History is longer than you think
I have complained before1 about fantasy authors whose world-building includes statements like, “the peace didn’t last long, because 400 years later…” because history isn’t just a time line, it’s also the way people perceive it. 400 years of peace would never be thought of as a brief interval, but rather the Great Golden Age or something.
Certain fantasy authors make the opposite mistake, of not understanding how long human history actually is. A particularly egregious example was a series which used as a plot point the characters needing to find a spell that was developed by “the first witch to ever exist,” and when they finally find it, it is revealed that this witch lived 600 years ago.
Bear in mind that this happened in a fantasy world where magic works and invariably that magic is invoked with drawing symbols, lighting candles, and chanting. That means that in this fantasy world there are unseen forces which respond to symbols and sounds and thoughts. That clearly means that these unseen forces could be tapped by any being capable of employing symbolism, making noise, and thinking. Presumably the first witches did this sort of thing by accident, but that’s how we learn everything in life.
These sorts of fantasy worlds always have some low level of magic use that is considered safe and does not rely about calling on demons or gods for power. There is usually some scene where a character is either being taught magic by someone else, or who is simply in a desperate situation, where simply by wishing something really hard, they are able to light that candle, or move the key, or pull that weapon which is just out of reach into their hand when the monster is dragging them to their doom. If you think logically from these situations, at least some of magic is simply mentally manipulating some form of energy that is freely available everywhere.
The earliest people who had the cognitive ability to imagine something that isn’t there were the earliest tool makers. This isn’t just a monkey picking up a convenient rock. These people had some tasks they needed doing, realized if they had an object with this kind of shape, hard enough to withstand the force when pressed this way into the that leg of mammoth, they can do this a lot faster than just using teeth and fingernails.
The first people capable of doing that weren’t technically human. They were hominids living in the Olduvai Gorge region of Africa 2.4 million years ago.
Not six hundred (600) years ago.
Not six thousand (6,000) years ago.
But 2.4 million (2,400,000) years ago.
Millions of years ago.
We’re not sure which of the different hominid species living back then made the tools we’ve found—Australopithecus garhi, Homo habilis, or Homo ergaster—but they were making choppers, scrapers, awls, and burins. That last one is especially important while thinking about the cognitive abilities of the brains that thought them up. A burin is for engraving. They were doing more than chopping, cutting, scraping, and making holes in things. They were engraving or carving shapes into wood and bone.
The tools were still very simple, so these pre-humans probably weren’t capable of really in-depth abstract thought that would seem to be required to imagine and enact the really complicated magical effects you sometimes see wizards and sorceresses throwing around in those fantasy novels, but that “pull a weapon to my hand in an emergency” level of magic, they would surely be capable of, in a magical world.
There is anatomical indication that Homo ergaster, at least, possessed verbal communication abilities much more complex than apes. We don’t know how complicated it was, but language indicates another level of abstract thinking2.
I could keep charting what we know about the development of other activities often involved in magic rituals of those sorts of fantasy stories—cave painting, carved figures, musical instruments (surely predated by a huge period of time by simply singing and chanting), and even dance3, but the point is that, if magic exists in the universe and can be manipulated by thoughts, symbols, chanting, et cetera, people will have been doing some forms of it long, long before the beginning of recorded history, (approximately 5,000 years ago—still a lot more than 600).
Even if you don’t want to think about hominid sorcerers, you have to realize that witches, sorcerers, and priests who could perform miracles exist in the very oldest written human records. So if you’re writing a magickal universe that is more or less based on ours, whether it’s a modern urban fantasy, something in a historical setting, or an alternate historical setting, some sort of magic tradition in your world stretches back much, much, much further than a mere six centuries ago.
Asserting anything else is simply dumb.
And don’t even get me started on the incredible stupidity of always having really ancient lore being far superior to anything that has come about now. Because that violates the thing that actually makes humans different than animals… but that’s a rant for another day.
1. Time doesn’t work that way. Think of today’s post as another in a series.
2. And this is just limiting ourselves to the hominids. Dolphins and whales aren’t generally thought of as tool makers, but they certainly have the raw brain power to do the thinking part. And there are other species outside the primates who use really simple tools, create games, plan and execute complicated group activities, including pulling practical jokes. This isn’t to suggest that a magic universe has to have animal mystics, but it could be an interesting alternative way to think about familiars and other animals that seem to respond to magic or enhance magic in folklore.
3. There is some fascinating work being done about the anthropology and evolution of dance (rhythmic, coordinated moving), including an interesting notion that rhythmical synchronized movement could make a group of small hominids appear to be one much larger creature, and thus not easy prey. It’s fascinating stuff. It’s very speculative, and difficult to find physical evidence to support, but still a very interesting topic to think about.