Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

For the discussion of math. Duh.

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Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby GoodRudeFun » Sun May 17, 2009 6:38 pm UTC

Math is considered to be the language of the universe, as far as I know. So it seems reasonable to assume that a person in ancient times would see math as having some sort of supernatural power. So I've been thinking, math must have been used for all sorts of things. I can imagine people attempting to use it in ancient spells, and I'm positive it was used to make predictions (as it is even today, though of a less supernatural variety).

So, I was wondering if anyone could give me a few examples of math being seen as, or used for something highly powerful and "magical".

I would like to take this a bit further as well. I was thinking, spells take many different forms in fantasy novels, from words, to inscriptions, to thoughts and whims. However, in my personal experience I've never seen math play much of a role in any of these.

This saddens me, because as I've said, math could be considered the language of the universe. It also seems that magic would be considered the physics of a fictional reality. From this, it would seem that there could be so much depth added to the realization of a fictional world if one fleshed out the workings and mechanics of those fictional realities with real world sciences.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, and I need some feed back and thoughts on this idea.
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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby Naurgul » Sun May 17, 2009 6:47 pm UTC

Quick reply since dinner is ready: Check out the Pythagoreans.
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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby achan1058 » Sun May 17, 2009 8:11 pm UTC

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numerology

GoodRudeFun wrote:I would like to take this a bit further as well. I was thinking, spells take many different forms in fantasy novels, from words, to inscriptions, to thoughts and whims. However, in my personal experience I've never seen math play much of a role in any of these.
lvl 2 sleep, lvl 3 disable, lvl 4 break, lvl 5 death, and the like. Clearly someone haven't been playing Final Fantasy often. (These spells hits 100% of the time if your character level is divisible by x unless guarded, and 0% otherwise.)
Last edited by achan1058 on Sun May 17, 2009 8:20 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby t0rajir0u » Sun May 17, 2009 8:17 pm UTC

GoodRudeFun wrote:I can imagine people attempting to use it in ancient spells, and I'm positive it was used to make predictions (as it is even today, though of a less supernatural variety).

Along this idea, I would look at astronomy and calendars. The Mayans certainly ascribed a lot of importance to their five (seven?) calendars (modular arithmetic!) and I'm sure their astronomers were revered for this reason. You could argue that Stonehenge is a giant calculator.

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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby Buttons » Sun May 17, 2009 9:08 pm UTC

achan1058 wrote:lvl 2 sleep, lvl 3 disable, lvl 4 break, lvl 5 death, and the like. Clearly someone haven't been playing Final Fantasy often. (These spells hits 100% of the time if your character level is divisible by x unless guarded, and 0% otherwise.)
I'm disappointed that these spells didn't exist in WoW. Especially pre-Burning Crusade.

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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby btilly » Sun May 17, 2009 9:37 pm UTC

Look up numerology and astrology for examples of math being used in mystical ways.

For a piece of fiction that used computer science in an amusing way, read the Wizard's Bane series.
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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby jestingrabbit » Mon May 18, 2009 6:04 am UTC

I'd suggest that you try to get your hands on some of the writings attributed to trismegistus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermes_Trismegistus

and see how much of the time there is mention of numbers. Its a lot btw. Its my understanding that there are recipes and stuff in the writings, but I don't really know.
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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby PM 2Ring » Mon May 18, 2009 7:43 am UTC

Magic squares have a long connection with ceremonial / symbolic magic in several cultures.

Some magical systems have a connection to simple group theory, eg astrology (as well as its more obvious connections to the maths required to calculate planetary positions). Much astrological interpretation involves treating as symbolically significant the various symmetries of a circle, especially those that relate to dividing a circle into 12 equal sectors.

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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby GoodRudeFun » Tue May 19, 2009 12:20 am UTC

Thanks guys.

I already figured math played a heavy role in astrology and was big among both the Greeks and the Mayans in a spiritual way. Though I was kinda hoping for a little more in the use of math when directly concerned with "spells".

What I'm going for here is to create a setting for a fantasy type novel where math is heavily used in spells and such. I was considering bringing it deeper with adding parallels between magical fields and real world scientific fields (alchemy-chemistry for example). Just because it'd add a lot of depth. Most of my thinking on this is probably more appropriate for the books forum... though imagine mechanical engineers working closely with top magicians, creating magical robots... awesome, no? Or a magical version of a biologist turning necromancer....

Something else I'd like to ask though, what kind of math would you like to see used in spells? I probably wouldn't make it too integral to any plot, so as to keep it accessible to readers who aren't as adept at math. I'm not too adept myself, but I plan to keep learning above my current ability. Anyways, what would be interesting to see paralleled in magic?
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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby t0rajir0u » Tue May 19, 2009 12:28 am UTC

GoodRudeFun wrote:imagine mechanical engineers working closely with top magicians, creating magical robots... awesome, no?

Final Fantasy VI, no? ;)

GoodRudeFun wrote:Something else I'd like to ask though, what kind of math would you like to see used in spells? I probably wouldn't make it too integral to any plot, so as to keep it accessible to readers who aren't as adept at math. I'm not too adept myself, but I plan to keep learning above my current ability. Anyways, what would be interesting to see paralleled in magic?

That's problematic. Any math that you don't understand you run the risk of misrepresenting, and I'm not a fan of seeing mathematical and scientific ideas mangled in fiction, so try to stay away from physics and other high-concept ideas. But something I would like to have represented more thoroughly in popular culture is symmetry, that is, group theory. If you could work [imath]E_8[/imath] or the Leech lattice (or, hell, even the Platonic solids) in somewhere as part of a mystical object, that might be interesting. (Don't call them by name, of course.)

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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby GoodRudeFun » Tue May 19, 2009 12:49 am UTC

t0rajir0u wrote:
GoodRudeFun wrote:imagine mechanical engineers working closely with top magicians, creating magical robots... awesome, no?

Final Fantasy VI, no? ;)

GoodRudeFun wrote:Something else I'd like to ask though, what kind of math would you like to see used in spells? I probably wouldn't make it too integral to any plot, so as to keep it accessible to readers who aren't as adept at math. I'm not too adept myself, but I plan to keep learning above my current ability. Anyways, what would be interesting to see paralleled in magic?

That's problematic. Any math that you don't understand you run the risk of misrepresenting, and I'm not a fan of seeing mathematical and scientific ideas mangled in fiction, so try to stay away from physics and other high-concept ideas. But something I would like to have represented more thoroughly in popular culture is symmetry, that is, group theory. If you could work [imath]E_8[/imath] or the Leech lattice (or, hell, even the Platonic solids) in somewhere as part of a mystical object, that might be interesting. (Don't call them by name, of course.)

Actually, just something I came up with on my own, not from final fantasy. Somewhat influenced from a book about an engineer in a feudal era setting making highly advanced machines.

But eh, beaten to the punch I guess :P


I don't understand much of it now, but I'm not staying at this level for long. When I get the chance I'm going to start learning as fast as I can (for fun, I enjoy teaching myself math where possible >.>). At any rate, the book is probably a bit far off, I'll probably work on plot and lore, and wait to add any links to real world fields until I understand them enough to not butcher them (it is always annoying when you can't get into a book as much because you keep correcting it in your mind).

Unfortunately I have a lot of work to do in my understanding of math... so far I'm only where I would be with regular classes and because of a few issues that's only in early algebra. I've never had any trouble with math, just trouble turning in the work. Tangents aside... I probably wont understand alot of the suggestions people have... though I'll do my best.
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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby Incompetent » Fri May 22, 2009 12:45 am UTC

GoodRudeFun wrote:Math is considered to be the language of the universe, as far as I know. So it seems reasonable to assume that a person in ancient times would see math as having some sort of supernatural power. So I've been thinking, math must have been used for all sorts of things. I can imagine people attempting to use it in ancient spells, and I'm positive it was used to make predictions (as it is even today, though of a less supernatural variety).


You're assuming ancient people had the kind of maths knowledge needed to realise the power of it. Even modern people, who are surrounded by applications of maths in every aspect of their lives, still often like to think that maths is just some arcane nonsense they were forced to attempt to learn at school.

(BTW, I don't see why you need a fantasy world in which maths is used heavily for 'spells'. That world is our own - to the average person, the advanced applications of maths might as well be magic spells. What you might want to go for is a world that has access to very advanced mathematical knowledge from an earlier time, but society has since 'regressed' to the point where nobody really understands the theory behind the old maths, only how to use it for practical applications.)

The main limitation at the moment to applying maths is not how much is known collectively, but the difficulties of coordinating people's knowledge. Even a professional mathematician only gets to understand a tiny corner of the state of the art, and they have trouble helping even other mathematicians with their problems due to communication barriers. I think the real mathemagic will come once we have intelligences powerful enough to have a shot at understanding a large part of modern maths all at once. Complex human systems like governments, large companies or even circles of friends will look laughably dysfunctional and cack-handed once somebody gets enough perspective to frame the problems properly and try to solve them.


I've sometimes had this strange idea: what if you had a fantasy world that is genuinely as 'unmathematical' as superstitious people seem to imagine our world to be? I don't mean just a few magic spells here and there, I mean you take popular but false beliefs (in our world) like gambler's fallacy, assume them to be true, and extrapolate. Such a world would be extremely weird at one level, but maybe humans would be able to cope with it because our flawed 'common sense' happens to accord with how this place works. But then you'd get 'magicians' who'd find clever ways to take these strange physics and use them to do things that aren't possible in our world...

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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby btilly » Fri May 22, 2009 3:57 pm UTC

Incompetent wrote:
GoodRudeFun wrote:Math is considered to be the language of the universe, as far as I know. So it seems reasonable to assume that a person in ancient times would see math as having some sort of supernatural power. So I've been thinking, math must have been used for all sorts of things. I can imagine people attempting to use it in ancient spells, and I'm positive it was used to make predictions (as it is even today, though of a less supernatural variety).

You're assuming ancient people had the kind of maths knowledge needed to realise the power of it. Even modern people, who are surrounded by applications of maths in every aspect of their lives, still often like to think that maths is just some arcane nonsense they were forced to attempt to learn at school.

No assumption necessary. History is full of evidence that ancient people saw math as having supernatural importance. As a random example in ancient Egypt part of the power of the priesthood was that they were the only ones who knew enough math to figure out where everyone's land should be after the annual flood. For this reason knowledge of zero was restricted knowledge, and the wrong person could be killed for knowing it.
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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby skeptical scientist » Fri May 22, 2009 5:40 pm UTC

t0rajir0u wrote:
GoodRudeFun wrote:imagine mechanical engineers working closely with top magicians, creating magical robots... awesome, no?

Final Fantasy VI, no? ;)

Also just about every steampunk setting ever.
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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby GoodRudeFun » Sat May 23, 2009 6:11 am UTC

skeptical scientist wrote:
t0rajir0u wrote:
GoodRudeFun wrote:imagine mechanical engineers working closely with top magicians, creating magical robots... awesome, no?

Final Fantasy VI, no? ;)

Also just about every steampunk setting ever.

Actually, yeah, it does borrow some from steampunk, though I was under the impression that steampunk tech was powered by mechanics and steam, with little in the way of magic or arcane power sources... am I wrong? I haven't read enough steampunk I'm afraid...

seems from what wikipedia has to say, it generally depends on the book.

Incompetent wrote:
GoodRudeFun wrote:Math is considered to be the language of the universe, as far as I know. So it seems reasonable to assume that a person in ancient times would see math as having some sort of supernatural power. So I've been thinking, math must have been used for all sorts of things. I can imagine people attempting to use it in ancient spells, and I'm positive it was used to make predictions (as it is even today, though of a less supernatural variety).


You're assuming ancient people had the kind of maths knowledge needed to realise the power of it. Even modern people, who are surrounded by applications of maths in every aspect of their lives, still often like to think that maths is just some arcane nonsense they were forced to attempt to learn at school.

(BTW, I don't see why you need a fantasy world in which maths is used heavily for 'spells'. That world is our own - to the average person, the advanced applications of maths might as well be magic spells. What you might want to go for is a world that has access to very advanced mathematical knowledge from an earlier time, but society has since 'regressed' to the point where nobody really understands the theory behind the old maths, only how to use it for practical applications.)

The main limitation at the moment to applying maths is not how much is known collectively, but the difficulties of coordinating people's knowledge. Even a professional mathematician only gets to understand a tiny corner of the state of the art, and they have trouble helping even other mathematicians with their problems due to communication barriers. I think the real mathemagic will come once we have intelligences powerful enough to have a shot at understanding a large part of modern maths all at once. Complex human systems like governments, large companies or even circles of friends will look laughably dysfunctional and cack-handed once somebody gets enough perspective to frame the problems properly and try to solve them.


I've sometimes had this strange idea: what if you had a fantasy world that is genuinely as 'unmathematical' as superstitious people seem to imagine our world to be? I don't mean just a few magic spells here and there, I mean you take popular but false beliefs (in our world) like gambler's fallacy, assume them to be true, and extrapolate. Such a world would be extremely weird at one level, but maybe humans would be able to cope with it because our flawed 'common sense' happens to accord with how this place works. But then you'd get 'magicians' who'd find clever ways to take these strange physics and use them to do things that aren't possible in our world...

Some ancient cultures did have the understanding needed. Ancient Greece and Mayan civilizations for one...

Transhumanism might give us the kind of ability you describe. Assuming we can really develop the technology to to make it work like that....
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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby PM 2Ring » Sat May 23, 2009 8:06 am UTC

btilly wrote:As a random example in ancient Egypt part of the power of the priesthood was that they were the only ones who knew enough math to figure out where everyone's land should be after the annual flood. For this reason knowledge of zero was restricted knowledge, and the wrong person could be killed for knowing it.

Do you have a reference for that? The Babylonians (and possibly the Chaldeans) had some primitive ideas of zero, but I don't think the ancient Egyptians did. Although I guess it'd be hard to find references if it was secret knowledge...

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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby skeptical scientist » Sat May 23, 2009 11:31 am UTC

GoodRudeFun wrote:seems from what wikipedia has to say, it generally depends on the book.

I haven't read that much - the steampunk setting I'm most familiar with definitely has a good bit of magic.
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Re: Math's role in magic, myths, and legends

Postby GoodRudeFun » Sun May 24, 2009 6:36 am UTC

skeptical scientist wrote:
GoodRudeFun wrote:seems from what wikipedia has to say, it generally depends on the book.

I haven't read that much - the steampunk setting I'm most familiar with definitely has a good bit of magic.
I've only read one book that could be considered steampunk, and there was really no magic involved... no steam either that I can remember.


though I still like the idea. Maybe I need to read more lol
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