Where do you draw the line between white and black magic? You probably thought of necromancy and curses when black magic was mentioned. But mechanically is a curse any different to a blessing spell?
We’ve talked about developing your magic system but black magic deserves its own blog post.
When creating your own magic system, you’ll want to work out where the line lies – if it does at all – been black and white magic. It is a lot more hazy than you’d immediately think.
The Made of Evil trope is particularly strong in high fantasy. In a lot of modern fantasy evil is a substance. The magic is evil not because of what it does, or how it does it. It is evil just because it is evil. So often, the plot consists of Goody Two Shoes vs The Very Worst. We can probably give credit for that to Tolkein.
Why is it evil?
I heavily encourage deciding early why your black magic is evil. Three primary ways you can differentiate black and white magic are as follows.
It is evil due to its use. Systems such as Harry Potter mostly ignore the black versus white magic dichotomy. Except for the forbidden spells, largely only banned due to their horrific nature, and the matter of horcruxes. Most spells could be evil if you used them in that way. But they are not evil by their very nature.
It is evil because of the source, whether divine or demonic. Dungeons and Dragons works with alignments a lot and magic generally has an alignment to its source. Especially true for Warlock’s and their patrons. Within D&D, magic is conscious in a way, and the intent of the caster is not always the only factor. Even if you tried to do good with it, it will probably do evil instead.
It is evil because of social taboos. Within Elder Scrolls, very little in the way of magic is actually forbidden. Necromancy is hotly debated in some areas of Tamriel. In some places, it is seen as evil. Others just view it as a tool like any other.
The Historical Context
Modern conceptions of magic actually owes a lot of their origins to the Renaissance. Not so very long before burning witches was still common and the supernatural had been nearly universally stereotyped as evil by the church.
The Renaissance is an entire article of its own. Suffice to say the average European never saw many of the benefits of Renaissance philosophy. But one of the developments during the Renaissance, among the wealthy at least, was a thirst for scientific knowledge.
With a relatively fragmented understanding of the natural world, and spirituality still strong, the definition of science was a lot more blurry than today. Alchemy is one famous example of pseudo-science popular, and even accepted as true, at the time. Astrology is another. But along side these, there was the idea of magus.
A magus in the Renaissance was a wise man who did magic through deep understanding of the natural world. They were thought to be closer to god, and have a mystical connection that allowed them to perform strange miracles.
The Tempest by Shakespeare features the dichotomy of white magic vs black magic. The character of Prospero is a magus, a wise man who does magic through mystical understanding of the natural world. He is contrasted with Sycorax. She is a black witch, who enslaves the spirits of the natural world through some dark power
Black magic in the period was viewed as really just power derived from Satan, and white magic was power derived from God and wisdom
So what was white magic?
In the context of modern fantasy, what the Renaissance considered white magic is really just what we’d call holy magic. Paladins and priests in Dungeons and Dragons are case in point.
Plenty of belief systems view white magic and black magic as the same thing, tempered only by intent. The left hand and right hand paths of occultism don’t view it as quite that simple, involving how the magic is done to the equation.
The answer therefore ends up being: it depends who you ask.