Magic spells

This is background information about how magic spells work in Ra. This is information that I've been keeping up to date since the story began, but now it can be released publically.

This article contains one serious spoiler for anybody who hasn't finished reading chapter 18, Deeper Magic, and mild spoilers beyond that point. In fact, you should probably read the whole of Ra to date before reading this. This is reference information; Ra is the real story.

The language of magic

The (spoken) language of magic is called "" (the empty string). Or rather, it calls itself this. This has been demonstrated experimentally:

  1. The language of magic has a pronouncable name for itself.
  2. This name contains no syllables.

Like many languages, magic has an alphabet, a vocabulary, a grammar and an accent. The language is convoluted, ugly to look at and difficult to speak correctly. Like natural languages, it has very good expressive power and numerous inconsistencies/edge cases. Like programming languages, it demands rigid correctness from its speaker. The study of this language is called thaumolinguistics.

Spells are written entirely in lower-case, except when words are capitalised for the beginning of a sentence.

The spoken words of a spell rarely completely describe it. Much complexity is offloaded to the mind of the casting mage and to the physical equipment being used to perform it. More advanced equipment can be used to reduce the mental load for casting a spell. Equally, a spell can usually be made much shorter by increasing the mental load. A spell with zero or close to zero mental load is called a "fullspell".

Spells can be very long and very difficult to recite from scratch. However, once a series of magic words has been pronounced without error it can be bound to an identifier and/or a physical object and accessed "shorthand" afterwards. The identifier is written in CAPITALS. Accessing the spell "shorthand" saves the effort of speaking the words again, but it doesn't save much of the effort of thinking them. Like mental arithmetic, however, stored spells become simpler to recall and execute after time has passed and they have been used multiple times.

There is no danger in discussing spells verbatim. The use/mention distinction is very clear - for a spell to actually take effect, one must actively use the words. This also enables mages to break away while speaking a spell to "comment" normally. In the text of Ra, magic words that are being "used" are wrapped in <code> tags and look like this.

True Names

Before carrying out magic, every mage must choose an identifier or "True Name". This identifier almost always has to be used when casting a spell, in order to authorise the retrieval of mana from the mage's reserves. Identifiers are written in lower case except when capitalised for the beginning of a sentence. Identifier choice is constrained in the same way that magical spell language is. Arbitrary identifiers are generally not available.

Identifiers don't have to be unique. However, if you cast a spell using your own identifier and another mage nearby has the same identifier as you, your spell will fail up to 50% of the time, with the percentage probability of failure diminishing as separation distance increases. It is not possible to steal another mage's mana.

Mages can only use one identifier at a time, but can switch between multiple legal identifiers at will, which is called "aliasing". Typically, mages choose one "away" identifier for use in the event of a collision.

Knowing another mage's True Name(s) (or real name(s), for that matter) is of absolutely no consequence.

List of known True Names

Laura Ferno dulaku
Rachel Ferno kasta
Natalie Ferno zui
Dan Czarnecki kzarn
Haukur Tómasson astata
Benj Clarke ennee
Jeremy Willan tolo
Edward Hatt fib
Suravaram Vidyasagaraum
Rajesh Vidyasagar aum
Kazuya Tanako penamba
Anil Devi thelet

Suravaram Vidyasagar bound the identifier "aum" to himself accidentally in the early stages of casting the first magic spell in 1971. Rajesh Vidyasagar bound the same identifier to himself when he successfully duplicated his father's spell. The significance of identifiers was not discovered until some time after this.

Benj Clarke's identifier was originally given as "adaba" in What You Don't Know, but this became "ennee" later due to a continuity error. "What You Don't Know" was edited to reflect the new identifier.

Geological mana is bound to a mage Named "ra". Corollary: nobody can steal/use geological mana, not even by binding the True Name "ra" to themselves.

Spent mana/waste mana is bound to no mage (null owner). This can be accessed and spent again using an advanced aliasing technique, developed by Laura Ferno in The Seventh Impossible Thing after techniques taught her by Rachel Ferno.

Example spells

The first magic spell to be discovered was "uum". This spell means "do nothing, return success". Compare with the Buddhist om and with the Unix command true.

"Eset" is the shortest and simplest spell which actually does anything; it emits a tiny quantity of mana from the subject, which typically is transformed into useful forms of energy by nearby magical objects and other mages. "Eset" is usually used as a form of "thaumic ping", using the echo to ascertain information about the objects and people in question. It's also somewhat like dropping a drop of ink into water to observe the nearby currents. Another mage will usually be able to detect "eset" being cast.

This longer example is from the first chapter, Thaumic City:

"Dulaku surutai jiha, twenty you em"

The interpretation is:

[dulaku] "Emit thermal energy from my right hand, 20 micrometres"

Dulaku is the True Name of the casting mage. The passage surutai jiha does most of the complex work. The words twenty, you and em are acting as parameters. These words are not pre-existing in the language of magic, but binding these words to their meanings ("20", "micro" and "metres") is standard practice in the English-speaking magical engineering community.

Notable magic words

Word Meaning
sedo Best translation is "likewise"
oerin "Begin procedure" or possibly "fork"
alef Infinity
konung "Erase syllable". Ironically, this word is quite easy to mispronounce
ixuv/thono "End spell"/"End spell immediately"
a al anh a'u ay A sequence of elementary syllables, the magical equivalent of "alpha beta gamma delta epsilon"


Although this was not intentional, but possibly inevitable, the language of magic in Ra bears a striking resemblance to the Hoon programming language. Hoon is real, but whether Hoon is for real is debatable.

An example program in Hoon is:

++  dec
      ~/  %dec
      |=  a=@
      ^-  @
      ?<  =(0 a)
      =+  b=@
      ?:  =(a +(b))
      $(b +(b))

which is pronounced

"Luslus dec sigfas cen dec bartis a tis pat sigbar soq dec soq ketcab pat wutgal tis pel zero a per tislus b tis pat barhep wutcol tis pel a lus pel b per per b buc pel b lus pel b per per."

Discussion (24)

2014-02-04 02:02:57 by trainbrain:

It looks like your Hoon link is broken.

2014-02-04 02:20:24 by Mike:

Ragdoll Physicist has a lot of instances of "ibra oniki", what does that do? It often occurs before Names, which made me think it had something to do with aliasing, but then there's "ibra oniki opint* five cee amag ennee" which means that either that's wrong or the syntax can get really weird. * "point", as in "0.5c"?

2014-02-04 06:13:56 by Twey:

The Hoon documentation I assume was to be referenced is currently at .

2014-02-04 07:04:48 by Bauglir:

I have two questions, which either won't be answered or are irrelevant probably. Was geological mana bound to ra before Kazuya Tanako's death? If so, did he ever experience inexplicable spell failure? I'd suppose not, but it'd be interesting to know if Magic considers not-Tanako ra to have a geographical location.

2014-02-04 08:50:43 by qntm:

Thank you for the link, I have fixed it. I wrote this essay a little while ago and didn't release it until now, I guess the link broke in the mean time.

2014-02-04 08:55:11 by qntm:

Kazuya Tanako would never have been able to use "ra" as his identifier if "ra" was also bound to geological mana. Half of his spells would have failed. In "Daemons", Laura tries aliasing as Ra, and sees exactly this behaviour. Half of her spells take effect as normal, using Laura's mana. The other half fail. The implication is that Ra is omnipresent...

2014-02-04 09:58:57 by yew:

Do we actually know that Tanako used "ra" as his True Name? As information from the narration or a party that knew him before he 'died'? If we do, that implies a relatively recent change in ownership of geological mana . . . I can't find a reference apart from Ra/Tanako telling Laura in "Deeper Magic", though.

2014-02-04 21:38:37 by MichaelGrosberg:

Can one mage use another's shorthand identifier or magical item to cast a complex spell he himself hasn't bothered to learn in full? I remember when I was reading Harry Potter it that all we saw was magic *users* - the equivalent of highly skilled video gamers or people who know all the keyboard shortcuts in Microsoft Word - but we never got to see the magic programmers who create spells. Is there in the Ra universe some equivalent of a non-programmer magic user?

2014-02-05 01:55:05 by MichaelSzegedy:

@MichaelGrosberg No, apparently you need to fully understand a spell before casting it (except if you have an astra). Maybe you could have someone understand it for you, but you'd need to carry them around with you, and what would be the point? Laura is the closest thing there is to this, because she is doing mostly using right now and little understanding.

2014-02-07 10:17:13 by TJSomething:

I found Hoon in the Google Cache:

2014-02-07 10:20:51 by TJSomething:

Or I could have found where they actually moved the page to:

2014-02-10 11:37:37 by Solus:

"The words twenty, you and em are acting as parameters [...] their meanings ("20", "micro" and "metres")" "You" for 'micro'? Not "mu"?

2014-02-11 03:56:09 by Daniel:

2014-02-11 03:56:16 by Daniel:

You say there is still the ful mental load for casting spells shorthand; does this mean there's a reason to not use fullspells for this? If I often need to, eg, use an invisibility cloak, and I can bind whatever spell I want to “INVISO”, why would I say “<name> oerinuum INVISO” while thinking about everything in your relevant article, when I could just say “<name> oerinuum INVISO” without thinking? Obviously it would take longer to get the words out the first time, but would it also take longer to devise the words or be harder to bind or some other larger cost? Also, if I bind a spell to an object for shorthand use, is it bound just for me, or for everybody? If the latter, could I bimd a fullspell to an object and give it to a non-mage to use? If that's theoretically possible, would they still need to bind and use a True Name to use the device?

2014-02-12 01:49:22 by Mike:

Well, Laura gave Natalie the shield thing in Sufficiently Advanced Technology.

2014-02-13 11:35:00 by MorkaisChosen:

Natalie was already a mage with a bound truename.

2014-06-19 20:49:53 by anonymouse:

One question that came to my mind only recently: there are a couple of cases where a character is talking (a bit of expository monologue in both cases, as it happens), and then drops a sentence of magic words in the middle of his speech (and they're highlighted in the "magic" style, so presumably spoken as spells). What, if any, significance or effect do these have? They sound like they're snippets of foreign language being used to make a point that's hard to say in English, or something, but isn't the language of magic mostly just various elaborate forms of commands, rather than a full language usable for talking about the weather (or even about the theory of magic)? In particular, "Ki no luokotomamba nuolo a la ra pemba kastela!" and "Alath menaremba baltakrilakta cho malatha." are the two quotes I'm talking about here.

2014-06-22 16:56:15 by qntm:

I invite you to invent your own interpretation for those.

2014-07-29 06:52:01 by Moss:

Here's a random thought: "", the language of magic, is basically an interpreted programming language. It has a regular, logical syntax, even allows the creation of macros. I find myself wondering in there are possible security holes in "" itself. Exploits, maybe something similar to SQL injection, which would allow a specially crafted spell to cause ra to execute arbitrary code.

2014-09-11 18:30:32 by Sabin:

I think your Hoon translation is slightly off: Luslus dec: ++ dec sigfas cen dec: ~/ %dec bartis a tis pat: |= a=@ sigbar soq dec soq: %MISSING% ketcab pat: ^- @ wutgal tis pel zero a per: ?< =(0 a) tislus b tis pat: =+ b=@ barhep: |- wutcol tis pel a lus pel b per per: ?: =(a +(b)) b: b buc pel b lus pel b per per: $(b +(b)) What should be in place of the missing code is ~|'dec'

2018-05-01 12:31:14 by meterion:

I had a small thought regarding the linguistic difficulty in using magic and the ability to rebind magical words using a spell, and I'm not sure if anyone's mentioned it here before. It is apparently standard practice in the English magE community to bind the meanings of SI units to their English pronunciations, perhaps in the form of some "def" statement. Is this arbitrarily limited to numbers, units, and true names, or could the entire language of magic be remapped by a mage with enough time and tedium? It seems to me that this would be a clever exploit to get around most of the linguistic constraints of magic, as well as obfuscating any spells one would cast publicly which would be quite useful in self-defense situations. It would also be a way to use those theoretical spells that are extremely efficient to use and all but impossible to physically pronounce, as mentioned by Natalie at some point in the story. Is this something the Wheel group noticed or predicted and put some block in place to prevent from occurring, or would the investment in time needed completely outweigh the future benefits of efficiency?

2018-07-26 07:00:45 by Jim:

An archive link to the Hoon article, which will hopefully remain viable for a while:

2018-12-28 19:21:13 by tahrey:

Echoing the "you not mu for micro?" question... I expect there is some reason? A proper magical scientician shouldn't get the two letters confused, but perhaps it was taken by some other function already, or it was for ease of writing unambiguous shorthand in the latin alphabet?

2019-01-31 20:04:22 by AGM:

Nice! It does bear striking similarities to AonDor and Aonic from Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. @Moss: In fact, Sanderson says he based his magic system for Elantris on computer programming. @Solus & @tahrey: Mu is the greek letter used as a written prefix shorthand for micro. @qntm: Dare I ask which '<code>' tags, exactly? Also, my True Name would be the AGM I used above. I take it yours would be QNTM?

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