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Ritual Magic

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 Unequal 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 Magi Tech as the studious "magic engineers" research new rituals and their applications, and the general populace using said inventions in Dungeon Punk. 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.

See Training The Gift Of Magic for situations where characters with innate magic still need some kind of special education, and maybe have to use some minor rituals to focus it. In such settings, complex rituals may be one way that people lacking the gift of innate magic can still gain some degree of magical power.


Examples:

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

    Literature 
  • The Bible occasionally has a section where God (or a prohpet) instruct someone to do a specific action. Examples include Moses striking the rock for waternote , and Joash shooting arrows to strike the ground to ensure defeat of Syria. note 
  • 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. However, they can also "save" and section off a part of a spell resulting in some Vancian Magic. The ritual seems to be needed mostly because you have to coax the forces you are working with to work and need to be certain not to make any errors; certain ones can thus be saved for later.
  • 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 The 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 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 Wędrowycz 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 the 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 (the Brothers Grimm kept the organization from cutting off the Fae). The side story featured a member of the organization (Thomas) trying to stop a coven from using Harry and the Council from spreading the name of the entities they wished to contact.
  • There is a big difference between sorcery and wizardry in The Witch Watch. Wizardry seems to be a natural ability but sourcery depends mainly on laying out the correct magic circle with the right words and well-mapped spacing
  • In The Changeover, the main character undergoes this sort of magic, combined with a Vision Quest, in order to facilitate her transformation, or changeover into a witch.
  • In Andre Norton's Dread Companion, Bartare's magic requires items, words, and rituals.
  • In J.R. Lowell's 1972 Daughter Of Darkness little Willie Connolly casts spells by adapting rituals and chants based on her readings in anthropology.
  • The little girls in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Changeling make up their rituals on the spot. Baby Josie, who may be a Child Mage, serves as their talisman and oracle. Ivy usually takes the lead in these ceremonies, but Martha finds that she has a knack for setting up the altar.
  • In Snyder's earlier work The Headless Cupid, Amanda is teaching her step-siblings the basics of ritual magic. The Stanleys are the closest thing Snyder ever created to a sitcom family, and the way the children handle her "initiation rites" doesn't always meet her "mysterious and dignified" standards... meanwhile she's repeatedly freaked out by little Blair's actual psychic ability.
  • Pact: The hint about the existence of Ritual Magic is in the series' name. Practising any form of magic is doused in rituals, conventions, rules, regs and bargains — and, not just if you start out as a human practitioner of the magic arts. The rules for Others may be highly different, but there are still rules and rituals to observe. Slip up badly enough... and, if you're lucky you just wind up dead or hit the Drains (effectively, Limbo). If unlucky, Fate Worse Than Death and And I Must Scream are options, thanks to the karmic hit.

    Live Action TV 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • In the Buffyverse, 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, such as the gypsies who cursed Angel or Willow's incantations.
  • in Once Upon a Time a ritual is used to invoke the curse that sends the inhabitants of the Fairy Tale World to ors.
  • In American Horror Story: Coven it's a staple of Marie Laveau's voodoo. The witches also use it though less often.

    Theater 
  • 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 
  • Dungeons & 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.
    • D&D's 4th edition distinguishes between class-specific powers, which for the more magical classes are defined as spells and can be used quickly and particularly in combat, and rituals that anyone with the right feat and appropriate skill(s) can use as long as they can pay for the components and have the time. Wizards and clerics get the requisite feat for free right from the start, allowing them full access to both their particular flavors of 'instant' and to ritual magic...but nothing inherently prevents, say, an otherwise nonmagical fighter from choosing the same feat and then making use of a few handy rituals him- or herself.
  • GURPS has a well-developed set of rules to distinguish between Rituals and Spells.
  • The majority of spells in Call of Cthulhu are rituals. Being Call of Cthulhu; they are extremely costly and/or dangerous to do.
  • In Exalted, a number of Sorcery and Necromancy operate this way. For example, summoning a demon requires a sorcerer to cast from sundown to midnight, and higher levels of demons have addition time constraints, with the most powerful demons only summonable during the five days of the new year.
    • 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.
  • Ars Magica includes Ritual Magic as a more powerful method, able to bend or break some of the Hermetic system's spell limitations.
  • All over the place in the New World of Darkness. Several varieties of supernaturals have rituals that allow effects not quite in line with the rest of their power set. Mages can turn any single-action spell into a ritual to build up a lot of power behind it by getting multiple rolls to accumulate successes. Mortal characters who lack a supernatural template can learn Thaumaturgy rituals and thus cast minor magics.

    Web Original 
  • Damien Thorne, a charismatic demonologist from the Global Guardians PBEM Universe who claims to be the son of the Devil himself, uses nothing but ritual magic. He's not quite hermetic about it (he likes mixing it up, and Hermetic Magic is too time-consuming for actual fighting), but he comes close.
  • In Metamor City ritual spells can be performed by anyone, as they draw mana from the environment while mages use their own inner reserves (though they do use rituals for more complex spells). Artax runs a shop called "Spells 4 U" that specializes in ritual kits, and very strongly advises his customers to follow the directions exactly.


Rite of PassageRituals and CeremoniesSecret Handshake
Right Makes MightOlder Than DirtRoyal Blood
OnmyodoMagic and PowersVancian Magic
HäxanImageSource/Live-Action FilmsThe Heartbreak Kid

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