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I keep getting conflicting reports on what exactly thaumaturgy is. Some sources say it's a form of divine spellcasting. Others say it's a form of summoning. Others still say it's a method of performing magic through mechanical means. Which is it? Is there actually a solid definition of the term?

I'm developing an RPG of my own and was planning to use thaumaturgy in the sense of "using magic via machinery", but I was wondering if that would be correct or not.

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Do you have a specific game system or setting in mind? – Simon Gill Oct 31 '12 at 17:32
Not particularly; I'm developing an RPG of my own and was planning to use thaumaturgy in the sense of "using magic via machinery", but I was wondering if that would be correct or not. – Cobalt Oct 31 '12 at 17:34
I suggest that you change the question to better fit what you seem to want to know which is "What do I call magic that is done by creating mechanical devices?". You can then go into more detail on how your setting works (which we need to give you a useful answer) and also ask for the clarification on what thaumaturgy means. – Simon Gill Oct 31 '12 at 17:56
Ok. Should I edit the question, or start a new one? – Cobalt Oct 31 '12 at 17:59
@Cobalt Actually I think the question is fine as it is. I added in the context from your comment, since that will help people understand why you're asking and give better answers. I'd advise against asking "What do I call magic that is done by creating mechanical devices?" because it sounds like it expects a single correct answer (& there isn't one). If you don't want to use "thaumaturgy" anymore, you might consider asking "What is the most common name for magic done by creating devices, that the average RPG player would recognise?" or something like that, which could have 1 right answer. – SevenSidedDie Oct 31 '12 at 18:20
up vote 17 down vote accepted

There is no solid definition of the term of the sort that you're suspecting there might be: there is no agreement across RPGs for what exactly Thaumaturgy is or means, though outside RPGs it does have a solid (though pedestrian) English definition.

As KRyan and Simon Gill's answers have pointed out in excellent detail, the word itself, prior to ever being used in a roleplaying game, simply means "magic" without specifying any particular sort of magic. In the past it may have had denotations of miraculous workings or magic-from-a-machine, but modern usage of the word (such as it is) has faded to the point that it means merely "magic".

Various RPGs do use it to mean specific types or methods of magic, simply because it's a convenient English synonym for "magic" lying around frequently unused – a game designer that has already given game-mechanical meanings to more common words like "magic" and "sorcery" but finds they need another word for yet another type of magic-working, often finds "thaumaturgy" suitable.

You have noticed a pattern in its use, but that has more to do with it sounding "technical" and "latin-y" (actually Greek) than anything else – as good designers know, choosing a name that has the right "feeling" to it is an important tool for conveying the style of a game's setting and mechanics simultaneously. So, thaumaturgy often gets re-purposed in RPGs for technical, machine-based, ritual-based, or other complicated magic-working methods that our modern sensibilities would think of as being vaguely scientific, or at least rational.

All that said, the word as-is has no encumbrance of meaning beyond meaning "magic", so you can define it in game-mechanical and setting terms however you see fit without worrying about whether it's correct. Your proposed use for magic that is channeled through machinery is perfectly in line with common ways that RPGs have defined it, since it follows the common native English–speaking instinct that it sounds vaguely technical.

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of course, Discworld has a definition: One thaum is defined to be the amount of magic which is needed to create a white pigeon or three billiard balls. – SeanC Oct 31 '12 at 19:33
There isn't really a solid definition in normal English for any form of magic, for obvious reasons. This was discussed at – TimLymington Nov 1 '12 at 13:01
@Tim A lack of needing to discriminate differences means lots of words are just synonyms, yeah. However, there are words that mean "magic of type or method X" in English: summoning, telekinesis, witchcraft, divination, hexing, alchemy, etc. These are not synonyms of "magic" as they do have a relatively solid definition with greater specifics, so let's call them Type B words-that-mean-magic, while simple synonyms are Type A. The asker had the impression that "thaumaturgy" was a Type B word that further specified "magic", but it's actually a Type A word. – SevenSidedDie Nov 1 '12 at 15:13
@SevenSidedDie: It's nowhere near as clearcut as you imply. Telekinesis I'll grant you (though actually the word was coined when it was thought to be a psi power, nothing to do with magic), and alchemy normally refers to the border between chemistry and magic: but witchcraft may mean a way of doing magic, a type of magic, evil magic, or magic in general. Hexing is even less clear, as discussed in my link. All these words have clear meaning in a specific context, whether 'Macbeth', Harry Potter or D&D; but in general use they all mean 'vainly attempting to influence the universe'. – TimLymington Nov 1 '12 at 15:52
@Tim I ignored the link because I'm unclear on its relevance. Yes, Rowling made up setting-specific meanings for various magic-type words, but the existence of Harry Potter books doesn't erase the existing denotations and connotations of the words she repurposed, as all the other answers there aptly demonstrate. – SevenSidedDie Nov 1 '12 at 22:13

The word “thaumaturgy” is Greek for “miracle worker,” and was originally applied to several Christian saints, specifically those for whom miracles were not a rare or occasional thing, but a matter of course.

Starting in the 16th century, the word was generally associated with occult secret societies; this is where most fantasy RPGs get the use of the word. This use of the word was started by John Dee in Mathematicall Praeface to Euclid’s Elements; he used the word to refer to the “art mathematical” that “giveth certain order to make strange works,” specifically mechanical devices that the uneducated assumed could only be possible with diabolical help. Dee apparently did not much appreciate his reputation as “conjurer” for these devices, though he certainly was interested in the occult.

Many secret societies adopted the word and used thaumaturgy to refer to the workings of a Magician, one who could cause small changes in the Divine Realm, thereby enacting significant changes on Earth.

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So Thaumaturgy actually does refer mainly to magic, but the guy who coined it used it to reference the fact that people who didn't understand his machines thought they were magic of some kind. – Cobalt Oct 31 '12 at 17:44
@SimonGill: I did not quote it, and I knew most of this without Wikipedia, I just double-checked and used it as a source for Dee's quotes and the name of the exact book. – KRyan Oct 31 '12 at 17:46
@Cobalt: I don't think he was referring to the fact that others thought the devices were magic – he was literally referring to the "miracle" of mathematics, the formulae and techniques that allowed the devices to be possible. – KRyan Oct 31 '12 at 17:47
It appears John Dee is not far from the truth. Everything from computers, cellphones, planes, rockets, maybe even lighters, certainly nuclear power, and all kinds of things would be treated as magic. Probably much of our medicine would be considered witchcraft in his day, too. – corsiKa Oct 31 '12 at 19:18
Funnily enough, I was planning for my RPG world to eventually reach a semi-modern setting where a lot of modern feats (cell phone-like devices, automobiles, computers, bullet trains, etc) are accomplished or augmented via magic. – Cobalt Nov 7 '12 at 4:48

The dictionary definition is "the working of wonders or miracles; magic.".

This could cover divine spellcasting or summoning from your examples.

The term for invoking magic relating to technology is technomancy. The literal meaning of that term is divination through technology, but it's commonly accepted as relating to any use of magic through technology.

Creating seemingly magical effects using technology is just science. Remember Arthur C. Clarkes famous quote "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.".

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Ah. I usually see technomancy used as magic that controls technology, but I was thinking more along the lines of making devices that can cast magic for you. – Cobalt Oct 31 '12 at 17:39
Well, fair enough. Heck, in the RPG I was thinking about, magic is kinda treated more like additional laws of physics than anything else. – Cobalt Oct 31 '12 at 17:46

One of the games I play has Thaumaturgy as an Ice-based Magic. Interestingly enough, that same game describes that Thaumaturges, or magic users that specialize in Thaumaturgy, can utilize liquids in their magic, which is a little weird, since that means that you could theoretically use Thaumaturgy in a very non-Ice Magic way. An example that I've heard in D&D involves boiling an enemy with their own fluids. Pretty nasty stuff.

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This answer appears to mostly address just the title of the question without paying much attention to the actual body; an example given in a single game, without any further comment on the pros or cons of that game's treatment, isn't a very thorough answer to the question of what the term means to the hobby as a whole. – TuggyNE Dec 24 '15 at 4:36

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