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February 12, 2015, 7:37 am

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Folk Magic


Folk magic is more of a magical tradition than a school of scholarly research being as old as the hills, some say as old as time itself. It is as deeply ingrained to the psyche of the country folk as the changing of the seasons and has been passed down from father to son and mother to daughter for countless generations.

Folk Magic

Folk magic is more of a magical tradition than a school of scholarly research being as old as the hills, some say as old as time itself. It is as deeply ingrained to the psyche of the country folk as the changing of the seasons and has been passed down from father to son and mother to daughter for countless generations.

There are two main branches to folk magic: spirit recruitment and animal charming, each of these is discussed separately.

Spirit Recruitment

The world is full of spirits of many kinds. They live in the trees, the rivers, the fields, the rocks, and even in the very earth itself. A few are powerful demons to be feared or semi-divine entities who demand worship, but most are rather benign and quite harmless. It is to these that spirit recruitment is directed.

The purpose of spirit recruitment is, as its name suggests, recruiting minor spirits to aid the farmer or his household. This is not the domineering control imposed by wizards and sorcerers, nor is it the fawning supplication advocated by priests and holy men. Instead it is a kind of trade, an agreement between equals, by where the spirit grants its aid in return for some service or minor sacrifice.

By far the most common of these are the hearth spirits, the grain spirits, and the guardian spirits, although other types certainly exist.

Hearth Spirits

So called because they like to live in the lintel over the hearth, hearth spirits perform a variety of minor services for the household. The exact services vary from spirit to spirit but usually include things like guiding the smoke up through the chimney or smoke hole, extinguishing any embers that escape the fireplace, and gently nudging small children away from the flames.

In return for such service the hearth spirits require regular sacrifice in the form of a burnt offering. It is therefore traditional to throw a cake, biscuit, or similar item on the fire whenever the family sits down to a meal.

Grain Spirits

The grain spirits are the spirits of corn, wheat, and barley, or any other crop the farmer wishes to sow for that matter. Each crop has its own spirit without which the seed cannot germinate and the crop cannot grow. Thus, in order to ensure a successful harvest the farmer must have the appropriate grain spirit living in his fields.

However, grain spirits are delicate things and cannot survive the winter cold. Therefore the stalks of the last sheaf harvested from a field are woven into a little box-like container known as a Corn Dolly, and this is buried in a sheltered corner. Here the spirit will sleep, protected from the frost and snow of winter, ready to emerge just in time for the spring planting.

Guardian Spirits

These highly territorial spirits like to live inside pieces of iron. The shape of the iron is meaningless to them but the size is not, if the piece is too small the spirit will not be comfortable and will leave. As it happens a horseshoe is just about the right size, and this why people often hang old horseshoes on their front doors. It is also most likely the reason horseshoes are believed to be lucky.

Because these spirits are so territorial they make extremely good spiritual watchdogs. Thus they are commonly used to guard the house from malevolent or unwanted supernatural entities, such as the demons of ill health or the imps of misfortune.

Some versions can also attack more corporeal intruders, such as thieves. However, such spirits might attack anybody they do not know so it is necessary to “train” them to recognise household members. This is believed to be the source of such customs as carrying your bride over the threshold and crossing a new born baby’s palm with silver, both of which are to do with inviting a new member into the household.

Animal Charming

How much of this is magic, how much is animal training techniques, and how much is simply an understanding of animal behaviour is not certain, but the fact remains that country folk know how to influence (if only to a limited degree) the behaviour the creatures around them.

The exact procedure varies dramatically from place to place, and even more so depending on the animal being charmed, there are however some common elements.

Typically a little food, appropriate for the animal in question, is required which is either laid out as bait or held in the hand whilst approaching the animal in a non-threatening manner. This continues until contact is made or, as is more often the case, the animal runs away.

Once contact has thus been made, the animal is encouraged to act as required by the caster. It is this stage that varies most, being dependent on a variety of factors such as the animal involved and the behaviour the caster wants to instil as well as local tradition and even the casters’ experience and personal prejudices. In fact some of the best practitioners claim that there is no “correct” way of doing this and that each case is different - you simply have to learn how to “wing it”.

It is important to note that no direct control or domination of the animal is taking place here, nor can an animal be forced to act in any manner contrary to its own nature. However if you have a clear idea of what you want and it is within the normal behaviour pattern for the animal the results can be astounding.

Mostly there are two main uses for the technique: controlling livestock (e.g. charm the dominant ewe into the fold and the whole flock will follow) or hunting small game for the pot (e.g. charming a rabbit close enough to catch it).

However some communities have developed unusual and imaginative applications, such as the lowlanders who encourage pregnant wildcats to raise their kittens near the grain store or upland farmers who charm hawks or kites to nest near their fields. In both cases this farmer gains some measure of pest control.

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Comments ( 12 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Siren no Orakio
October 30, 2005, 16:07
Add this to the pyre of ideas for the propagation of a particular kind of magic: Curses. As one unit, the elder lays down a horrid curse upon the 'beneficiary' of a power, which, simultaneously conditions one to use the power in line with a certain ideal, and grants that power. As an example, I am currently sandboxing a character whose bloodline was marked by a powerful evil priestess. He has tremendous power over elemental metal, however, the price to unlock this power was to murder a loved one, and through nightmares, that murder is seared back across his soul every time he uses the power, a process which could well eventually drive him mad through grief and guilt, leading to his lashing out at the world around him - which is what the priestess wanted, a sleeping time bomb. It's concievable that one priest could empower an enitre cult in this fashion - I'll try to dream one up tonight. Alternatively, blessings may contain pavlovian training for the mage, as well as raw power.
Dragon Lord
November 3, 2005, 9:38
Updated: Re-entered special characters (quote marks and the like), which appeared to have been corrupted in the transfer
Voted Mourngrymn
November 8, 2005, 9:37
I like this a lot. Magic has always been one of my hard points to detail and make work. I have actually gone through three different magic systems for my gaming world before I found one I wanted to work with.

This is a fresh look at old school magic if you will. Refreshing and even believable in a fantasy setting. Good job.
Voted manfred
November 8, 2005, 10:23
Yes, this is a prime example of a school of magic: a living magical tradition. Also one I plan to cannibalize into my setting one day.
Voted Cheka Man
November 14, 2005, 18:06
I like this too,it explains folk traditions in a fantasy context.
Voted Priv8eye
May 30, 2006, 4:04
Fantastic, beleivable and borders that line between magic and simple beleifs. Old school stuff that can be effortlessly slipped into anywhere.
Voted Murometz
October 24, 2007, 22:40
In Russian myth, there are two Grain spirits. One to give thanks to while eating bread (the good one) and the Pan-like one, the Spirit of the greatest thing that has ever come from grain, vodka. He's a bit unruly, this one. :) They would be fun in an RP. Dueling spirits, so to speak.

I digress. I like your take on some of these spirits, and very much like the Corn-Dolly detail on the Grain Spirit.

Good work! (it must be, manfred wishes to cannibalize it into his day.) :)
Dragon Lord
October 26, 2007, 5:18
I didn't know about those Russian grain spirits, but I agree they are a good fit to this magic system - so kudos to you for mentioning them

If manfred (or anybody else for that matter) wants to use this that's fine by me - in fact I take it as compliment that a GM of his obvious talent considers it worthy
October 26, 2007, 14:04
It is a great idea that is compatible with my preferences, hence I am inclined to use it (and the day may be closer than I have thought... yay!).
Voted valadaar
October 26, 2007, 8:16
This is quite good and mirrors some of my thoughts towards magic - especially the spirit recruitment.
August 20, 2010, 21:38
Ahh, Folk Magic, now that's some ancient magic.
Voted Moonlake
February 17, 2011, 18:31

Overall a nice concept and good post. On the Corn-Dolly, it reminds me of the straw figure that is used to put a curse on someone (according to Chinese superstition).  . Alternatively, I think there're also dolls which ppl made in ancient China that were supposed to summon a spirit who could then do household chores for the family. However,  I think I like the innocent 'vulnerable' Corn-Dolly much much better than either of the two real-life folk traditions I mentioned.


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