Wizards serve as ambassadors between their human communities 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 communities, often placing them on the periphery.
The process by which becomes a wizard differs widely. In some communities, having a familiar — an other-than-human person that teaches you its magic — defines a person a wizard. In other communities, wizards must earn their title through an initiation ritual, following the bestowal of the title by an elder wizard. In still other communities, 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, gender fluid, and non-binary people with certain psychological conditions or mental illnesses like schizophrenia 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 community, but these represent peripheral functions. The wizard’s primary function lies in serving as an ambassador to the more-than-human world surrounding the community, 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 community’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 community’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 community, helping to guide them. In turn, communities 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 community.
These other functions, though more visible to the rest of the community, often distract wizards from their true purpose. Wizards often live at the periphery, at some remove from the rest of the community. 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 community 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 community 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.
The traditional magician, I came to discern, commonly acts as an intermediary between the human collective and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants but from the human community back to the local Earth. By their rituals, trances, ecstasies, and ‘journeys,’ magicians ensure that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it — not just materially, but with prayers, propitiations, and praise. The scale of a harvest or the size of a hunt is always negotiated between the tribal community and the natural world it inhabits. To some extent every adult in the community is engaged in this process of listening and attuning to the other presences that surround and influence daily life. But the shaman or sorcerer is the exemplary voyager in the intermediate realm between the human and the more-than-human worlds, the primary strategist and negotiator in any dealings with the Others.
David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World
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 communities at a respectful distance. Neighboring communities 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 community regards their own magical specialist as an eccentric but ultimately benign person, but each neighboring community 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. She can use knowledge to blackmail or coerce as easily as to help. She can use magic to harm, or even to kill, just as she 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.