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Mana, Shamans, and the Cultural Misappropriation behind Fantasy Terms

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Aldarc

Legend
So here is a short 10 minute video from an educational YouTube series called Religion for Breakfast that discusses how the term "mana" entered into the lexicon of fantasy novels, tabletop roleplaying, and video games to mean "magic".


Long story short is that it came from a white English anthropologist in the 1800s misunderstanding a common word that exists in various Austronesian language families and then misapplying his misunderstanding of 'mana' to other cultures outside of Austronesian cultures. However, despite some scholarly opposition to his ideas even then, this misunderstanding nevertheless became relatively pervasive in cultural anthropology, whose books eventually made their way to the hands of fantasy authors who read those anthropologists, and the rest was mostly history.

Similarly, the word "shaman" is a culturally specific term for the spiritual leaders of Tunguska in Siberia that Euro-American anthropologists would use to apply to basically the spiritual leaders for every non-Western culture they encountered, regardless of whether it was appropriate. And often its use comes with the implicit judgment of Western superiority wherein "shaman" is applied to the spiritual leaders of "primitive" cultures. (I suspect that most fantasy depictions of "shamans" will probably have them as "primitives" wearing bones, feathers, fur, and other trappings, no?) The ubiquity of the term "shaman" for basically all indigenous spiritual leaders has even led to coining of the term "plastic shaman," a pejorative for people who pass themselves off as "shamans" and basically prey on ignorance while perpetuating nonsense cultural practices. Because when there are so many "plastic shamans" out there, how can one take the real spiritual leaders seriously? Therein is the harm. As a result, there are a number of various indigenous cultures that are fighting to get Westerners to stop using the term "shaman" in a generic sense or applying the term "shaman" to their spiritual leaders. Likewise, cultural anthropologists are also having the discussion about how appropriate using these terms are.

Why does this matter? Terms like "mana" and "shaman" almost feel like an inseparable part of the fantasy lexicon, almost to the point of feeling generic. The word "shaman" readily evokes an archetype of one who works with spirits, typically through magic, so it serves as an easy shorthand for a fantasy concept, similarly in the same way that "paladin" has become a shorthand term that evokes the image of a "holy knight."* But as noted above, using these terms are not without their problems, as these terms (and a number others) entered our lexicon through Euro-American cultural misappropriation. It's worth noting that paladins no longer exist; however, Tungusic shamans and Austronesian-speaking peoples still do. These were terms that Euro-Americans divorced from their original indigenous contexts to apply to "other" non-Western cultures that are still around.

I am not necessarily suggesting that we replace or ban these terms, but it is important for us to understand how a lot of "generic" fantasy terms that we have inherited as gamers sometimes have a dirty, problematic history of Western misappropriation that are less generic and more culturally specific than we imagine. Moreover, our ignorance of the history behind the "generic term" perpetuates ignorance of those terms in their native contexts. I am advocating caution with their use, that we reflect on how our generic terms perpetuate cultural ignorance about real peoples, and that we consider how we label certain fantasy tropes going forward, especially if there are more apt or less harmful descriptors we could use.

* I'm sure we could likewise cite 'druids' and 'bards' where the original cultural context of a term was transformed into a generic fantasy term.
 

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When I hear the word mana, or manna, this is what I remember learning in my youth from Sunday School classes and such:
I thought for decades that the substance of magic meaning "what is it?" and referring to something magically created was as good a word as any to measure magic with and thematically resonant. Finding it was another case of English pursuing another language down a dark alley to mug it for spare vocabulary and then misusing it was disappointing.
 

aramis erak

Adventurer
Mana has another false cognate that explains its ease of adoption: the old Hebrew "Manna" - miraculous food from heaven. (Modern Hebrew is Mann, as is the Bedouin and Arabic.)

The term is well past its Austronesian origins, to a hybrid conflation of both that and the semitic Manna.

At some point, the etymology ceases to really matter. I think both have crossed that point, at least in English.
 

Galandris

Adventurer
Why does this matter? Terms like "mana" and "shaman" almost feel like an inseparable part of the fantasy lexicon,]almost to the point of feeling generic. The word "shaman" readily evokes an archetype of one who works with spirits, typically through magic, so it serves as an easy shorthand for a fantasy concept, similarly in the same way that "paladin" has become a shorthand term that evokes the image of a "holy knight."* But as noted above, using these terms are not without their problems, as these terms (and a number others) entered our lexicon through Euro-American cultural misappropriation. It's worth noting that paladins no longer exist;
Current members of the holy Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and Malta would certainly disagree on your last point.
 



AmerginLiath

Explorer
Not to step on any toes, but I’m guessing there’s not much much actual study of Anthropology or Comparative Religion here beyond “lets watch a cartoon on YouTube“? Because your assumptions are both historically inaccurate and totally incorrect in modern intellectual usage.

The term shaman or shamanic has no reference to primitive cultures. Yes, it’s origin is Siberian, but that the same way that the term priest/presbyter is Greek but used as a term in comparative religion and social anthropology. Shamanism is a referent to direct communication to the divine, often by the attuning or alteration of the mind to match the divinized environment. In addition to the sort of cultures you name, the oracles of Greece, Rome, and the Hellenic Near East are considered to been shamanic. Likewise, various clerists with Sufi Islam and Charismatic Christianity are studied as shamanic practicioners (a comparison can be made to the term ”priest,” which refers to clerical practice of communicating with the divine via sacrifice — hence why Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican ministers of the Mass are denoted as such à la ancient Jewish or other Near Eastern priesthoods while other denominations’ ministers aren’t).

Everyone is so busy looking for monsters to slay that they don’t consider doing the actual research before pontificating (a term itself born from the knowledge a priest learns of his sacrifice) on the ultimate truth of language.

If you’re concerned about racial overtones with such a term, then make certain that there are varied depictions of shamans. Show a shaman looking like a Delphic Oracle or a medievalized “Southern Snake Handler” rather than a Siberian Wise Man. Add, don’t subtract.
 


Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So here is a short 10 minute video from an educational YouTube series called Religion for Breakfast that discusses how the term "mana" entered into the lexicon of fantasy novels, tabletop roleplaying, and video games to mean "magic".
As others have noted, the existence of "manna" in the Old Testament makes this suggestion of single-source for the term... questionable.
 

Aldarc

Legend
As others have noted, the existence of "manna" in the Old Testament makes this suggestion of single-source for the term... questionable.
Old Testament “manna” doesn’t really have any conceptional links to fantasy concepts of “mana.” It’s more of a misattribution due to two similar sounding words.

Much as the video also points out, there is a direct lineage between the the anthropological usage of “mana” from Austronesian languages to Larry Niven to the earliest video games using mana listing Niven as a source.
 

Galandris

Adventurer
Old Testament “manna” doesn’t really have any conceptional links to fantasy concepts of “mana".
It’s more of a misattribution due to two similar sounding words.
If people use a word for a specific meaning thinking it's related to an Hebrew concept and word, how can they be appropriating an Austronesian concept? They are appropriating and deforming a Hebrew concept (a daily gift from god of which you can't stockpile much => ok let's say it a fancy explanation for magic energy that replenishes over time and has a fixed maximum) and not the Austronesian concept of mana (which is not very close to the (J)RPG use of mana either). Would you be satisfied if they wrote it manna?


Since you're speaking of Euro-American misappropriation, it would be interesting to check if it's really European. I don't think the use of mana for "magical exhaustible force" has a lot of use outside US inspired computer games (there may be tabletop RPGs using mana, but I think the term is more widely used in computer/console games). The word entered the American lexicon with Larry Niven, but I am not sure it has entered non-English speaking european countries as well. For example, in French, mana (the original force) is a masculine word, while "mana" used in the pop culture term is a feminine word and is probably just lifted from the American usage. Though you might postulate that gamers are not educated enough to even know the existence of the masculine mana word, but in this case, they could'nt appropriate a concept they haven't heard of?

Would they? To the best of my knowledge, they do not identify as “paladins” or use the title “paladin” as part of their order’s offices.
Crusading orders are one of the main source of inspiration for the paladins, including the emphasis of religious dedication. The iconic representation are either Roland or the Crusading knights, as soon as it started (and the emphasis on "working in the palace" diminished in favor or "religious knights"). They may not title themselves as paladins, but are refered as such in litterature, from the 15th century up until the 20th century.
 

Aldarc

Legend
If people use a word for a specific meaning thinking it's related to an Hebrew concept and word, how can they be appropriating an Austronesian concept? They are appropriating and deforming a Hebrew concept (a daily gift from god of which you can't stockpile much => ok let's say it a fancy explanation for magic energy that replenishes over time and has a fixed maximum) and not the Austronesian concept of mana (which is not very close to the (J)RPG use of mana either). Would you be satisfied if they wrote it manna?
So you are asking me how a bunch of people who are largely ignorant of Austronesian languages and cultures when encountering the word 'mana' for the first time may have thought that a word that sounds and looks similar in spelling and pronunciation to a word from the hegemonic religious cultural context they are more familiar with was the likely source for a concept of magic that started appearing in their childhood fantasy novels and video games? It seems like the explanation largely writes itself. If you believe that there is a strong case for the conceptual history of "mana" as found in fantasy games has stronger or comparable links to "manna" in the Hebrew Bible, then I am all ears for your arguments and citations.

That said, I'm fairly certain that if you think you are borrowing your roommate's bike, but it actually belongs to your neighbor, it's still your neighbor's bike and it's still theft. ;)

Since you're speaking of Euro-American misappropriation, it would be interesting to check if it's really European.
Robert Henry Codrington who first described "mana" was a 19th century English missionary and anthropologist. Ethnologist and cultural anthropologist Robert Marrett who further applied the sense of "mana" to other cultures was also English. Larry Niven reportedly learned of "mana" while reading The Trumpet Shall Sound by British social anthropologist Peter Worsley. Despite what either the French or English may believe, England is part of Europe. These are European scholars.

Or are you trying to suggest that it's not really European if the French aren't involved in misappropriating it too? Don't worry then, because I got you covered: French cultural sociologist and anthropologist (as well as Émile Durkheim's nephew) Marcel Mauss wrote about mana as a universal magical force in Esquisse d'une théorie générale de la magie. But could this be in reference to Biblical manna? Mauss cites Codrington, and he also references 'mana' in relation to Polynesian practices in Essai sur le don: forme et raison de l'échange dans les sociétés archaïques. His French Wikipedia page even says:
Il s'intéresse à la signification sociale du don dans les sociétés tribales, ainsi qu'au phénomène religieux : la magie est considérée comme un phénomène social qui peut notamment s'expliquer par la notion de mana.
Crappy translation:
He is interested in the social meaning of the gift in tribal societies, as well as in religious phenomenon: magic is considered as a social phenomenon which can be explained in particular by the notion of mana.
And if you click on the "mana" link in that quote:
It links to Polynesian notions of mana.

I don't think the use of mana for "magical exhaustible force" has a lot of use outside US inspired computer games (there may be tabletop RPGs using mana, but I think the term is more widely used in computer/console games). The word entered the American lexicon with Larry Niven, but I am not sure it has entered non-English speaking european countries as well.
I think that your sense of "mana" here and above demonstrates a fundamental lack of awareness about the conceptual history of the term. For the record, have you actually watched the linked video yet?

Crusading orders are one of the main source of inspiration for the paladins, including the emphasis of religious dedication. The iconic representation are either Roland or the Crusading knights, as soon as it started (and the emphasis on "working in the palace" diminished in favor or "religious knights"). They may not title themselves as paladins, but are refered as such in litterature, from the 15th century up until the 20th century.
Okay? If you want to argue that monastic orders of knights still exist or that paladins were influenced by crusaders, Knights of the Round Table, and La Chanson de Roland, then congratulations on winning a point in an argument that was never up for debate. But they are not paladins. There are no knightly orders to my knowledge, whether they are the Order of St John or Teutonic Order, that use the term "paladin" or label themselves as "paladins" whereas there are Tungustic peoples who still use the native term "shaman" for their spiritual leaders.
 

Galandris

Adventurer
So you are asking me how a bunch of people who are largely ignorant of Austronesian languages and cultures when encountering the word 'mana' for the first time may have thought that a word that sounds and looks similar in spelling and pronunciation to a word from the hegemonic religious cultural context they are more familiar with was the likely source for a concept of magic that started appearing in their childhood fantasy novels and video games? It seems like the explanation largely writes itself. If you believe that there is a strong case for the conceptual history of "mana" as found in fantasy games has stronger or comparable links to "manna" in the Hebrew Bible, then I am all ears for your arguments and citations.
Well, wrong/folk etymology abound. People couldn't appropriate a cultural content they don't even know exist. They just use a word to designate another reality, with no link with the Austronesian meaning. That Niven borrowed the word and was aware of the cultural link proves that he may be appropriating something, but after that, most people appropriated Niven's creative work and used mana in the sense he described, without any link to the polynesian word. They would have used xyzzy if Niven had called his magic like that.

That said, I'm fairly certain that if you think you are borrowing your roommate's bike, but it actually belongs to your neighbor, it's still your neighbor's bike and it's still theft. ;)
Actually it's not (though you might want to check with your lawyer in your juridiction). Criminal offenses requires criminal intent.

Or are you trying to suggest that it's not really European if the French aren't involved in misappropriating it too? Don't worry then, because I got you covered: French cultural sociologist and anthropologist (as well as Émile Durkheim's nephew) Marcel Mauss wrote about mana as a universal magical force in Esquisse d'une théorie générale de la magie. But could this be in reference to Biblical manna? Mauss cites Codrington, and he also references 'mana' in relation to Polynesian practices in Essai sur le don: forme et raison de l'échange dans les sociétés archaïques. His French Wikipedia page even says:
These anthropologists were speaking of the masculine form of mana and trying to describe polynesian practices. As I pointed out, many games using mana in the pop culture sense use the feminine word mana. Despite being pop culture, it found its way into reference newspaper if you don't trust my word. The word is no longer the same, is it still appropriation despite being another word and describing another reality?

At what point does it stops being appropriation to you and starts simply being the natural evolution of the language? We're here speaking of people who don't use the exact same word and who don't know the original sense, but are simply taking it from English-speaking RPGs. It's starting to be very removed from the original term...

I think that your sense of "mana" here and above demonstrates a fundamental lack of awareness about the conceptual history of the term. For the record, have you actually watched the linked video yet?
I don't think you understand my point. But since the tone is no longer one of conversation, there is no point in me trying to express myslef more clearly.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Criminal offenses requires criminal intent.
Nope. Carelessness is enough, in most cases. If you do a thing without taking reasonable precautions to ensure it isn’t criminal, in a situation where a reasonable person could suspect that it’s criminal, and it ends in fact being criminal, you’ve committed a criminal act.

Like taking the bike in the side yard shared with your neighbor, that you assume is your room mates, without checking to make sure it is theirs. If it is your neighbors, and the report it stolen, and you’re caught with it, you’ve stolen their bike.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Well, wrong/folk etymology abound. People couldn't appropriate a cultural content they don't even know exist. They just use a word to designate another reality, with no link with the Austronesian meaning. That Niven borrowed the word and was aware of the cultural link proves that he may be appropriating something, but after that, most people appropriated Niven's creative work and used mana in the sense he described, without any link to the polynesian word. They would have used xyzzy if Niven had called his magic like that.
Yeah, they can. Niven knew the original context, but would his readers? Would the people making video games and Magic: The Gathering know the original cultural context if they just liked "mana" in Larry Niven's work? That's often how cultural appropriation happens. It's often a cultural concept/thing that gets stripped of its original cultural context and disseminated into vogue by the hegemonic culture, albeit not as understood in the original context.

These anthropologists were speaking of the masculine form of mana and trying to describe polynesian practices. As I pointed out, many games using mana in the pop culture sense use the feminine word mana. Despite being pop culture, it found its way into reference newspaper if you don't trust my word. The word is no longer the same, is it still appropriation despite being another word and describing another reality?
Is this really the argument that you wanna go with? The fact that despite mana having a clear link of transmission between Oceanic cultures to European anthropologists to Larry Niven to video games and Magic: The Gathering that the term "mana" as per pop culture could not have been appropriated from Oceanic cultures because French has a feminine and masculine use for "mana"?

At what point does it stops being appropriation to you and starts simply being the natural evolution of the language? We're here speaking of people who don't use the exact same word and who don't know the original sense, but are simply taking it from English-speaking RPGs. It's starting to be very removed from the original term...
This is a discussion point for the thread that would be nice to discuss if I wasn't having to argue about the origins and conceptual history of the term "mana."

I don't think you understand my point. But since the tone is no longer one of conversation, there is no point in me trying to express myslef more clearly.
So what you are saying is that you didn't watch the link and can't really provide any contrary evidence other than gender?
 
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Doug McCrae

Legend
And often its use comes with the implicit judgment of Western superiority wherein "shaman" is applied to the spiritual leaders of "primitive" cultures. (I suspect that most fantasy depictions of "shamans" will probably have them as "primitives" wearing bones, feathers, fur, and other trappings, no?)
This is true of its usage in D&D.

In 5e, stone giants, lizardfolk, and quaggoths have shamans. The stone giant in the MM wears animal skins and wields a club. They also fight with thrown rocks. Lizardfolk are "primitive reptilian humanoids" with INT 7. They use simple weapons such as clubs. "Though they aren't skilled artisans, lizardfolk craft tools and ornamental jewelry out of the bones of their kills, and they use the hides and shells of dead monsters to create shields." "[T]hey have a taste for humanoid flesh", devouring their victims in "great feasts" if they’re not "sacrificed to Semuanya, the lizardfolk god." Quaggoths, INT 6, are "brutal and savage", were "never an enlightened species", and practise cannibalism. They do not use weapons but attack with their claws.

In 1e AD&D shamans are one type of "tribal caster", the other being the witch doctor. Shamans are like clerics but have a much more limited spell selection. They are never human but are found among bugbears, ettins, giants (hill, fire, frost, stone), gnolls, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, lizard men, ogres, orcs, troglodytes, and trolls. Only two of these, stone giants and hobgoblins, have average intelligence (8-10). The rest are lower, and many - ettins, hill giants, 90% of lizard men, ogres, trolls, and troglodytes - are of low intelligence (5-7). For comparison, gorillas and whales also have low intelligence.

Ettins wear "animal skin dress". Hill giants "typically dress in rough hides or skins". Gnoll "armor is of horn, metal plates, and leather". Goblins "dress in dark leather gear". "All kobold shields are of wood or wickerwork." The lizard man is depicted wearing only a skull and tooth necklace. "Ogres wear any sort of skins or furs." Trolls wear no clothing. The troglodyte is depicted in only a harness.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Here is a book that talks about the history of Western scholarly discourse of the Oceanic concept of "mana" and how it was disseminated into pop culture: Mana: A History of a Western Category by Nicolas Meylan.

Here is a more detailed article that discusses the history of the Oceanic concept "mana" as it transmitted into fantasy lexicon via cultural anthropologists and fantasy writers. If you are worried that it will just bash the use of "mana" in pop culture, be rest assured because this is its concluding paragraph:
For Pacific Islanders, the history of mana is important because it is about them: their lives and their heritage. To video game players it is important, and for pretty much the same reasons. Once an import, mana has now become part of our culture. Some might be tempted to read the story of mana as a tale of cultural appropriation in which Westerners ransack the culture of the colonized. They may be right. Missionaries, anthropologists, and historians put mana between the pages of their books and stored it in libraries all over the world. But gamers did something else with it: They cared for it. They made fantasy games and imaginary worlds, and came to love what they had created. They put mana into play, making it part of their lives, dragging it into their histories and self-understandings. They spent hours optimizing their healing spells and living the lives of draenei shamans. Gaming became part of who they were, and mana became part of their heritage. Did they borrow it? Yes. Did they exoticize it? Perhaps. But by playing with it, they honored it. The world is full of stories like the story of mana, stories whose paths across cultures and through time are rarely fully recorded. But these stories matter to us, because their histories are part of our lives. Like mana, they lay in the background until—click—someone shines a light on them and we see the power they truly possess.
The author, Alex Golub, also writes in his acknowledgments:
Many people helped with this article. I’d like to thank Jon Peterson, my coauthor on the academic version of this paper, for his scrupulous reading of this paper. I’d also like to thanks Steve Perrin and Larry Niven for answering my questions about their work and career. Professor Robert Blust, the Reverend Terry Brown, and Michael Craddock reviewed the manuscript to make sure I got all my facts straight. Any errors are my own.
 

Galandris

Adventurer
So what you are saying is that you didn't watch the link and can't really provide any contrary evidence other than gender?
If I hadn't seen the video (which didn't teach anything new, except it confirmed that Niven was aware of the Polynesian meaning of the term and didn't coin it from scratch), I wouldn't know that the youtube-generated subtitle use "manna" and "mana" both which is hilarious given the context of this "discussion". AI still has some way to transliterate human speech.
 
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