In roleplaying games, spellcasters generally make arcane gestures with their hands. In Ars Magica, spells are easier to cast if the character can make sweeping gestures. Spellcasting with subtle gestures is a hindrance, and casting without gestures deepy limits a magician’s power. Your character’s hands are doing something, and that something affects fundamental universal forces: what’s the mechanism for that?
In some games, the gestures are arbitrary, and are used to signal an aesthetic choice about your character. I remember, from very long ago, that in TSR’s Principalities of Glantri, the vampire lord cast spells with great gestures and evocations of dark powers, even though this had no mechanical effect. Games in which they are arbitrary often suggest magicians use them as a sort of concentration aid. The gesture helps the magus focus and channel power, but any rote movement will do.
In Ars Magica gestures cannot, strictly speaking, be arbitrary, because a character making a Magic Theory roll can observe a spell being cast, determine its effect, and throw up a counterspell. This implies that the observer is gathering information from the gestures. The gestures, therefore, refer to a shared lexicon. They have a meaning beyond the personal eccentricity of each spellcaster.
I’ve been thinking about this, in fits and starts, for about four years. My wife speaks a simplified version of Auslan (Australian sign language) because some of her family members use it, and because she used to be a carer for multicap adults. I know a handful of signs, mostly involving being able to signal my wife in noisy restaurants.
As an aside, this isn’t too far from how medieval sign languages evolved. Monastic sign language evolved because monks used to read out loud when copying books. This made rooms with multiple copyists so loud that a sign language developed to allow communication by a method less disturbing than shouting over the other copyists. It’s also why libraries today have carels.
So, magi can understand each other’s signs. Why? We know that they need not be able to understand each other’s languages. There are quite a few magi who cast spells using Greek instead of Latin. I’d argue that the signs are not for communication with magi at all.
In Realms of Power : Magic, we learn that each spell is actually completed by an airy spirit from the Magic realm. The ability to cast spells is the ability to create, to cajole omnipresent, spirits. Spirits naturally understand all human languages, which gets them over the Greek/Latin/Gaelic divides in spellcasting. I’d argue that the hand gestures are intended as communication with the airy spirits. Magi watching them can understand the signs because this spiritual language is not an arbitrary concentration aid: it’s part of the underlying structure of Mythic Europe’s reality. This also explains how magi can botch spells.
In the current rules, magi can fail at casting a spell so spectacularly that they are harmed by the attempt. The most profound form of harm is Twilight, where they slip, for a time, into the Magical Realm. This draws them closer to that realm, so that in time they are pulled into it forever. It has never been clear how “botching” works. If the magus gets to just make up the gestures and words, then it cannot be mispronunciation, or failure of performance, that triggers the botch. Magical items cannot botch, so the process of channelling mystical energy is predictable to the point where it can be mechanised. It must be an internal failure to process the magical energy.
I’d posit that Twilight occurs because the magus has used the wrong hand gestures. Twilight experiences are Nature’s way of debugging the magus, so that he stops spewing broken code at airy spirits. Many magi come back from Twilight with enhanced powers, precisely related to the target of their failed spell. To me that sounds like the magus has been altered so that he stops damaging reality.
Can non-magi understand the signs? I’d argue they can, particularly if they were raised in a magical environment. Further, I’d argue that just as some children raised by faeries have skill in negotiating their courts, I’d suggest children raised by airy spirits make better spellcasters because their native language is spellcasting sign. There are some communities where sign was the common language, Martha’s Vineyard, for example. It seems possible that in a covenant with people from all over Mythic Europe, an argot of natural signs may devolve out of the signs magi use.
In discussing natural signs, we need to note that American Sign Language, which is the sign most familiar to most Ars Magica players, is a bit unusual. Early in their development, and I hope you’ll pardon a vast simplification, modern sign languages received a lot of criticism that they were not true language, but just a type of mime. Speakers of some languages, including Auslan just kept on with “natural” signs. American Sign Language was, instead, resdesigned so that the formal word for a thing bore no relationship to that thing. Over time, ASL has tended to come back to more natural signs, by accruing slang. I’m noting this because it matters for language acquisition by Mythic Europeans without the Gift.
If signs are “natural” then mortals will pick them up. It doesn’t take a genius to see the sign for “food” and realise the person would like something to eat. Similarly, the sign for “Ball of Abyssal Flame” may be something so obviously threatening that the mortal has an idea that it might be time to dive into a nearby river. If the signs are in some sense rarefied, then that won’t happen, particularly because the Spirits may prevent linguistic drift. You might not get slang in magical sign language.
The sign for “father” in ASL is the dominant hand, fingers spread apart, with the thumb then tapped twice at the eyebrow on the dominant hand side. I’m not sure how it gets to mean “father”, and that’s the point. You don’t look at it and go “Oh, obviously.” I presume it’s because “mother” is the same gesture at mouth level. That judgement, that it looks similar to another sign I know,so I can guess what it means, might be what a magus is doing with a Magic Theory roll. If that’s the case then. no, mortal aren’t going to pick it up. “Father” in Auslan is “FF”, which makes some sort of sense if you are literate, although it’s not as natural as “mother” (which is “woman” twice, and woman is “person who checks her hair”, because sign languages are old fashioned like that).
There may be some sign languages which can be understood by all, but not spoken by those uninitiated in certain mystery cults. Here I’m thinking of Walpiri, which is a signed Indigenous Australian language, understood widely but only used by widows. I’ll return to that in a later post.
There are a few added areas this theory needs to cover. How is gestureless magic possible? How is performance magic possible? Is there a relationship between the written form of sign language (Americans have several, Australians just use English which is why I used the fingerspell image above) and the process of enchantment, which explains why devices do not botch? Certainly worth considering for later posts.
Final fun note: it turns out that there are two dialect words for “magic” in Australia. My local dialect uses a sign for “magic” which also means “ghost”. The nation-wide sign, in comparison, does not mean “ghost”, but also means “fashion, fashionable” for which I want to say they mean “glamourous”. I’d argue one is better for faerie magic and the other for necromancy. The ASL sign is slightly funny (it;s a two hand waggle and finger flick, like a stage magician).