The History of Magic

by H. Van Dusen

Volume 1: The First Dark Age

[Editor's Note: Van Dusen wrote this in a time when humans barely regarded the magic done by non-human peoples. This oversight has been rectified by more recent scholarship. Here, as in so much else, the divide lies at the Great War. We present Van Dusen's work as a classic example of the older historical tradition. A good starting point for the new scholarship is The Magic of All Races, edited by J. Strayer in 2755 AUC by Elzevir Publishing.]


From the Battle of Hadrianopolis to the Reign of Charles the Hammer (1131 to 1485 AUC)

Magic in Altearth is traditionally divided into four Ages: Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. This traditional division has of course been much criticized over the centuries, but the fact remains that modern historians have consistently failed to present an alternative model that has compelled the attention of the general public. This controversy has been quite heated at times and the present author does not intend to re-hash the debate here. Instead, I will present the traditional view unalloyed, if the reader will pardon the pun, but will cite some key sources for further reading for those who are inclined to delve into the controversy.

Also known as the Heroic Age.

While there are scraps of evidence for magic prior to 1131, the traditional date still serves well as a starting point, for the efflorescence of magic at this time is sudden and dramatic. The hallmark of Golden Age magic is chaos: there is very little pattern to what sort of magic appeared, who wielded it, and how effective it was. Much of this perception is no doubt due to the uneven and highly literary nature of our sources. Were the great figures of the Golden Age really so powerful, or did their chroniclers exaggerate? There is no way to tell for certain, and strong arguments have been made in every direction.

Even in the Golden Age we can see the split between East and West, for in the former—and especially in Constantinople—we can already trace the rise of scholae and collegia, dating right back to Theodosius I. In the latter, there is no such evidence; on the contrary, all signs point to chaotic development in which individuals played the most important role but without any sort of continuity from one generation to the next, until the rise of the House of Norcia.

While indirect evidence suggests that Dwarves and even Elves appeared in Europa some time during the Golden Age, we don't have any clear evidence of their use of magic during these centuries. This further distinguishes the Golden from the Silver Age. As for monsters, the various Goblin tribes dominate, with the arrival of Kobolds in the 1300s, but except for Goblinfire, we know of no Wild magic during this era.

Characteristics of Golden Age Magic

Individualism is the hallmark of this era. At first, the use of magic was naturally little understood. From the histories of Hegesippus[1] and others it is clear that magic was seen as intrinsic to the individual, a characteristic of theirs, like strength or courage. Each mage was unique, even when they commanded similar powers. There was no point in trying to teach another how to do it, any more than there was a way to teach someone how to be more courageous. You could try, but you could not predict results. If a person had a power, there was no reason to be instructed by someone else; and if a person had no power, no amount of instruction would give them power.

The heroes of this era wielded magic in its rawest form. Having no training, this yielded an erratic sort of magic. The many mistakes and misfortunes caused magic to be regarded with fear and suspicion by ordinary folk, something volatile at best and dangerous or outright evil at worst. Some postulate that the development of theocentric magic was a way of laying claim to some sort of legitimacy in the face of social ostracism.[2] However that may be, it is certain that the rituals of the theocentric model helped contain and channel magical forces for its practicioners.

How did magic develop? This question has long been the subject of lively debates. This author subscribes to a theory of multiple causes, formulated by Colin Wood and others. Specifically, some innovations were born in the heat of battle or the needs of war generally. Some were deliberate inventions, while others were accidental discoveries. Still others were more like the creation of a work of art, singular creations that could be imitated but not duplicated. Finally, some were clearly the result of secular trends, of long-term changes as yet poorly understood by scholars. All these played a role in the overall development of magic. The Great Wizard school of interpretation has been largely discredited.

It seems clear now that multiple approaches were in use from the earliest days. Schools, guilds, houses, cults, all were in existence by the time of the Second Empire, and probably before. In each we can find numinous, objective, empathic, and other forms.

All this tended to domesticate magic. In the early years, magicians were like wild beasts; like, as a much later saying would have it, hitching your plow to a dragon: you might plow whole fields in a day, but you were just as likely to be eaten. Two trends changed this and made a place in society for the mage. One, within a generation, magicians were pulling back from society at large, retreating into an eremitic existence that kept society and themselves safer. People called upon a mage, but they did not live near one.

These eremites soon gained followers, and cenobitic communities began to form. These were governed by a Rule (regula), hence the term "regular magic." Others founded cults dedicated to this or that god, and this we call "theotic" or "theocentric" magic, also often called "divine magic." Every school child assumes the latter was more powerful than the former, but this was not at all the case. The terms have more to do with how the communities of mages were organized than what sort of magic they wielded.

In both cases the services of the mages grew more and more expensive as well as increasingly important. They were called upon by dukes and governors, even kings and emperors. Over time, princes realized that it was in their interest to subsidize and even to found Houses (they tended to prefer houses over cults), and so the Houses began their slow evolution into royal appendages.

Not everyone was contained within a formal organization. Hedge wizards abounded. They were mostly charlatans, but there were enough with genuine power that the common folk believed in them. For the most part they performed very modest services: healing, crop care, protection of animals, minor charms, removal of curses, and so on. They were nearly useless against Wild Folk. Sometimes the term "sympathetic magic" is applied to them, or "village magic" or "shepherd magic," though these are rather old-fashioned now.

History of the Houses

The history of houses is one of the most difficult in the entire discipline. Records are sketchy, for most were destroyed during the Second Dark Age. During the Third and Fourth Empires, many Houses more or less invented their own histories to fill in the gap. These accounts were based on traditions, but were intended to uphold the claims of one House against another and so are an untrustworthy guide to the distant past. Unfortunately, these hagiographic accounts were widely accepted as true until modern academic methods, and they have become embedded in popular culture, especially in the Romantic novels.

Without trying to address the much-debated matter of what was discovered or developed by whom, we can here at least give a general chronology. The first House to develop was arguably also the most important: the Norcian. The traditional foundation date is 1253 AUC, when Subiaco the Well-Spoken left his home to pursue magic in the Simbruini Mountains of central Italica. Followers soon gathered around him and matters of discipline soon arose. In response, Subiaco wrote the first Rule, called the Norcian Rule. It governed how mages were to behave, established a capitus to oversee them, and established the work ethic that so characterizes this House.

The Norcians were responsible for the spread of regular magic across Gaul, Hispania, Italica, and Belgica. We know now that this was no monolithic network of powerful wizards but was a rather haphazard collection of independent houses with some important regional variations. Chief among these were the Gallician, the Celtic, and the Frisian variations.


  1. Pseudo-Hegesippus, Histories of the Heroic Mages, circa 1365 AUC[return]
  2. Giles Haversham, Entropy and Dystropy at the Beginning of the Dark Ages: Results from the Fifth Aetheroscopic Research Survey. University of Leeds, 2751 AUC. [return]
  3. Leo Manutio, "Encore the 'Mana Wave' Debate," Journal of Ancient Magic, Vol 59, Second Series, 2717 AUC. But contra Manutio, see V. Ilardi, "Sense and Nonsense in the Controversy over the so-called Introduction of Mana," Vierteljahrschrift für Magikforschung, v. 189, pp. 89-152. 2749 AUC. [return]