Problems with “-mancy”

I have no shame in admitting that I’m a stickler for being correct, whether it’s understanding the full import or something or getting something right on a technicality (no better lie than a half-truth, after all).  This is especially prominent when it comes to the precise meanings of words, where I go by a combination of looking at a word’s meaning, both prescriptive (what it’s authoritatively supposed to mean), descriptive (how people actually mean it in usage), and historical (how the word developed through etymology).  Past posts of mine have used this technique, especially involving different names for rituals.  After all, if you’re going to wax authoritatively on what something should be called, you should at least have the decency of both doing it right and being right.

Probably the most ill-understood suffix or root in modern magic usage is the word “manteia”, from Greek meaning “sight”.  Manteia referred to, historically, any method of obtaining knowledge or communication via occult means, or divination.  Because Greek shares a trait of agglutinating words onto other words to make a more nuanced concept, the word “manteia” was affixed onto any other word that indicated the method of divination.  Many of these words survive in English or are easily Anglicized: pyromancy for “divination with fire”, geomancy for “divination with earth”, grammatomancy for “divination with letters”, necromancy (originally nekuomancy) with “divination with the dead”.  The prefix to “-mancy” here just denoted the vague notion of how the divination was performed; consider geomancy, which though literally might imply crystals or scrying using patterns of dirt or earth, actually indicates the use of a particular set of figures that were originally drawn in earth or sand.  A more nuanced word isn’t necessary, since words are just labels after all, although I’m sure 15-part words could easily be constructed that would clearly delineate the method of divination within that very word.  For reasons of convenience, this just isn’t done, except for comedic relief.

Of course, the suffix “-mancy” nowadays refers to any number of things that simply aren’t divination.  I consider this partially the fault of a lot of role playing games that try to be fancy with their names, calling the ability to set fire with the mind “pyromancy” or conjuring water elementals “hydromancy”.  This type of naming (which might more appropriately use “-magy” or “-kinesis) is still wrong, though I can’t blame modern gamers alone in this.  Consider that ancient art of necromancy, the ability to commune with the dead.  In order to do such a thing and get knowledge from the dead, one has to first find ways of opening up a channel of communication with the dead and “raise” them, so to speak.  This was recognized in ancient times as it was in medieval, Renaissance, and modern times, and requires no small skill in other magical practices to get started.  Indeed, necromancy was one of the explicitly proscribed arts in the Inquisition and by the Church for centuries (still is, even), but the art as a whole was practiced with the intent and goal of obtaining information from the dead.  The rest of the show was mere gimmickry and ritual for the sake of obtaining information, holy or infernal as it might be.

In fact, a lot of misattribution of magic to “-mancy” can be lead at the feet of people in medieval/Renaissance Europe who didn’t fully grasp the meaning or point of having a divination system named using “-mancy” (or “-mantia” if they were writing in Latin).  Consider my biggest pet peeve with geomancy, which is when people confuse it with feng shui.  The distinction between a divination system using earth-originating symbols and propitious interior/landscape designing is pretty damn big, especially considering the massive theological, philosophical, and cultural gulfs between the two arts.  However, when European missionaries and tourists went to China and Korea and found local holy men or teachers practicing feng shui, they thought they were doing some kind of funky earth magic, and since the missionaries were (at least officially) forbidden from learning actual magic or the distinctions between different magical practices, they thought “geomancy” was a proper word to translate as feng shui because “why not, they sound similar, let’s just go with that”.  And, from that standpoint, modern New Agers thought “geomancy” could also be applied to the study of sacred geography and ley lines, which is also wrong and even more different from the original divinatory art than feng shui was.

If, dear reader, you insist on either using a “-mancy” word to describe a magical practice, make sure it follows these two simple rules: you’re actually referring to a method of divination and not some other kind of magical, sacred, or philosophical practice, and that you’re prefixing “-mancy” with the core tool or method by which you plan to do that divination.  For instance, if you want to use a fancy word to describe Tarot divination, say “cartomancy”, meaning “divination by cards” (which is what Tarot essentially is).  As a rule, the more generic the word you’re using to describe the method, the better; you don’t need to say “taromancy” because that’s stupid and sounds like you’re divining using taro roots instead, especially when people who use other oracle decks or even do old-fashioned playing card divination fit into the same general field and method that you do.  Similarly, if you’re reading runes, you might go with “grammatomancy”, which is broad enough to cover any method of divination that reads letters; if you’re using whole words (in one way or another), you might use “logomancy”; if using books, “bibliomancy”, and so forth.  If there’s another word entirely that better describes your divination system (such as “haruspicy” for reading intestines, or another culturally-appropriate term for a different system like ifa), use that instead.  Also, try to stick to using Greek prefixes or Latinate prefixes with clear Greek origins: say “arithmancy” for divination using numerology instead of “numbermancy” or “digitomancy”.  And be sure the word you’re using actually means something; using “alphamancy” to refer to a method of divination involving the random generation of words from alphabetic tiles is cute but doesn’t actually mean anything, lest you want to use varying positions of the letter A to indicate meaning.

In the end, just be right about what you want to label your shit, because don’t nobody wanna get confused anymore.  Ain’t nobody got time for that.

7 responses

    • Judika Illes, no less, a fairly respected author (as far as I can ascertain). Apparently the technique is widespread in Asia and…Italy? Or something? I don’t even.

      • of course it’s widespread in Asia- oracle bones inscribed with characters, heated, and then read. Among the oldest of reading traditions there. Just a more modern take on it, I suppose

        • I’m not sure that method of divination is practiced anymore, if you’re referring to the oracle bones like the earliest-form-of-Chinese-writing oracle bones. And the method is a lot more different; I suppose a comparative Chinese method would be to randomly select hanzi and see what phrase results, or randomly combine a bunch of radicals into something that looks like a hanzi.

      • More seriously, I think that there is an interesting conversation to be had about the legitimacy of back-formations. Context is everything. For example: When some people use “-mancy” as a generic suffix for magic are pointedly evoking the linguistic stream of misunderstandings which led to the shifting of “necromancy” from “conjuring the dead for knowledge” to “binding the dead to your will”, and in the context of a cheap fantasy novel or D&D game, I have no issue with that. On the other hand, when someone purporting to be a well-educated magician does the same thing, they’ve just chopped off their own credibility at the root.

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