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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

30 November 2012

Guest post: Constructing spells for fantasy

Today I welcome author Karin Gastreich to "For Love of Words." She is sharing the process by which she constructed magic spells for the fantasy world of her novels,the Kingdom of Moisehén.

Constructing Spells for Fantasy
by Karin Gastreich

Recently, a reader asked me to write a post about the spells in my novel Eolyn. Magic is a fundamental component of fantasy worlds, and so spells often form an integral part of world-building.

cover art © Jesse Smolover
I am unaware of any hard-and-fast rules for crafting spells, but I have come across some interesting debates in my journey as a writer.

I’ve heard fellow authors say, for example, that it’s best not to include verbatim spells at all; that funky language often distracts from the story itself. Others have contradicted this advice by insisting that spells add authenticity.

I have also witnessed debates over which spells to include. At one of my writers group meetings we once had a lively discussion on the dangers of writing spells for summoning demons as part of our stories. Some members argued that verses of dark magic should be left out altogether, because even fictitious spells might actually have some potency if they fall into the wrong hands.

For my part, I do not believe the spells we make up for storytelling have any power in the real world, for good or ill. No matter how many times you repeat the spell provided by the hag Ghemena in chapter two of Eolyn, you will not be able to heat up that cup of cold water containing a sprig of fresh mint with your bare hands. If you really want some hot tea, you need to put the teapot on the stove and do things the old fashioned way. (Or you can recite the spell while you put the cup in the microwave—not only will that work, it might even feel more like “magic.”)

In the earliest drafts of Eolyn, I did not include any verbatim spells. I began crafting spells at the suggestion of one of the members of my writers group.

I am not a linguist, so the first thing I decided was that the grammar—and vocabulary—of my spell language would be as simple as possible. In addition, I knew spells would have to be highly structured, reflecting the rigid organization of magic in the Kingdom of Moisehén.

Spells would also have to incorporate an important core belief of the magas and mages: All magic is a gift from the Gods, a power mediated through their messenger Dragon and brought into manifestation by the intent of the practitioner.

With these thoughts in mind, this is how I put together my spells:

photo taken by Julia Shapiro
In the tradition of Moisehén, all spells begin by calling upon Dragon. Dragon has two sacred names, Ehekaht, which reflects its female nature, and Ehekahtu, which reflects its male nature. In general, magas invoke the female manifestation of Dragon and mages invoke the male manifestation, but this is more a matter of cultural tradition than a necessary practice. Magas who invoke Ehekahtu and mages who invoke Ehekaht are just as likely to be successful in their spells, as long as their intentions are properly focused.

The body of a spell is constructed as a petition to the Gods. For example:

Naeom means “give us.”

Faeom means “protect us.”

Elaeom means “take us.”

See how easy I made the grammar? There’s only one option, ever, for conjugating those sacred verbs!

Following the command, it’s just a matter of stating what the practitioner wishes to be given or protected from or where she wants to be taken. For example:

Naeom tzefur means “give us heat.”

Faeom dumae means “protect us from the enemy.”

You can then add simple qualifiers to indicate in what form and for what purpose you want the heat to manifest, or who you consider your enemy, and so forth.

Because all mages and magas are well-mannered (even when they are at war with one another), a spell always ends by thanking Dragon and the Gods she represents. The sacred word for “thank you” is Ehukae or, less commonly, Ukahe.

So a complete (if simple) spell might look like this:

Ehekaht naeom tzefur. Ehukae.

Now, as Ghemena tells young Eolyn early in the novel, it is not enough to merely recite the words. The maga must accomplish two tasks in addition to this. She must anchor her spirit to the living earth, the direct source of her power. She must also focus her will on the task she wishes to accomplish. If her spirit is not properly anchored, or if her focus is off, the spell can misfire or simply won’t work. (The more powerful the spell, the deeper and stronger one’s anchor to the earth must be; it is here that the use of the staff comes in handy for practitioners of High Magic, as it helps them to better channel the earth’s energy.)

That covers the basics of spells in Eolyn’s world.

There was some debate during the final edits of Eolyn, just before the book went to press, as to whether the spells should be in italics, in quotation marks, or both. We decided italics without quotation marks, because spells are not so much spoken as they are imagined and visualized with tremendous force of intention.

I would be very interested in learning more about how spells are constructed in other fantasy worlds, so if you have something to share from your own stories, or books you’ve read, please tell me about it!

Ehekaht, raeom enaem.

Dragon, make us friends.



Karin Rita Gastreich lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and Heredia, Costa Rica. She is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Avila University. Her pastimes include camping, hiking, music, and flamenco dance.

Karin's fantasy fiction publications include short stories in Zahir, Adventures for the Average Woman, and 69 Flavors of Paranoia. Her debut novel, Eolyn (Hadley Rille Books), is available as an ebook, in paperback, and as a hardcover. The companion novel, High Maga, is scheduled for release in 2014. She is a recipient of the Spring 2011 Andrews Forest Writer's Residency.

You can visit Karin at or at


Karin Gastreich said...

Thank you for hosting me on your blog, Shauna!

Charles Gramlich said...

Good information to keep in mind. I have, rarely used a spell in my fiction, but usually only of the spoken/verbal variety.

Shauna Roberts said...

KARIN, thanks so much for visiting!

CHARLES, I don't think I've ever used a spoken spell in my fiction. But after reading Karin's post, I feel much more comfortable about the idea. In fact, I'm now thinking about adding some spoken spells to Ice Magic, Fire Magic, my fantasy coming out next summer.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

To tell the truth, I was a little skeptical at first about using spoken spells (which was why I left them out of the early drafts of Eolyn), but it turned out to be fun.

Even now, most magic in the novel is invoked without providing the actual spells; I tend to use them to spice up key moments.