Wizards serve as ambassadors between their human families and the other-than-human communities that surround them, on which they depend for survival. People in the Fifth World often see animism as a skill that one can develop rather than a belief, and wizards represent the most advanced experts in it. They use magic to contact and negotiate with other-than-human powers on behalf of their families, often placing them on the periphery of their communities.
The process by which becomes a wizard differs widely. In some families, having a familiar — an other-than-human person that teaches you its magic — defines a person a wizard. In other families, wizards must earn their title through an initiation ritual, following the bestowal of the title by an elder wizard. In still other families, the title accrues casually as others recognize the wizard’s particular talent with magic.
As a wizard’s duties center on tending to thresholds and boundaries, any way in which a person straddles or negotiates boundaries might mark her as a potentially powerful wizard. Many believe that third gender, non-binary, and genderfluid people, people with certain psychological conditions or mental illnesses like autism or epilepsy, and people with unusual birth defects or other uncommon physical characteristics all possess unique experiences that will make them particularly powerful wizards.
One widespread belief refers to “wizards’ sickness.” This can take the form of a severe, lingering illness that does not respond to medicine or healing rituals, or a psychospiritual malaise not unlike depression, which may result in suicide. To treat the condition one must become a wizard. The practice of magic keeps the sickness at bay, but cannot cure it. The wizard lives with the knowledge that if she does not continue to work as a wizard, the sickness will return and, eventually, kill her. Many believe that such a wizard possesses greater magical power than others.
Wizards often officiate religious ceremonies, perform healing magic, and offer advice to the family, but these represent peripheral functions. The wizard’s primary function lies in serving as an ambassador to the more-than-human world surrounding the family, upon which it depends utterly for its survival.
The wizard’s other, more popularly identifiable roles, stem from this. Religion often has more to do with the family’s other-than-human relationships — to the land, the plants, the animals, and more ephemeral other-than-human persons like stories, luck, and their ancestors — than beliefs in the supernatural, and so wizards, as part of tending those boundaries, officiate the ceremonies involved in upholding those relationships.
Wizards in the Fifth World understand disease in terms not far removed from the public health experts among their ancestors: as a function of ecological relationships. Disease indicates a problem with the family’s other-than-human relationships. Wizards oversee healing rituals intended to fix the immediate problem of a sick individual, but must then turn to the larger task of identifying and fixing the broken relationship (in other words, the ecological problem) that led to the infection.
Wizards gather information throughout their lives from a lifetime of careful observation of their territory, the tutelage of other wizards, and from magical journeying. They share this information with the family, helping to guide them. In turn, families usually accord wizards a degree of respect, acknowledging their dedication to learning and the likelihood that they have information that others might not. While some wizards may want to learn for its own sake, they must often undertake risks to gain knowledge that few would brave for the sake of mere curiosity. Magical journeying in particular often involves perils that frighten even the most experienced wizards, but which they nonetheless face. They do so because they must have this information in order to perform their primary function. Understanding the state of affairs in the more-than-human world becomes critical when they must negotiate with other-than-human powers for the position and survival of their family.
These other functions, though more visible to the rest of the family, often distract wizards from their true purpose. Wizards often live at the periphery of their community, at some remove from the rest of the family. This puts them physically at the same threshold between the human world and the other-than-human world that they tend. It also makes it more difficult for family members to reach them. Many wizards deliberately cultivate a mystique or legend, which serves to make them even more unapproachable. These tactics help ensure that the family only calls on them when they really need help — which means that the wizard has the uninterrupted time and space she needs to devote to her true purpose.
Most tales of sorcery stem from wizards’ own attempts to keep people from bothering them too often. These stories serve to keep even their own families at a respectful distance. Neighboring families come to consider them dangerous sorcerers. This threat helps keep the peace, too, as neighbors have even more reason not to go to war with one another. It does produce a good bit of tension, though, as each family regards their own magical specialist as an ambivalent but ultimately benign person, but each neighboring family harbors someone who seems like an evil sorcerer.
A wizard can, of course, at any time use her magic for evil ends. Knowledge of herbal medicine includes knowledge of poison and its use. They can use knowledge to blackmail or coerce as easily as to help. They can use magic to harm, or even to kill, just as they can use it to heal. Most wizards face at least the rumor that they’ve done precisely that, even if they never have. Many wizards will not deny such rumors, helping to build their legend, and at the same time raising the fear that any wizard might also practice sorcery.
These stories only hold such power, though, because some individuals really do devote themselves to using magic to harm and kill others. These people use poisons, ritual murder, dark magic, and human sacrifice to destroy their enemies and spread terror. Though quite rare, their acts create such terror that wizards can manipulate and capitalize on that fear even when no one has seen any sign of true sorcery in a generation.
Of course, dealing with such fears involves quite a bit of danger of its own, as those fears can grow uncontrollable, and the wizards who tried to manipulate them may face a backlash, false accusations, and angry people seeking vengeance against them.
When true sorcerers do appear, wizards often lead the efforts to find them and stop them. Many wizards earn great respect from their efforts to combat sorcerers, and some unscrupulous wizards do occasionally try to frame their rivals so that they can pursue them as a sorcerer.
On the whole, though, these things happen only rarely. For the most part, the tension of mystery and low-level fear holds, giving wizards the space they need to do their work and keeping everyone else slightly on edge around them.