Environmental determinism is an idea with classical roots, but was most popular during the colonial period. It suggests that the social development of a country is determined in whole, or in large part, by the resources that are available to that society. Listeners familiar with 4X computer games are aware of this style of thinking. If your civilization is on the corner of a map, it’s easier to defend your expanding border than if your civilization is on the center of a map, so a more aggressive policy is possible. If your civilization has resources which are highly suited to trading with other civilizations, or to diplomacy, or to manufacturing, you may tailor the way your civilization develops to suit these resources.
This is of course a gross oversimplification and it ignores the way that environmental determinism was used by eugenicists and racists during the colonial period. They suggested that rather than societies being formed by the environmental conditions around them, individuals were themselves permanently marked by their environment, and therefore people who were raised in superior environments were innately superior. This may be a view held by some Hermetic magi, because in an early book by Hippocrates.
These views wouldn’t be considered particularly unusual in medieval Europe. Aside from all people being the children of God, people of noble birth were already quite certain that their blood was superior to that of other people. Their senses were finer and they enjoyed them more, for example. The Order of Hermes is one of the few democratic institutions in Mythic Europe and it is also in some senses vaguely meritocratic because it gives greater power to those who have magical talent, and magical talent is earned through personal work and study.
If environmental determinism is, in some sense true, the structure of the Order of Hermes tells us about the underlying magical conditions of the Mythic Europe in which it developed. The standard model of Mythic Europe as described in the current game books is this: all things in Europe are permeated by a mystical field. This field is made up of a substance best thought of, metaphorically, as a fluid. This fluid is called vim. Tides of vim sweep through the world permeating all things, with the possible exception of items so strongly tied to other Realms has to be shielded from magic’s effects. The relics of saints, for example.
The tides of vim circle around a single point called the Axis Magica. It is a non-descript cave system in what is modern-day Switzerland. Thinking on this again I should of put it on Mount Blanc but I was using that for something else which didn’t eventually make it to the books. In the areas where great magic has been done, or magical beasts have lived, the surface of the universe is in some sense corroded or dimpled, so that more vim can rest there. Magi can use this vim, so areas that have had previous magical use are suitable for settlement by magicians, because they allow easy a study of magic
Within the great tides of vim are eddies and currents caused by areas which are tied to the other Realms, most notably around cities. According to some magi, the attentive presence of God, which they call the Dominion, forces vim out of the area, in the same way that putting a stone pillar into a pond forces the water out of that space. I suggest that this is not the case, that vim is still in the area, it’s just not accessible by magicians. I’d argue (although I don’t think this argument has been made in the books yet) that it’s because all spellcasting is done through the convincing theurgic spirits. Theurgic spirits cannot abide the presence of the Divine, so casting spells is shouting into empty space: there is nothing that answer the magus and obey his instruction.
So that’s the fundamental structure of the world and out of these areas of deep saturation of vim, a substance called vis accrues. Vis takes the flavor of the material shape into which is bound, so if vis binds itself into fruit, it is useful in magic that affects plants. You might make the converse argument: that there are some sites which are better for the collection of certain types of vis, and it’s at those points that magicians use rituals to harvest vis.
For example in one of my early campaigns, you could put water into cups carved into a specific rock in Cornwall, on a specific night, and it would become vis. The tides of magic create the potential for the condensation of vis, and magi provide the material object for that condensation to occur into.
It has generally been assumed that the vis which congeals in Mythic Europe is spread evenly across the fifteen Hermetic Arts. In some sagas Techniques (the verb Arts) are rarer than the Forms (the noun Arts). If you accept that environmental determinism, with all its faults and ethical problems is in some sense a workable model, then the Order of Hermes as it appears in 1220 should, in some way, reflect the resources which are available to its population.
Now in several of the other podcasts I’ve mentioned that Aquam is an underdeveloped Art in the game. This may be because Aquam does not coalesce, or if it does, it is deep under the ocean, or at the bottom of lakes and streams, where no-one harvests it.
A thought was given to me by an idea mentioned by Tim08 on the Atlas Games forum. He was discussing the earlier episode of the podcast about the qualities of water, and he said one of the qualities of water is that it suppresses radiation, and that he didn’t think that that was particularly practical in Ars Magica sagas. In a strange way, however, it is, you could argue that water suppresses the field of vim, either because you’re using a metaphor of radiation (which some people do, indeed that’s where the name “aura” comes from for the local strength of the field) or you can make the argument that, as the Bible says, the spirit of the Lord moves in the waters. It’s the spirit of the Lord moving in the waters that prevents vampires from crossing running water and causes witches to be rejected by water in certain parts of European folklore. Similarly if the spirit of the Lord moves in the water, it is possible that the waters have a very mild Divine aura: they might in some sense have the qualities of a particularly dilute relic. This might prevent vis from congealing in its presence. Thanks again to Tim08 await for this particular thought.
If even small amounts of Aquam were available, the handful of magicians who specialize in Aquam would rapidly accelerate their Arts because there is no competition for that vis, in contrast to, say, the competition for Corpus vis. So looking at the Houses: what can this tell us about the underlying structure of the world? Let’s work our way through the vis types.
Animal vis must be relatively common. There is a House of Animal magicians, and there are many beastmaster traditions. Animal is one of those interesting cases where magical spirits can become incarnate in the form. There are even some attempts at farming animal vis by raising the animals which act as condensation points.
Aquam was mentioned earlier: many of the objections to it can also apply to Auram. It’s clear that if, for example, Auram vis is mostly deposited by lightning strikes on mountains in the middle of great thunderstorms, there are some people who can catch it. Most noticeably the lightning lineage found in the greater Alps tribunal went from nothing, to having a single Archmagus, to being a relatively politically prominent quite quickly because someone had resources available to them that other people did not know how to use. You could argue that it was the mastery of lightning magic which enabled them to access a great deal of vis which had not previously been available to magicians.
Corpus seems common but I think that’s because it is often found in fairies. A question occurs: is Corpus common because it is found in fairies, or is it common because fairies know that magi want it? If magi suddenly said “We’re not interested in Corpus vis anymore. We’ve just want vim now” would magicians be finding that instead? Fairies appear to have the ability to congeal vis: indeed congealing vis is part of whatever pathway they using to anchor themselves in the mundane world.Do they choose the art that magi want them to choose?
Herbam seems terribly common. In part I suspect that’s because have been this is easy to imagine. Also wood is basically the plastic of the Middle Ages, so it’s fun to play with it let’s characters do a lot of really interesting things without seriously altering the combat balance of the group. It is said in the current rule books that Herbam vis rarer now than it once was, due to the destruction of the great forests. In previous editions vis in general was less common because it was being suppressed by the spread of the Dominion. It is not however clearly in the current edition whether if your character knocks down a vis bearing tree and founds a village, they don’t instead start getting other types of vis. That is what should be happening if vis is caused by damage or change in the surface nature of reality because by previous magical accidents, which is the standard model for the creation of vis.
Ignem seems to be rare in the sense that naturally occurring fires are very rare and the few that do occur are very difficult for magi to approach and control. Yet one of the main Houses of the Order is dedicated to fire magic, and many of them carry around large chunks of Ignem vis so that if they die in battle, they can take out…well everything in that vicinity. Ignem clearly appears far more often than, say, Aquam. One suggestion is that ancient mystical practices (Vestalism? Mithraism?) allowed humanity to make fire vis far more common than it would otherwise have been.
Imaginem vis is useful for magi, particularly the houses interested in mortals and faeries. Fairies seem, conversely, to offer a great deal of it to magicians, however difficult it is to think of natural occurrences in the wild. Imaginem descending into material form would be things like reflections in mirrors and the sounds of songs: things that transient and difficult for magicians to harvest. Yet none the less they do. Does this mean that they’re far more common than other Arts? Does it mean, for example, that Imaginem is merely a reflection of other types of vis: a sort of effluent breathed off?
Mentem is the killer of the idea that all forms appear evenly throughout the world. Mentem occurs where things think, which can cause people to fall back to the idea that the elemental forms are balanced, or that Mentem used to be far more common, but now that people are given a Christian burial it’s difficult to take vis from their ghosts.
Terram seems pretty common. In part this is because humans delve into the soil. Modern humans, in various forms of folklore, are strongly tied to the element of earth. According to the ancient Greeks we are the people of iron. According to the ancient Hebrews the first human was made of clay. Something similar appears in Egyptian and Roman cosmology. Also gemstones sexually reproduce deep within the earth, and contain vis. So in a sense they are breedable.
Finally we have vim vis. It just sort of turns up as a necessary, poor relation to the obvious types. It’s useful for Aegis of the Hearth, so everyone wants it and it’s also good for making magic items, so you can often trade it with someone, but it’s not particularly exciting. Sometimes it is found in magical creatures but most instead have vis which is strongly associated with their most potent magical power.
So let’s quickly summarise. The Order has twelve Houses and he Houses have various specialisations. Discounting the specialisations that are verbs, that leaves us with various Houses interested in the ten Forms. There is almost universal interest in the Corpus Form strong interest in Animal, Herbam, Ignem and Terram, specialized interest in Imagem and Mentem and Vim and some, rare interest in Aquam and Auram. It can be argued that if the resources available to the Order of Hermes determine the shape of the Order of Hermes, then the shape of the Order of Hermes indicates that the resources available have moulded, and are reflected by, this order of interest.