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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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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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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$ – SeanC Oct 31 '12 at 19:33
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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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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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Thaumaturgy, basically the original meaning was the use of magic in a non religious way. It has been used in various roleplaying games and video games with varied different meanings, though still tied to some sort of magic. You could use the term for magic done by machines, just as others have used the word to suit their specific means. However you could also choose your own word, something like technomancy or technoturgy.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This "original meaning" appears to echo the ideas of a druid who died a few years ago, but Wikipedia suggests that the word was originally used almost two thousand years ago to refer to the miracles performed by saints. \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Aug 30 '16 at 4:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Consider adding references to your answer, even just a link to a definition can be helpful. The Markdown tools at the top of the Answer box have instructions on how to add links easily. Have fun! \$\endgroup\$ – Chemus Aug 30 '16 at 4:31

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