Geek Etymology – Mana

Today I bring you the next post of Geek Etymology! If you missed my first steps into the past of our favourite geeky terminology then take a look here!

This time I will be tackling the mysterious origins of the word that we give to the power source of wizards and spellcasters, the very essence of magic: Mana! It’s in our name so I thought it was the obvious next choice. Unlike with the Paladin last time, there is far less actual etymology to follow with the evolution of the word, so I won’t be going down much of a rabbit hole this time. The origins of this word are however still rather interesting and maybe unexpected.


Before we attempt to figure out where this word came from and how it entered our common geek speech, we should first look at what ‘mana’ currently means to us today. Typically associated with various games, including card games, RPGs and videogames, mana is the term that is generally accepted to refer to the resource or pool of points that are spent in order to perform feats of magic. Usually this is interpreted as the magic user’s own mystical energy that may either be innate to them, or perhaps it is drawn to them from the life of the world around them. It is generally seen as being a recoverable resource that you can regain either by consuming specific potions or other items, or simply over time and with some rest. Depending on the setting, it could be a finite resource, such as in Dragon Age where mana is replenished through the use of a crystal substance called ‘lyrium’. In other settings where mana can be simply gained over time, through rest, or the consumption of any beverage, it would seem that mana is interpreted as a more physilogical energy within the user, and low mana may be seen as a magical fatigue. Whichever way mana is interpreted, it is generally used as a way to balance magic users as part of a game system, giving a reason for why a wizard is not all-powerful and conventional warriors are still of use. They not only have a skill requirement for the use of powerful magic, but it takes a lot of energy to cast something particularly potent, and a lot of time or money would be spent in the accumulation and recovery of the required mana, making powerful spells rarer and more difficult and risky to perform.

So when and where did this term first appear in our geeky sphere? Well unlike many would expect, it doesn’t actually first come into use in D&D or any other Roleplaying Game. D&D instead applies the logic that spells take time to prepare for use and only so many can be remembered for a short period. Instead we must look too literature, specifically Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away series. The first in this series: Not Long Before the End, which was published in 1969, is where the term first comes into modern use as a resource of energy that is used to fuel acts of magic. In this story there is a finite amount of mana on earth, and the magical beings and societies that consume it eventually overuse it and fade into myth, resulting in our disappointingly magic-less modern world. After this it is hard to see where the term becomes popularized, but many games started to move away from using MP or ‘Magic Points’, and substituted it with mana, one early example of this is the videogame Dungeon Master in 1987. One of the more pivotal influences in the use of the term came from Magic: The Gathering, which since release in 1993 has continued to use mana. Videogames were then apparently influenced by MTG to start using mana, such as the Warcraft series since it’s second game released in 1995, and then the hugely popular World of Warcraft arguably turning mana into an increasingly common term for millions upon millions of players over many years.



Well now that we know where our current use of mana began, we should ask where it actually came from. Did Larry Niven just make up a word for his book in the 60s? Well, no. Mana is originally found as a word in Austronesian languages and is a part of Polynesian and Pacific cultures. In this case the term is generally seen to mean ‘power, effectiveness and prestige’. Similarities to mana have been found in early western religion such as animism. Depending on specific culture, mana can have various meanings. In Polynesian culture it is generally considered to be a sacred force that gives you influence and authority. It can be a part of a person, but also a location or object, and can be gained through birth and warfare. In Hawaiian culture, mana is also seen as a healing power, as well as energy, and they considered a certain island to have strong mana, leading to wars being fought over possession of it. In Māori culture, there are many different types of mana, some that represent authority over territory, some that are about certain types of wealth, and some that refer to one’s connection to the surrounding land and tribal groups. In many cases it is very hard to translate and define the different meanings given to mana in these cultures as they can be so different to our own understandings and language. With some I have ended up with circular definitions where two unknown words refer to each other. The complexity for translation of details about mana is summed up well by the New Zealand Ministry of Justice:
“Mana and tapu are concepts which have both been attributed single-worded definitions by contemporary writers. As concepts, especially Maori concepts they can not easily be translated into a single English definition. Both mana and tapu take on a whole range of related meanings depending on their association and the context in which they are being used.”
But overall, it appears that our modern use of mana, although fairly simplified, also has its many uses and interpretations, and generally aligns with the core meaning of a supernatural and spiritual source of power.


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