“The wizard closes his eyes and plants his feet firmly. Soon, he feels a spreading warmth rising from his feet flowing up his legs and filling his trunk. There, he focuses his mind on the growing reservoir of mana, willing it into the appropriate shape. Stretching his hand…”
Mana. Every gamer knows what mana is. It’s magical electricity, right? It’s the stuff that powers magic. Thanks to video games, most people call MP “mana points” rather than “magic points” and every Magic: the Gathering player knows you tap land to draw out the mana and use it to fuel your spells. Mana is also present in fantasy literature, apparently first being mentioned by Larry Niven in his fantasy novels in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
So, where does the word come from? You might be tempted to think (given the associate with magic and miracles) that it comes from the Bible. In the Book of Exodus, after the Israelites had escaped Egypt and Moses had lead them into the desert, the people were starving. And the Lord responded by causing manna to fall from the sky. The light, flaky stuff is generally translated as bread and probably comes from the Egyptian word for food “menna.” But that probably isn’t where we get “mana” from.
Mana is actually a word from several Polynesian and Pacific Islands languages for, get this, magical energy. Actually, some scholars theorize it comes from the name for lightning and thunder. Actually, the origin of the word is a bit more complicated than that and scholars are still debating the origins of the word and what it meant to various cultures across the Pacific. But the word is still a part of contemporary cultures. For some Hawaiians, for instance, mana refers to a spiritual life energy that people and places posesses and that can be built up with a life of purpose and harmony, as Charlotte Berney described in “Fundementals of Hawaiian Mysticism.” (That’s right, an actual reference).
But let’s go with a more ancient example of mana. Let’s head to Easter Island and talk about the moai. The moai are those giant, oblong head statues built by the Rapa Nui sometime between 800 CE and 1,200 CE. These 900 stone monoliths stand, on average, 13 ft (4 m) tall and weigh about 14 tons (12,700 kg). According to Rapa Nui legend, the stones were empowered with mana and commanded to walk into place. Which seemed like as good an explanation as any.
See, it was something of a mystery, how the Rapa Nui people moved those giant stone heads and put them in place. When explorers came to Easter Island in the late 1,700’s, they found the island completely devoid of trees. In theory, you could construct big rollers from the trees to help move those giant stones. But with no trees, that’s kind of tricky. Some theorized that huge groups of people used ropes to rock the statues back and forth, slowly walking them to their destination. More recently, archaeologists discovered pollen remnants in the soil that indicated that there had been plenty of trees on Easter Island and that the ecology had somehow collapsed, leaving a barren, soil-covered island behind.
Even with that mystery solved (or at least buried under mountains of circumstantial evidence, no one today knows why the Rapa Nui built the statues nor what they represent).
Meanwhile, mana, the force of energy that powers magic. In your fantasy game world, what is it? Where does it come from? Is it a natural force or was it created by the gods? Do wizards create it? Do they bottle it up? Or do they simply open themselves up and let it flow through them? What if, as some Hawaiians believe, mana is built up by living a the right kind of life and being in the right mental state? What sort of implications might that have? What if wizards had to keep themselves somehow spiritually pure to be a conduit for mana? There’s all these great world-building possibilities just waiting to be explored.
Of course, if you don’t feel like doing all that world-building crap, you can just beat your PCs to death with giant statues empowered by mana. That’s fun too.