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Many systems and settings specify what a spell consists of, where its power comes from, and what forms it takes from inception to casting. Earthdawn's weaving and spell matrices in particular come to mind.

In the Pathfinder campaign setting's lore or the Pathfinder RPG rules, what exactly is a spell (if it is defined at all)? Where does the arcane power of an arcane spell originate? Where do deities get their power, and how does it wind up in the Material Plane as a spell?

The Core Rulebook doesn't go further than noting it as a one-off magical effect, and neither the setting-focused Inner Sea Magic nor the core RPG line's Ultimate Magic go into further detail.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Considering that Pathfinder is not unlike other build-your-own-adventure style RPGs, there is a not insignificant chance that this particular bit of lore was left out purposefully. That way, each DM is free to create their own unique interpretation of what magic is and why it works within their realm; Or even not come up with a definite answer at all, in order to reinforce the notion that magic in their world simply has never been perfectly defined or understood. Since there is no pre-established answer, the DM doesn't have to worry about issues arising when going against the grain. \$\endgroup\$ – Zach Sep 24 '15 at 3:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zach The question's about the Golarion campaign setting, not about the Pathfinder system, excepting that Pathfinder might have an explanation of what spells are that Golarion, being a setting for Pathfinder, inherits by default. You might still be right about there being no specific explanation, though. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Sep 24 '15 at 7:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe To clarify; It is quite possible not only that there is no explanation to what magic is in Pathfinder, including all its various settings (e.g. Golarion), but that Paizo purposefully left out said explanation. If true, then there's a good chance that there never will be an 'official' explanation. \$\endgroup\$ – Zach Sep 25 '15 at 4:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zach If we could find some kind of public comment from Paizo to that effect, it'd be an excellent addition to SableGear's answer. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Sep 25 '15 at 5:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ One of my wizard characters once said, "I don't like sorcerers. No wizard likes sorcerers. I spent 20 years studying the formulaic nature of the universe. As a part of that study, I learned how and why there are people out there who can command the powers of magic just because they look good in tight pants." \$\endgroup\$ – quillbreaker Oct 16 '15 at 6:05
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(Taking a bit of a stab here, but let's see if I can clear things up a bit.)

The best definition of "Magic" i could find in a PF source is from the PathfinderWiki:

Magic is a naturally-occurring force used by many of Golarion's inhabitants. It is practiced in many different forms, with different ends and abilities, but it is almost always characterized by the use of words or gestures of power (and often expended material components) and the external production of some supernatural effect, be it arcane, divine, or psychic in nature. [Emphasis mine]

Thus it can be inferred that "Magic" is an existing force of the universe, maybe akin to gravity but more easily manipulated. Therefore "Spells" are those "one-time effects", temporary occurrences of magic channeled by creatures capable of wielding magic. It can also be inferred where magic comes from by examining the descriptions of different casting classes and what ability score they use as their casting stat.

We'll start with arcane casters: Wizards, Sorcerers, Magi, Arcanists and Bards. Arcane Magic seems to be less well-defined in official sources than Divine Magic.

  • Wizards, Magi and Arcanists use their INT for their casting stat. Whatever the source of magic is, they rely on long-term and intensive study of it to master its subtleties. It is implied that these classes are sort of like the physicists of magic, putting their studies into practice by harnessing the forces of the universe itself and bending it to their will.

  • Sorcerers and Bards use their CHA for their casting stat. The source of a sorcerer's magic is explicitly explained:

    Scions of innately magical bloodlines, the chosen of deities, the spawn of monsters, pawns of fate and destiny, or simply flukes of fickle magic, sorcerers look within themselves for arcane prowess and draw forth might few mortals can imagine.[...] these magic-touched souls endlessly indulge in and refine their mysterious abilities, gradually learning how to harness their birthright and coax forth ever greater arcane feats [Emphasis mine].

    A sorcerer uses their charisma, their own force of will and sense of self, to harness an internal power granted to them usually by inheriting some traits of their outsider/divine/infernal/cursed/draconic/etc. parentage or ancestry. Since a sorcerer's magic is not directly granted by a deity but something natural and inherent, it is considered arcane. Bards resort to their cleverness and force of will to accomplish a similar feat; less studious and more intuitive than the Wizard's/Magus's intensive study but producing the same reality-manipulating effect.

Conversely, the general source of Divine Magic is explicitly explained:

Unlike arcane spells, divine spells draw power from a divine source. Clerics gain spell power from deities or from divine forces. The divine force of nature powers druid and ranger spells, and the divine forces of law and good power paladin spells.

  • Clerics and Druids use their Wisdom as their casting stat. This implies they draw on a profound intuitive, instinctual or enlightened understanding of the world or their patron deity to manipulate magic. These abilities are granted to them by some higher power lending them its strength.

  • Paladins and Oracles use their Charisma as their casting stat. While paladins channel their ability to cast through the force of their staunch moral beliefs, Oracles (like Sorcerers) rely on their sense of self to control their inherent magic (still granted by some higher power but less direct than the attention given to Clerics).

  • Witches are a strange corner-case of hybrid arcane and divine magic. They use their Intelligence as their casting stat. By deepening her understanding of hr "Patron" power source, a witch expands her abilities.

    the witch draws her magic from a pact made with an otherworldly power. Communing with that source, using her familiar as a conduit, the witch gains not only a host of spells, but a number of strange abilities known as hexes. As a witch grows in power, she might learn about the source of her magic, but some remain blissfully unaware. Some are even afraid of that source, fearful of what it might be or where its true purposes lie.

I do not believe it is explicitly explained where the Gods get their power other than having ties to the very beginnings of reality and being a sort of intelligent manifestation of the universe itself (no quote, unfortunately, I'd have to sift through a lot of fragmented lore to justify this one). The intro to the PF book Gods and Magic gives some hints:

Creators of life, forgers of worlds, and rulers of reality—these are the gods and goddesses of the world. They have existed for eons. The countless worlds of the Great Beyond are their playgrounds and battlefields. [...] It is through their priests and paladins, their clerics and cultists that the gods make their will known in this world, be it for good or ill.

Personally, I was always under the impression that beyond their cosmic origins, Gods (in any mythological sense, not just PF) in part draw their power from their worshipers. Gods fade away and die out when their sects fail and there is no one left to empower them. In a lot of PF lore and item descriptions (again scattered) it is shown that the Gods can be killed by creatures of similar power (epic level PCs, other gods, etc.) so while they are ageless they are not necessarily indestructible.

I hope that helps in some way, And if not I hope it was at least interesting.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ AC current and DC current are both Electricity. So is a lightning bolt from above, and so is static electricity. Each is a slightly different form of electrical energy being transferred. Apply that anaolgy to magic and magical energy as you lay it out. Magic becomes "the same kind of energy form or force with different ways of manifesting it." Feel free to use that analogy to flesh out your explanation if you think it helps. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 24 '15 at 3:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ I always loved the 3.5 PHB phrase, "Sorcerers create magic the way poets write poems." Not PF-canon, maybe, but nothing else has really hit the mark quite as well I feel. \$\endgroup\$ – zeldredge Sep 24 '15 at 4:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for saying that there's no universal, definite answer that's been written down in a published source. It's hard to prove a negative, but I strongly suspect that this is the correct answer. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Sep 25 '15 at 0:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a side note on clerics; their magic is not strictly limited to coming from a deity. The option does exist for them to devote themselves to an ideal, in which case it is my understanding that they channel energies naturally aligned to one of the nine alignment-based planes. \$\endgroup\$ – Zach Sep 26 '15 at 9:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, SSD! I'm an admin at PathfinderWiki (which is unfortunately not an official Paizo source), and the quoted statement is noted as not having a source on the Wiki. Still, this is a great answer that boils down to a lot of hints but nothing definite. \$\endgroup\$ – Garrett Guillotte Sep 26 '15 at 20:31
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James Jacobs, as of about 3 hours ago:

They have not yet been described, by intent. Leaving it ambiguous is good for the game, because once we start setting down rules, we start limiting spell and item and story options involving magic.

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    \$\begingroup\$ So, your wizard is free to argue with the cleric about the nature of magic. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Sep 29 '15 at 5:43
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As the user above me mentioned, magic is a naturally-occurring force that magic-users can use, via one of their attributes.

However, there is another obscure magic class that is often over-looked.

Psionics: Psionics use magic derived from their own minds to "manifest" an object. The psionic can manifest the same power as much as he wants, but manifesting a power will always strain him physically. Higher-level powers have a higher strain, represented by power-point costs. The ability of the psionic to resist the strain is represented by power-points. Also, some psionics, like the Vitalist, create what is known as a collective amongst the player (or NPC) party, and some, like the Aegis or Soulknife, manifest helpful objects like armour (Aegis) or weapons (Soulknife), and can spend power-points to modify them.

Really, the purpose of the Psionic character is to make a character that uses the more common mana-based system instead of the spells per day system.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Psionics aren't obviously magic. Can you explain what the link is? \$\endgroup\$ – indigochild Sep 25 '15 at 20:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.se! Please take a look at the tour; it's a useful introduction to the site. So that this is a real answer on its own, it's preferable that it answer the question independently by including any necessary statements, and refer to other answers only to give due credit. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 25 '15 at 21:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure, I'll do that. \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath Sep 25 '15 at 21:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Psionics in Pathfinder is third party, published by Dreamscarred press. It therefore has nothing, or at least nothing official, to do with Golarion. \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o Sep 25 '15 at 21:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ But he asked "What is a spell?" not "Are Psionics canon?" \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath Nov 8 '15 at 18:26

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