Allen Varney, writer and game Designer


Mana in the Real World

by Allen Varney

Maybe you already knew that stories by science fiction writer Larry Niven inspired the conception of "mana" in Magic: The Gathering. But how many gamers realize that the idea of mana originally came from the islands of the South Pacific?

In his "Warlock" series of fantasies, beginning with the1969 story "Not Long Before the End," Niven describes mana as a natural magical energy source. Mana powers spells and nourishes magical creatures, and it can be exploited or exhausted. That first story features a floating disk that spins ever faster, consumes all mana in the vicinity, and thereby destroys all magical creatures and enchantments. This device directly inspired the feared Magic card Nevinyrral's Disk, which sends all enchantments, artifacts, and creatures in play to the graveyard. (Most of the "Warlock" stories appear in Niven's book The Magic Goes Away. "Not Long Before the End" shows up in a sequel anthology Niven edited, The Magic May Return.)

Niven borrowed his idea of mana from the beliefs of Melanesia and Polynesia -- or rather, from anthropologists' mistaken view of those beliefs.

The Origins

Melanesia ("black islands") is scattered across the Pacific north of Australia: New Guinea, the Bismarcks, theSolomons, Fiji, and a few thousand more. Polynesia ("many islands") lies about a thousand miles due east of Melanesia. The names conjure a happy tropical paradise of grass skirts, coconuts, breadfruit, and the occasional cargo cult. Actually, nowadays all the indigenous island cultures are vanishing withWestern colonization. Go to a Melanesian island today, and it will probably look like Los Angeles.

English missionary and ethnologist R. H. Codrington first described mana to the English-speaking world in The Melanesians(1891). Codrington presented mana as an arbitrary, impersonal force possessed by people and objects. Everyone wanted mana (he said), everyone could gain it, and it could produce extraordinary effects. A strangely shaped stone could have much mana, and if you buried it in your garden, your plants would grow better. A club with great quantities of mana might be visible only to its owner. Chieftains and highly talented artisans had much mana, commoners little, women almost none. Melanesian religion, Codrington thought, consisted principally of the pursuit of mana.

Codrington's idea of mana vastly influenced early20th-century anthropologists. They eagerly (and too hastily) linked Melanesian and Polynesian mana to similar spiritual concepts in other primitive societies, such as the Native American orenda (Iroquois), wakan (Siouan tribes), and manitou (Algonkian tribes). Mana became a generic term used in describing the beliefs of many primitive peoples.

Some writers, such as Edward Clodd in Magic in Names andOther Things (London: Chapman & Hall Ltd., 1920), treated mana as a universal religious phenomenon. To them, mana was a natural forerunner of personified deities.

Clodd's book makes interesting reading for roleplaying gamers, because it talks in nuts-and-bolts terms about mana sources such as blood, teeth and nails, portraits, words, and many more. However, the book's scientific ideas have dated badly, especially its assumption that primitive societies were happier and more natural than ours, and Christianity messed things up for everyone. At times the author gets really worked up: "Ages were to pass before speculations about spiritual beings shaped themselves in creeds and dogmas whose formulation has brought countless evils on mankind. [I]n the degree that the matter indispute is incapable of proof, the passions of men in defendingi t have begotten [a] foul brood of hatred and slaughter" (Chapter 1).

Of these early books, the most Nivenesque version of mana appeared in The Heathens: Primitive Man and His Religions by William Howells (Doubleday, 1948). The title is a dead giveaway that this book's attitudes are obsolete in these politically correct times. But though he had a condescending attitude toward primitive societies, Howells (a Harvard anthropology professor) wrote in an engaging, Sunday-supplement style. He explicitly described mana as a quantifiable natural fluid, much like electricity.

"Typically, mana is a sort of essence of nature," Howells wrote. "It is not a spirit, and it has no will or purpose of its own." The Polynesian conception of mana, he said, "was not scientific, of course, but it was otherwise completely logical. Mana was believed to be indestructible, although it might be dissipated by improper practices. It came originally from thegods; nevertheless it was not possessed by them any more than byany other being or substance, but was independent of them all. It flowed continually [...] from heavenly things to earthbound things, just as though from a positive to a negative pole. It came to the people through the chiefs, who were the direct descendants of the gods, and the chiefs kept it and conducted it to whatever function needed it: ceremony, war, or agriculture. It was not a privilege of the chief that he had so much mana. It was, rather, his function in the scheme of things to serve as reservoir and transmitter of it" (Chapter 3).

This idea obviously influenced Larry Niven's stories, and it prompts interesting ideas for Magic cards, such as creatures that store mana points from turn to turn. However, anthropologists now view Melanesian and Polynesian mana in a different, more sophisticated light.

Modern Ideas

A few scholars still view mana as a universal phenomenon, but the idea has become controversial. In any case, those early writers grossly exaggerated the similarities between SouthPacific and North American belief systems.

Later scholars have also shown that Melanesian mana is not at all impersonal. Even when stored in objects, mana derives from living and ancestral spirits. What's more, as Rice University professor Edward Norbeck points out in Religion in Primitive Society (Harper & Row, 1961), the idea of mana is not universal even in Melanesia, and the same term has much different meaning in neighboring Polynesia.

Before colonization, Melanesian society did not have much class structure, and anyone could hope to acquire mana through personal achievement. In contrast, Polynesians had a complex hereditary class structure reinforced by an amazingly intricate code of taboos. (The English word "taboo" derives from thePolynesian tapu.) Mana was a dangerous force that precisely followed class lines. Items or people charged with mana were dangerous to commoners, because the excess mana could burn them out like a fuse. In Tahiti, insulated bearers carried the high chiefs everywhere, because the touch of the chiefs' mana-laden hands or feet made the ground and objects dangerous to others.

However -- and here modern ideas differ from the older works mentioned above -- mana is not a fluid, flowing like electricity. Rather, it is an abstract quality, similar to what the West might call "grandeur" or even "holiness." Followers of most of the world's great religions worship holy relics of their saints and prophets, and they deeply respect the men and women who discover or maintain these items. If you gathered all the pieces of theTrue Cross enshrined in European cathedrals, you could build a treehouse. Buddhist temples in India and Southeast Asia keep relics of the Buddha, such as his teeth, and the stones he supposedly walked on. Tabloid stories tell about Mexican women who find the image of Jesus in a tortilla and thereby become popular with the neighbors.

But no one thinks of this quality of "holiness" as a fluid, flowing from the True Cross to a worshipper, from the tortilla to the woman. The quality is contagious, but not quantifiable or materialistic.

So it is with mana. No, it isn't universal among aboriginal cultures as anthropologists hoped. But mana shows one aspect of a more basic universal phenomenon: the recognition in all societies of a central spiritual reality. Whether they call it God, Allah, nirvana, patriotism, or mana, people everywhere behave as if something beyond the merely material guides their lives. It's something to think about, especially when your opponent is taking a long time to decide what card to play.

Return to Allen Varney's home page

Copyright ©1995 Allen Varney.