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Prana, the Vital Force

My most recent series in the Eschaton Cycle, titled Heirs of Mana, centers around the Polynesian concept of mana as kind of spiritual authority and supernatural power.

The term “mana” has become popular in fantasy gaming as a kind of “magic points” systems, deriving from Larry Niven’s use of the Polynesian word in his classic fantasy. While not entirely inaccurate, this belies the sophistication of the term. This seems an inherent danger of systemizing supernatural elements.

The possession of greater amounts of mana—pronounced “mah-nah”, not “man-ah”—allows one a kind of passive influence over reality, as others and perhaps the world itself tend to bend to the will of the possessor, possibly as a result of attracting spirits from cross the Veil diving the Mortal Realm from other Realms. Mana might thus be considered a supernatural charisma. Furthermore, mana represents effectiveness—leaders must have mana to perform their functions.

On Sawaiki, in Heirs of Mana, we see this manifested through the rulers often being those with an overabundance of mana, especially the three god-queens Namaka, Pele, and Poli‘ahu. People bend to their authority not only because of their active supernatural powers, but because, as fonts of mana, they are believed deific.

Within the context of the Eschaton Cycle, I take mana to be roughly analogous to other concepts from around the world, namely prana (Sanskrit), pneuma (Greek), qi (Chinese), ki (Japanese), silla (Inuit), numen (Roman), ashe (Yoruba), and ruah (Hebrew). For consistency’s sake, outside the context of a particular era, I favor the term prana, literally meaning “breath” but encompassing the concept of vital force within all levels of reality.

As with mana, prana might thus be assumed to be present in places or objects, as well as most concentrated in living beings. As the vital force, prana permits life. Accordingly, a being that expends enough prana or finds itself drained thereof, risks their soul leaving their body.

Active Uses of Prana

Within the scope of the stories, we see those with extraordinary degrees of prana able to expend it in order to generate superlative physical feats such as superhuman strength, toughness, reflexes, and the ability to ignore pain, as well as less common manifestations like superhuman sensory abilities.

Such use of prana accounts for Odin’s ability, in Gods of the Ragnarok Era, to wrestle a polar bear and win, to walk for days without food, and to survive extreme temperatures. During this era, the Aesir eventually adopt the Vanir term “pneuma” for this energy.

In other eras, such manifestations might manifest as Wuxia-like qi abilities.

This active use of prana depletes it slowly at most times. Characters sometimes refer to pulling harder upon their abilities in order to overcome more extreme situations, and doing so can deplete prana more quickly.

Others, like Namaka in Heirs of Mana, possess supernatural heritage that allows them Manifest Arts—even more active projections of mana that prove far more draining. In Namaka’s case, she can control water, ranging from pulling bubbles up out of a river for show, to propelling herself on the surface of the water, to creating ocean waves the size of tsunamis. This sort of thing can rapidly drain prana, and consequently characters attempting this risk exhaustion or even, as we see in one case, death from expending one’s entire life force. Being depleted of prana also leaves one more susceptible to illness or injury.

While connected to the Art in the sense of tying mortals to the supernatural, this kind of “magic” remains distinct from the primary aspects of the Art found in the Eschaton Cycle, such as sorcery, which may not deplete prana but has other consequences. Most magic in the setting relates to invoking evoking, or binding spirits who then use their Art to actually influence reality.

Recovering and Generating Prana

Living beings regenerate depleted prana over time, primarily by absorbing it from the environment. Some metaphysical systems established throughout the eras assume different frequencies of prana connecting it to various Spirit Worlds or their corresponding Spheres of Creation. Some believe the World Tree holds these connections thus allowing the continuance of life by creating external channels to sources of prana. Some metaphysical systems suppose the prana is drawn in via energy vortices (wheels) called chakras.

Certainly, certain individuals are more likely to draw in more prana in certain environments. Namaka’s power, tied to Water, pulls more mana from the Sacred Pools, while her sister pulls more mana from volcanoes. For most people, the sun holds the greatest potential.

Those versed in spiritual practices may use meditation or other techniques to absorb prana faster.

Prana, as vital energy, can also be shared or stolen, through sex or consumption of flesh—both of which are common predations among supernatural entities eager to sustain themselves on mortals. For sorcerers, induction into the arcane thus often involves sexual rites, or sometimes cannibalism. These actions might allow one to absorb more than one’s nominal limit or even increase this limit.

Prana, mana, pneuma, or whatever the preferred designation, might thus be considered a supernatural currency in the Eschaton Cycle. The danger of terming it such is the risk of oversimplifying its role. It, in a sense, represents supernatural agency of a character within the framework, and as with all aspects of the supernatural in the setting, defies natural systemization in simple terms.

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