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What is a Sorcerer?

The History and Etymology of The Seers of Fate

By Neal LitherlandPublished 4 years ago 3 min read

When you think of a sorcerer, what images come to mind? A man in a long robe, perhaps, waving a wand or making arcane gestures with his hands? A woman tossing bones, or gazing into a fire, foretelling events she could not possibly know of? Getting close?

Language is not a static thing; it changes and evolves based on what ideas remain part of a culture, and what concepts that culture leaves behind. Also, it's entirely possible for meanings to be lost, obscured, and even to change over time. As a for instance, many of us often use the words witch, wizard, warlock, magus, occultist, and sorcerer as if they were interchangeable terms that all meant roughly the same thing; a person with magical power in some way, shape or form.

Each of these terms evolved in a very specific way, and they're unique to the cultures, beliefs, and circumstances that birthed them. And even if you don't know the history of these words, there are often echoes of those old meanings still reverberating in them today.

So let us take a closer look at what a sorcerer is, and how this word came to be.

If you'd like to take a glimpse into other strange and unusual linguistic histories, such as The Difference Between Devils and Demons, or perhaps What "Blood is Thicker Than Water" Really Means, then you should take a moment to look through my full Vocal archive!

What Sorcery is This?!

When we picture sorcerers performing their spells, a wide variety of effects may come to our minds. Sometimes it's throwing balls of fire, other times it's commanding beasts to do their bidding, but generally speaking sorcery seems to be a very soft and squishy term for magic in general. Which makes sense since the term sorcery, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, refers to witchcraft and magic in a broad sense. It derives from the old French "sorcerie," and it's traced back to about the 1300s.

A sorcerer, therefore, is one who practices sorcery.

The word "sorcerer" started showing up in the 1500s, and it is derived from the Old French word sorcier. While the word generally meant a conjurer of evil spirits, it tracks back to the even older word "sortarius," which is a term from Medieval Latin. What makes this older Latin word so interesting, though, is that it refers to one who tells fortunes by lot, or one who influences fate or fortune.

So while we might think of a sorcerer as one who calls up spirits, who transforms their shape, or who possesses a host of other magical powers, their origin describes someone who could literally alter your fate in a meaningful way, or to foretell your future. Whether it was blessing you with good fortune, or cursing you with tragedy, a sorceress was certainly a force to be feared.

Wait, Sorceress?

While we're used to thinking of sorcerers as male, the term sorceress was coined slightly earlier according to Dictionary.com. In fact the female version showed up about 200 years before the male one did in the early 1500s. While it might seem like just a quirk of the language, there's also a cultural and traditional influence that should be kept in mind as well.

Roman mythology, like Greek mythology before it, believed that female figures held immense power over fate. This is why oracles were often women, and why goddesses were held in particularly high regard. Even figures like the three fates who spun and cut the threads of people's lives were female. This power wasn't just reserved for the clergy, or for mythological figures though; it bled its way into the culture, into ideas, and even as we see into the language that was used to describe the world. So while both "sorcerer" and "sorceress" have a common ancestor in the word "sorcer," it is interesting seeing when a gender was assigned to the term used to describe the practitioner of such arcane arts.

fact or fiction

About the Creator

Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

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Blog: Improved Initiative and The Literary Mercenary

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    Neal LitherlandWritten by Neal Litherland

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