minerals, incantations, gestures, animal parts, and other objects to achieve practical results in areas such as dowsing, love and marriage, fertility, money, and so forth.

And no, I haven’t forgotten about Qabbalah. I envision it not as a distinct discipline, however, but as a Lore-based stunt permitting bonuses to roles involving magical research. (And the character I had in mind when I threw these ideas together is definitely a skilled Qabbalist.)

Magic in Early Judaism

This is a bit afield of what I usually post on this blog, but some of you might be interested in a new book about magic in early Judaism. The book is called Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah. Blogger Alan Brill reviews the book and interacts with the author in a brief online interview.

Harari argues that the practice of magic was very much a part of early Judaism (and Christianity), even though we’re predisposed not to see it. (What I do is “ritual”; what the people I don’t like do is “magic.”) Here’s one small snippet:

Magic is may be considered as pre-scientific technology, a scheme of technical practices founded on the belief in the way reality is run. Given the traditional premises concerning what forces that reality, magic behavior was rational.

Jewish magic is founded on a belief in human aptitude to affect the world by means of rituals, at the heart of which is execution of oral or written formulas. It is not different from Jewish normative religious view, which ascribes actual power to sacrifice, prayer, ritual, and the observance of law. Magic also does not differ from the normative views regarding God’s omnipotence or the involvement of angels and demons in mundane reality. It has elaborated as a system parallel to, and combined with the normative-religious one, a system that seeks to change reality for the benefit of the individual, commonly in order to remove a concrete pain or distress or to fulfill a certain wish or desire.

Books of magic recipes from antiquity as well as from later periods show that magic was pragmatically required in every aspect of life. Magic fantasy of the kind of One Thousand and One Nights or Harry Potter is missing almost all together from recipe books, which usually offers assistance in achieving targets that may be achieved also without magic. According to these Jewish books, magic power can be implemented personally or by an expert. Expert magicians offered their help in choosing and performing the right ritual and in preparing adjuration artifacts and other performative objects, such as amulets of roots and minerals.

Brill’s review mentions connections between early Jewish magic and Greco-Roman magical practices, something I’d certainly be interested in checking out.

A New Coptic Spellbook

Coptic isn’t exactly “Ancient Egyptian,” as it is called in this Atlas Obscura post title, but this is still an interesting development. A Coptic spellbook from the 7th or 8th century AD has recently been translated into English.

Researchers in Australia have decoded an Ancient Egyptian ritual codex containing spells to cure demonic possession, treat black jaundice, and find success in business and love. The complete 20-page illustrated parchment booklet, thought date to the 7th or 8th century, contains 27 spells and “a lengthy series of invocations that culminate with drawings and words of power.” The translation, by Macquarie University professors Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner, is called “A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power.”

According to the publishers,

This volume publishes a new Coptic handbook of ritual power, comprising a complete 20 page parchment codex from the second half of the first millennium AD. It consists of an invocation including both Christian and Gnostic elements, ritual instructions, and a list of twenty-seven spells to cure demonic possession, various ailments, the effects of magic, or to bring success in love and business. The codex is not only a substantial new addition to the corpus of magical texts from Egypt, but, in its opening invocation, also provides new evidence for Sethian Gnostic thought in Coptic texts.

Sadie Kane, call your office!


Ten Latin Spells from Harry Potter

Because you should never pass up the opportunity to learn something!

The magical world of J. K. Rowling is known by millions (if not billions) of children, teens, and adults. Especially  those who grew up reading the books and then watched the magic come to life of the silver screen later on. J.K. Rowling created the world of Harry Potter from her vast imagination (and personal experience) and perhaps from other sources.  These included Dickens and Tolkien, which she says filled her free time during her college years.

J. K Rowling attended University of Exeter and received her BA in French and Classics. It is evident that she received a degree in Classics, because the Harry Potter series is filled with Latin words and ancient mythology. While the mythological references may be easier to see in character names (i.e Minerva McGonagall as in Minerva the Roman goddess of wisdom); the Latin reference may not be as discernible.


The people of the British Isles tended to blame unexplained illnesses on the malevolent work of elves. As early as the tenth century, medical books discuss elves afflicting both humans and livestock with death and disease via “elf-shot.” In Scots Gaelic, this phenomenon was called a saighead sithe (“faery arrow”). In Irish Gaelic, it was a gae sídhe (“faery dart”).

Elf-shot might be compared to the supposed druidic ability to “send” misfortune by putting a curse on an object (say, a handful of straw) and then throwing it at the intended victim. Elf-shot does the same thing, but delivers the magical “payload” via arrows or darts. In fact, people appealed to the neolithic flint arrow heads they sometimes found on their land as evidence of the activity of elves.

Elf-shot “payloads” can be quite diverse. Apparently many types of curses and hexes could be embedded on the projectile. Some of the more commonly encountered types of elf-shot curses are:

  • Sudden shooting pains, which might be diagnosed as rheumatism, arthritis, muscle stitches, cramps, etc. The Old English medical text Wið færstice provides a remedy for this sort of elf-shot.
  • Sudden paralysis. We call cerebrovascular accidents “strokes” because they were formerly believed to be the result of the stroke of an elf or faery’s hand.
  • Sluggishness, hard breathing, and loss of appetite associated with the opening of the peritoneum in livestock (as described in America Bewitched by Owen Davies, p. 39).
  • Bad dreams (referred to in German as Alpdrücken, “elf-pressure”). Also, the phenomenon known as sleep paralysis was often explained as the work of elves, demons, etc.
  • Blackleg (aka black quarter, quarter evil, or quarter ill), an acute infection of cattle, sheep, and goats characterized by crepitant swelling of the muscles of the infected part (see T. Davidson, “The Cure of Elf-Disease in Animals” in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 15/3 [1960]: 15:282–91).
  • Tumors. Like paralysis, tumors were often considered a curse inflicted by elves.
  • Death of animals as suddenly as if they had been struck by lightning (referred to in Swedish as skot “shot” and in Danish as elleskud “elf-shot”).

Though several years old, Richard Scott Nokes discussed elves, faeries, and elf-shot in a nice, brief post at his Unlocked Wordhoard blog. He makes some interesting observations about how we deal with unexplained illness today—and how we may not be quite as far removed from our ancestors as we might like to think.