Books as Magic Things

Magic Book Sketch
The Magic Book: Talisman, Magic Thing, Faerie or Familiar?


Despite the importance of books within ArM5 Sagas, the books featured to date with few exceptions consist of either Summae or Tractati on the various Abilities or Arts. There are the expanded book rules in ArM5 Covenants, “Chapter 7: Library” and scattered across various supplements, but few eponymous books as individual tomes or objects stand out in the current canon as having magical power per se other than the knowledge they contain or help access such as the books that lead to the Mysteries of the Ars Notoria (RoP:DRE, pages 97-100).  There are rules for casting from text in the core rules, Timothy’s rules for “casting tablets” (ArM5 Covenants, page 89-90) and the books of Numerologists, but unless I’ve missed a bespoke talisman somewhere in the later canon there is no definite instance of a book being the actual source of magical power or the generator of a specific magical effect.

So let’s examine that for a bit…

Books As Talismans…

A large weighty tome inscribed with symbols, whether floating in front of a magus, positioned on a lectern or held in one or both hands makes for an archetypical wizard scene and a book as talisman or greater invested device may have some initial appeal. However, it’s sadly not a particularly practical choice –  wandering around Mythic Europe with an open spellbook basically screams “sorceror” and a book crackling with mystic energy floating ahead or to the side of the individual highlights the character as a wizard even more so…

Unfortunately, a standard leather bound book of vellum with wooden boards and leather stitching makes a somewhat lacklustre object to enchant as an invested device – if one counts the vellum and leather with a base size similar to a shield, the Material & Size product is only a mediocre 8 (2 base points, x4 medium size) unless one includes the simple metal clasps, bosses and corners which increases the potential to a more reasonable 20 (5 base points, x4 medium size). This limit on maximum instilled effects able to be included may be circumvented by incorporating more expensive materials such as precious metals and gemstones (see ArM5 Covenants, page 87 for a list of the various components of medieval books), but this also makes the book more conspicuous and likely to arouse suspicion from mundane scholars and thieves. Similarly, the size is unlikely to increase without making the whole thing unwieldy as a larger book is generally prohibitive cumbersome unless immobile on a lectern or levitating using simple ReAn(He) magics, which as noted previously scream “magic” to the casual observer.

Interestingly, there are no listed Shape & Material bonuses for books, papyrus, paper or vellum listed in official sources according to Erik Tyrrel’s PDF of Shape & Material bonuses, but there are bonuses for animal hide, bookshelves, Ink of Hermes, and wood. However the following bonuses are given in relation to the Numerologist’s Book in the “Arithmetic Magic” section of ArM5 Mysteries: Revised Edition, pages 91-91:

  • Book: +2 Intellego, +3 Divination, +4 Numerology
Supernatural books Part 2.JPG
Sketched Design Notes for Magic Books

To be continued…

Languages of East Africa

Design Note: this is the second post in a series about the East African area of the Erythrean Sea and draws on material from the supplement Lands of the Nile (pages 10-11) and the Appendix A “Languages and Name” section of the Cradle and the Crescent. 

The following languages are spoken on or around the Red Sea and the Erythrean Sea. Most characters should take the appropriate dialect as a specialty but educated or well-travelled speakers will have tried hard to rid themselves of their dialect and may have standard specialties (see ArM5, page 66).

     Arabic (Masri, Khaliji, Maslawi, Shirvani, Somalian)
     Bantu (Kiswahili, many other mainland dialects)
     Faerie Speech*
     Somali (Northern, Mogadishan)

Languages of the Red Sea

The most common Arabic dialects spoken in the northern areas and by most traveling merchants and sailors is either the Egyptian Masri  or Arabian Khaliji dialect (the latter usually spoken with unique Yemeni and Omani idioms and inflections). Merchants and seafarers from further afield will use either the Levantine dialect or if originally hailing from Basra or nearby ports, the Persian Maslawi dialect. Due to the short distance across the Arabian gulf, the variant Somalian Arabic is spoken by many southern Arabian natives and differs enough from the form spoken elsewhere in Arabia to be classed as a separate dialect.

Somali_Stone script
Wadaad script

 Somali is the common language of the Bilad al-Berbera, the southern coast of the Arabian Gulf comprising the Horn of Africa. It is very distantly related to both Coptic and Arabic and currently uses the so-called Wadaad version of the Arabic script, although older inscriptions using can be found using a unique native alphabet. Soqotri was once a closely related tongue but has become distinct enough recently to be unintelligible to outsiders. It is rarely heard outside of the isolated island as its merchants and spies use Arabic or rarely Somali when moving through the wider world.

Languages of the Erythrean Sea

Bantu is the anachronistic umbrella term used here to describe a variety of related languages spoken by mundane inhabitants of the hinterland region of the Bilad al-Zanj often enslaved by the coastal towns. The most commonly heard dialect is Kiswahili (or Swahili), spoken in the Arabicized island trade settlements of the coast and island states. It contains many Arabic and Persian loan words and fast becoming the Erythraean Sea’s equivalent of the Mediterranean’s lingua franca. Unlike the other Bantu dialects, Kiswahili is written using the Arabic script.

Shirvani Arabic is an unusual dialect only spoken on the islands of the southern seas, particularly by inhabitants of Qumr. It includes some Bantu derived phrases but mainly borrows Persian words as it was brought to the area by exiles from Shirvan in northern Persia.

Malagasy is an unusual magical language spoken only by the cannibals of Waq al-Waq to the far south and sometimes the rarely encountered Faerie blooded merchants claiming to be from far off ports of the Bahr al-Harkand on the route to Serica. The exact relationship between the two groups is unclear but their language is completely unrelated to the other languages of the region. The exotic merchants sometimes use an unusual Arabic based script they refer to as Sorabe.

What Language do the Faeries Use?

The area of the Erythrean Sea is beset by Faeries claiming to be exotic but mundane merchants or sailors from distant lands such as al-Hind, the hinterland of al-Zanj and the far distant ports of Serica. Instead of speaking mundane dialects, these creatures use a magical ability to interact and carry out their roles in stories. Close observers will note that although these Faeries may appear to speak their own language, the words have no meaningful structure or grammar, merely serving to enhance the creature’s exoticism.

Faerie Speech is not actually a separate language but a Faerie Pretense (see Realms of Power: Faerie, page 50). Characters that possess this Minor Virtue are able to converse with humans as if they know the language being spoken, allowing them to appear to always know how to talk to anyone they encounter.

Dead Languages


Ge’ez is the Semitic forebear of Amharic using it’s own unique alphabet. It is the ancient language of Axum and still used in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s liturgy. Sabaean is the magical language of the ancient Kingdom of Sheba and can still be seen inscribed in either the Masnad or Zabur scripts on ruins and scrolls respectively found in contemporary Yemen.

Languages Penalty

Same language, different dialect -1
Arabic (Somalian) vs Somali -2
Somali vs Soqotri -3

The other pairs of languages are so distinct from each other that comprehension is likely to be based on signing and good guesswork, or magic such as the use of the Gift of Tongues Virtue or the Faerie Speech Pretense (see above).

Once Upon the Erythraean Sea

Design Note: the area known in the 13th century as the Erythraean Sea reflects the modern day Arabian Sea or western edge of the Indian Ocean, correlating with the Arabic Bahr al-Hind. This area links the “Mythic Arabia” chapter of the Cradle and the Crescent, the “Ethiopia” chapter from Lands of the Nile and “Sorcerors of Soqotra” chapter from Rival Magic. This article is one of several gazetteer style posts intended on ultimately linking these sources together.

A typical dhow

The dhow (Arabic or Swahili: daw) is the predominant style of ship on the southern waters constructed from teak from far off mythical al-Hind. Unlike the ships of the north detailed in City & Guild, page 84-85, these ships are literally sewn together with coir, a tough woven cord formed from palm or coconut fibres soaked in seawater.

In the thirteenth century, these ships have double-ended hulls that come to a point at the bow and stern – the much later square stern is an innovation influenced by European ship designs.

The generic word for ship in Arabic is markab or safiinah. Although named variously badanbuumjalba, and zaaruq depending on the region they are found, all ships share the common hull features of carvel design (planks laid end to end) providing them with flexibility to manage the surf or shallow coastal shoals and rocks of the Red Sea or Arabian Sea at the expense of their overall structural integrity.

Each ship is so-called lateen rigged, using a near triangular trapezoidal sail (or corectly a settee sail) with an additional luff as opposed to the true triangular sail seen in the Mediterranean. This hybrid design still allows the ship to tack before the wind, unlike the square rigged ships of Europe, but the extra area provided by the leading edge or luff helps catch a greater amount of wind than the regular triangular shape use in the north. Most used for coastal trading have two masts with basic rigging, the larger sail on mizzen and a smaller sail aft, although smaller craft only have a single mast.

Unfortunately, very few of these sewn ships have closed holds or decks, requiring passengers to brave the elements and settle themselves amongst the cargo and any sported animals as best they can. This and their pliant hull design makes them ill-suited to rough weather – the standard practice for regular sailors of these vessels when confronted with a storm at sea is to pull down the mast, jettison the sail and pray for deliverance. Unsurprisingly, the nakhodas or “dhow-masters” often name their ships with fatalistic names that effectively translate as: “By Allah’s Deliverance”, “In Praise of Mohammed” and “As Allah Wills”.

The Magic of Sewn Ships

Unlike northern ships which use bronze or iron nails in their construction, the woven coir binding method and teak or coconut wood construction means that dhows are composed entirely of material derived from plants. This makes them virtually immune to Hermetic Terram spells, but exquisitely sensitive to Herbam based magics.

Historically most dhows were built in India, the eastern source of the teak and coconut used in their construction. Although well known in the thirteenth century to Muslim merchants, in Mythic Europe canonically there is no such land as India, only the rumoured Faerie land of al-Hind. This suggests that the ships of the southern seas may be all built with the aid or permission of exotic  Faeries or may even be Faerie Objects obtained through bargains…

Even if otherwise mundane such ships are rumoured to be crafted using planks sourced from Faerie teak trees in their construction, which if the correct incantations are muttered whilst building them may provides the resultant ship with a small amount of resistance to magics intent on warping or twisting it out of shape, providing a defensive bonus to Herbam style magics equal to the boatbuilder’s Craft: Shipwright score.

Teak wood has the following Shape & Material bonuses:

  • +3 resist rot or disease
  • +2 Rego

Additional Resources

If Wormwood came to Gimlé…

The Fall of Wormwood through the sky…

Dies Irae: A Book of Wrathful Days is sadly the last book of the ArM5 line and while I bought it a while ago, I’d been reluctant to open and read it out of mixed sense of grief and nostalgia at the official end of the line that I contributed to.

It’s an amazing work. Kudos to Ben, the two Marks (Lawford and Shirley) and Matt.

Two of the scenarios (“Fimbulwinter” and “Twilight of the Gods”) link together thematically and potentially sequentially, with the option of integrating a third as an extension or follow-up of the main arc.  Any Saga would need to last decades to play through the combined plots presented, but each scenario provides details of the effects on the Order following the apocalypse.

There’s been a lot of talk about alternate settings for Ars Magica now the line has finished – a whole issue of Sub Rosa, Issue #16, was dedicated to these concepts and similarly many of the Diedne articles from Issue #13 touched on this. The majority of concepts, except Mark Shirley’s “After the Plague”, deal with earlier versions of Mythic Europe, drawing on the history of the Order and it’s origins.

But I’ve been wondering about an alternate setting for Ars Magica set significantly *after* the Apocalypse or even the combination of two of the scenarios involving Ragnarok and the fall of Wormwood with some elements of Mark’s 1470 AD article.

A Saga set in an Age of Bitterness











I am (the) Mimir…

Mimir's Head
The Head of Mimir

“Odin took the head of Mímir, embalmed it with herbs so that it would not rot, and spoke charms over it, which gave it the power to speak to him and reveal to him secrets…”

Sounds like a particularly gruesome fate eh?

Except of course in ArM5 terms Mimir is technically a Jotun (an elder Daimon, effectively the Norse equivalent of a Titan) and Odin is the leader of the Faerie Gods of the Norse that claimed victory over the Giants in their cultural equivalent of the first Titanomachy.

Odin didn’t behead Mimir, that was due to an altercation between during the Æsir-Vanir War, but regardless of the precipitant one wonders whether this passage suggests Odin has effectively made a pact with the elder Daimon, drawing on his knowledge and advice by carrying around his head to consult when needed. After all an elder Jotun of wisdom and rune magic might have something useful to add on occasion…

Perhaps the embalming process and muttered charms Odin employs is meant as a mystical metaphor for an imprisonment similar to the other Jotun? Or Odin formed some sort of pact with Mimir – unlikely a formal Muspelli / Jotun patron relationship but perhaps something more akin to a Spirit Votary, allowing Odin as a Faerie to draw upon Mimir’s Magic Might and powers?

Variant Muspelli: Mimir as a Jotun Patron

Mark Shirley has suggested Mimir as a potential “benign” Muspelli patron in a 2015 forum thread quoted below, an idea he rejected originally for the Muspelli section of Rival Magic apparently, but the concept crops up again in the aftermath section of his Dies Irae section as a potential sponsor for vitkir and other rune magicians.

If I were to pick another benign patron I would go for Mimir.

He is Urdur’s brother and the Jotun who taught the runes to Odin. He is a patron of wisdom and magic. His gandur would be a severed head (or the carving of one), representing his fate after the Aesir-Vanir war.

There are some (obscure) sources which make him the father of the dwarfs, so the initiatory Major Flaw could be Dwarf. This would make the Etin-Mod all the more surprising! The dwarfs are the seven primal smiths of the Norse creation epic, and Mimir would be all about creative forces as well as wisdom.

Mimir‘s reasons for pursuing Ragnarok could be the same as his sister’s — it is fated. However, Mimir is concerning himself with the creation of a refuge (Hoddmimis holt) that will outlast the Twilight of the Gods, and he is responsible for building a new world once the destruction has taken place. His Muspelli would be interested in choosing who is worthy to survive.

So then Favored powers for a Muspelli of Mimir would perhaps then include Spadomur, Threads of Fate and Premonitions Virtues similar to his sister Urdur, but with say Sjonhverfing replacing Entrancement.

The proposed gandur form makes sense, although the Etin-mod of a muspelli serving Mimir may be less monstrous in appearance than most, although certainly remain Giant sized and powerful enough to inspire awe in a mundane human..

Dies Irae suggests that post the Second Titanomachy / Ragnarok, either “benign” Jotun sibling could also be appropriate as a patron for a vitkir so a Muspelli of Mimir may wish to forgo the two Major Supernatural Abilities usually granted from its patron’s allies in return for being able to use Rune Magic.

Alternatively, for a more high powered hedge magic Saga, a Muspelli could initiate into Rune Magic following their Muspelli initiation or an ambitious vitkir pledge himself fully to Mimir as a Jotun patron as a further intitiation or an advanced Mystery Script resembling Odin’s sacrifice…

The Lonely Tower on the Barthelasse

Lair beneath island
Example Coenobium Sanctum?

I found this image on Pinterest the other day, and although it’s much more “d20” than ArM5 in style it would work quite nicely as a temporary sanctum for a reclusive magus of the Coenobium in Faith and Flame or even one of the lairs of the infamous Drac…

At the time of a starting canonical ArM5 Saga, the so-called “Isle of Barthelasse”, situated in the main stream of the Rhone at the level of the Avignon crossing / Pont St Benezet was most likely composed of a number of shifting swamping islets similar to the small island depicted in the image.

The original concept for the geographical precursor covenant to the Coenobium, “Sub Pontem“, was a collection of reclusive magi living beneath the swampy islands beneath the main bridge and on moored barges served by a rag tag turb of outcast river folk. The laboratory barges and Nicodemus (himself a nod to another famous wizard that was found beneath a bridge) remained in the final draft but some of the more “gypsy” elements were left behind in the transformation to the more urbane Jerbiton covenant.



Beyond the Horizon: Thoughts on Mediterranean Robinsonades

In a recent post over on Games from Folktales, Timothy commented on the concept of “Robinsonades” in terms of their story potential as a starting point for an Ars Magica Saga. Alluding to Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a potential source of inspiration, he broadly defines the concept in his first paragraph:

A Robinsonade is a type of story that takes its name from Robinson Crusoe. In the structure of the story a person from a technologically superior area is stranded in an area where they have limited societal support.

Read “magically adept” for “technologically superior” by invoking Clarke’s 3rd Law and he argues that starting a covenant from a shipwrecked group of magi and their surviving grogs is a potential Robinsonade beginning to a Saga. Let’s not get into the whys and hows of a group of magi travelling by ship and managing to get shipwrecked – that’s a whole different post or two – and take a moment to concentrate on the where, at least in terms of the Mediterranean, potentially linking into my Mythic Genoa concepts.

The Areas of the Meditteranean Out of Sight of Land.jpg
Areas Out of Sight of Land (from The Corrupting Sea)

The above image is a photograph from a very useful book about Mediterranean History (The Corrupting Sea, Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, Peregrine 2000) that discusses the Meditteranean as a maritime continent or “extended archipelago” of ports and settlements along the coasts linked by a common culture. The map demonstrates those areas “out of sight of land”, the “deeps” of the ocean beyond the horizon which in this instance equates to the line of demarcation between where an individual on a ship at sea can still see land features including mountains and where the observer sees only an unbroken circle of water.

I’d like to explore these so-called featureless “deeps” later, but in his original post Timothy suggests that Sagas set on islands out of sight of a passing ship may make a good example of a Robinsonade. Let’s use then this map as a starting point for discussion.

Note: the image above presumably details what those on board a ship can see – unless an observer is standing on a high peak, their horizon at any coastal point is limited to mere 3 miles. An observer on the deck of a ship can similarly only see human sized objects at sea level 3 miles away, which according to this calculator extends for those in the crow’s nest or the top of the mast of most contemporary ships to about 10 miles at most in clear weather during daylight. This is only the top of the landmark however, the rest of the landmass is hidden behind the horizon. So it’s entirely possible to miss another ship or a beacon fire on the beach unless the smoke rises as a column or you have a lookout positioned up the mast. Also one ship may be able to see another’s mast from miles off while remaining undetected by the other crew at deck level or be completely hidden from castaways gazing out from the where they have waded into the waves…

Height above sea level, for both the observer AND the object is the key.

  • sea level: 3 miles
  • 30 feet: 7 miles
  • 50 feet:  9 miles

If the top of the object and the observer are elevated, then the distance increases.

Historically, particularly in ancient times when oared galleys were the primary means of maritime transport, but also in medieval times of sail, most ships sailed within sight of the coast – within a few miles along the plains and further out to sea for coasts rocky headlands or mountainous coasts. To venture beyond this horizon was a concept that generated significant dread and had associated superstitions. Ships did sometimes cross the wider expanses with the aid of astrological navigation (itself a great topic) but much more rarely, so the borders on the map potentially represent the furthermost limit a ship would readily sail.

Western “Deeps”

Although there’s no scale to the overall map (and technically the line varies by a few miles depending on the height of the observer if they’re at the top of the mast of the ship), it’s interesting to me for several reasons, but in response to Timothy’s post, let’s briefly deal with whether this map helps with the hypothesis that there are islands out of sight of passing ships traversing the common coastal routes of the Mediterranean and leave out those few intrepid ships and crews that cross the wider open expanses for now.

He mentions the Scilly Isles, the Channel Isles and the Hebrides, which are all part of more northern Tribunals, and does not mention the Aegean islands possibly because of the busy sea traffic in the Theban Tribunal. So let’s deal with the two Mediterranean suggestions: the islands off Sicily  (Aeolian, Ustica, Aegadian, Pelagian) and the smaller islands between Spain and the Balearics.

Example #1: the Balearic Islands?

Let’s deal with the Balearics area first.

The initial map indicates that the Balearics, given their mountainous nature, are readily seen by ships sailing eastwards from the port of Valencia and the small islets off the coasts of the three main islands are well within the 10 mile diameter of a passing ship (blue circles on the map below) if not the 3 mile radius of being seen from the coast. So it’s really a question of whether the smaller island of Formentera (highest point 390 feet) south of Ibiza and the islets of the Cabrera Archipelago (highest point 560 feet) south of Majorca  are easily visible.

Both lie within 10 miles of their nearby major islands, so their landward coasts are readily visible from a ship sailing within sight of the main coast and their peaks are easily seen from even further out (24 miles and 29 miles respectively, green circles on the map).

Horizons relevant to the lesser Balearic Islands

It’s unclear whether ships passed to the north or south of the Balearics (Edit: checking another reference, they probably did pass to the south due to the prevailing winds and currents of the western Mediterranean), but assuming they did round the southern coastline, Formontera with it’s overall flatter relief to the west and elevation to the east would be passed frequently. On the other hand, the rocky seaward side of Cabrera might be relatively hidden in the shadow of its highest central elevation from most passing ships hugging the Majorcan coastline to the north and therefore might be a potential Robinsonade style covenant location.

Cabrera Archipelago: a Robinsonade Saga location?

To be continued…