Content warning: some minor spoilers.
Magic fantasies are popular entertainment. Aside from enjoying them, I like to figure out what magical techniques and systems writers have adapted or imagined in their works of fiction. There is such a variety of magic content in The Untamed (2019, currently on Netflix) that I’ve decided to catalog it. The Untamed is based on the novel Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. [English translation here. NSFW.]
This blog will be a work in progress over the next several days, since I will add to and refine this list through updated drafts. Please be patient if you notice I’ve missed something. Additions, comments and sources are welcome.
A WORD ABOUT ANIMISM
In addition to being influenced by Taoism (sometimes spelled Daoism), Buddhism, and other Chinese traditions, the xianxia and/or wuxia world of sword and sorcery cultivation, as depicted in The Untamed, has a foundation in animism. Swords, rocks, and other “inanimate” objects have the potential to be enlivened, animated, and engaged with as conscious through various practices. For example, in The Untamed, swords invested with spiritual power can “seal themselves” so that only their original owners can unsheathe them if they are recognized as such. (From an animist perspective, one could also acknowledge the cooperation of the sheathe, right?) This concept is not new to many ancient, indigenous, and some modern neo-pagan traditions.
A Western scientific hypothesis that consciousness is an inherant property of matter is currently called panpsychism. From Scientific American (Jan. 2020), here is an interview with Philip Goff on that very topic. And here is another scientific perspective.
My favorite “go to” source for modern exploration of animism is Daniel Foor, Ph.D., a licensed therapist, ritualist, and author of Ancestral Medicine. I’ve taken many of his online courses and am strongly considering taking his newest, Animist Psychology.
Animism is at the heart of many kinds of magic traditions, practices, and rituals, including forms of spellwork.
From a superficial, Western perspective, we can view The Untamed as a conflict between a solitary practitioner of something resembling innovative chaos magic (with lots of sigil use) and the “cultivators” who belong to several different established mystery schools (aka sects and clans) who share a general set of precepts and traditions (such as “sword cultivation=good/demonic arts=bad”). When Wei WuXian says “I’ll be the precedent,” he’s reviled and marginalized yet years later some of his innovations (compasses that detect evil beings, Stygian lure flags, etc.) are mainstreamed and used by a new generation of cultivators.
Some of what is shown in The Untamed may also be references to or variations of Chinese folk magic. The scary drawings of the “Yiling Patriarch”–sold by a street vendor and having no actual resemblance to Wei WuXian (“famous for his looks”)–might fall under this category. Ditto for some of the other Yiling Patriarch product knock-offs, sold by vendors who falsely claim association.
Many Western magic practices also include the use of sigils, talismans, and forms of folk magic. My favorite “go to” author for general magic thought and practice is Aidan Wachter (I love his book, Six Ways: Approaches & Entries for Practical Magic, and his new book, Weaving Fate: Hypersigils, Changing the Past, & Telling True Lies, is due out any day). I also like Laura Tempest Zackaroff’s Sigil Witchery: A Witch’s Guide to Crafting Magick Symbols.
This is one form of magic practice that is curiously missing from The Untamed, or maybe I just haven’t found and identified it yet. Wei WuXian’s compass for detecting monsters is the closest thing to it.
CATALOG OF UNTAMED MAGIC
Spirit beings or beings altered or created through magic
Demons. The live action series shows fewer of these than appear in the book, either in Wei WuXian’s company or doing his bidding. Early in the series, a demon appears at the Mo clan compound as a vicious, claw-like left hand that possesses several people. In episode four, Wei WuXian says demons are formed from living humans. Wei conjures up a red dressed demon woman to torment Wen Chao is episode 20 (in the book there is a hungry demon baby as well).
Devil Scatter Spell. Lan Zhan uses this to escape Wen Chao in episode eleven.
Dire Owl. A supernatural Wen clan bird, indicated by grey fuzz and a shrill cry. Used for spying and as a temporary vehicle of Yin Iron power. Wei WuXian battles with it.
Dogs. The giant dog owned by the Wen clan which lives in a dungeon and the intelligent “wonder dog” Fairy, owned by Jin Ling. (Wei WuXian is not fond of canines.)
Ghosts. In episode four, Wei WuXian says ghosts are “formed from dead humans.”
Ghost General. Wen Ning as a powerful, fearsome puppet created by Wei WuXian.
“Grey fuzz.” A visual used in The Untamed (along with scary sounds) to indicate resentful energies and ghosts, demons, and so on. This fuzz can be on the prowl or attached to objects. There are also screams associated with the on-screen appearance of grey fuzz.
Imps. In episode four, Wei WuXian defines imps as “formed from living, non-human beings.”
Monsters. In episode four, Wei WuXian says monsters are formed from “dead, non-human beings.”
Puppets. Zombie-like dead or nearly dead people with white eyes and networks of red/black markings on skin. Robbing living people of spiritual cognition is one way to make a puppet.
Stone Fairy. A walking spirit-snatching statue from a temple on Dafun Mountain.
Tortoise of Slaughter. A giant part snake/part tortoise. Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian battle it.
Water Ghosts. Spirits of water creatures that “usually just play tricks on people” but can conglomerate and turn into the Aqua Demon (episode five).
POWERS, SPELLS & TOOLS
Accupuncture. Medical techniques using needles on points and taking the pulse. Wen Ning uses three needles to pacify a giant dog. At different times and for different reasons, Wen Qing uses needles on both Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian to keep them immobilized. Taking the pulse is a frequent activity throughout The Untamed.
Accupuncture Needles. Wen Qing uses these to test the magic barriers in the back hills of Cloud Recesses.
Arrays. Magic circles for protection and containment. Often require blood as an element of the spell. Here is how the body offering array of Mo Xuanyu is described in Chapter Two of The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (English translation by “K”):
“The array was scarlet in color and crooked in shape, appearing to be drawn by hand, using blood as the medium, still damp and emitting a strong scent. The array was filled with warped scribbles of incantations, which were somewhat smudged by his body, but came across as gruesome nonetheless.”
Beads. Wei WuXian makes a set of carved protective beads for his newborn nephew.
Blood. Blood is used for magical purposes throughout the book and the series.
Body Sacrifice. A forbidden technique. Performed by Mo Xuanyu in episode one, offering his own body as a curse to bring Wei WuXian back to life, in order to extract revenge on his tormentors.
Body Seizing. A forbidden technique.
Channeling Fire. A Wen clan specialty. Wen Chao uses this to set a Lan clan guard on fire.
Chord Assassination Technique. A specialty of the Lan Clan, used against the Tortoise of Slaughter. (Is it just me, or would “Chord Assassination” be a great name for a Death Metal band?)
Compasses. Designed to detect the presence of supernatural beings. Perhaps a form of divination?
Corpse Powder. Airborne poison.
Curses. Blackened, necrotic looking skin that spreads up towards the heart and scars that don’t heal can indicate a curse. There is also the “Hundred Holes” curse.
Demonic Cultivation aka “Wicked Sorcery.” Seems to include using resentful energy from ghosts.
Devil Scatter Spell. Lan Zhan uses this spell to escape from Wen Chao, possibly also combining it with teleportation.
Empathy. Wei WuXian uses this technique several times to experience slices of life through another person’s eyes and perceptions, kind of like a Vulcan mind meld. Requires touch. Can be done with ghosts and body parts. Considered to be a perilous technique. Lan Zhan had a spontaneous experience of empathy via the Yin Iron, related to the slaughter of another clan.
Energy. Often used as blasts during fights.
Exorcism. Used against ghosts, such as the Water Ghost in episode five.
First Class Spiritual Tool. A term not explained explicitly, but which probably refers to the primary magical tool of a cultivator. Usually will be given a name.
Flying. With or without swords used as vehicles.
Flying Chains. Used against Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian during their hunt for the Dire Owl.
Freezing in Place. Used on puppets and people alike.
Gestures. Examples include (1) directing energy or magic tools by pointing with the forefinger and middle finger close together with ring and little fingers held down by the thumb and (2) writing a sigil of light with upraised middle and little fingers, (3) snapping fingers to get someone to freeze.
Glitter Talisman. Used unsuccessfully by Wei WuXian against the hallucination mist created by the Dire Owl.
Golden Core. A spiritual power center that is deliberately cultivated and enhanced. In The Untamed, it can irreplacable. This is possibly a reference to the Tai Chi lower Dantian (sometimes called Dan Tian, Dantien, Dan Tien, or the Golden Stove.) Modern cultivation practices include Tai Chi and the Microcosmic Orbit as taught by Mantak Chia.
Golden Core Melting. One of the Wen clan’s followers is known as “Core-Melting Hand” for his ability to destroy people’s Golden Cores.
Golden Core Transference. Performed by Wen Qing, transferring Wei WuXian’s core to Jiang Cheng.
Golden Silk Barrier. A large net for protection against the onslaught of puppets, particularly against those of Wen Qing’s village.
Graves. Known to generally attract ghosts.
Hallucination Mist. Used against Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian in the forest. It also disrupts concentration needed for spellwork.
Headband. Sacred Lan Clan accessory. Not to be touched by anyone except parents and significant others. Allows inner disciples to enter the warded areas of Cloud Recesses. Often used in The Untamed as a symbol to indicate growing intimacy between Wei WuXian and Lan Zhan.
Levitation. Examples include (1) Wen Ruohan lifting Xue Yang into the air as a show of power and as a warning and (2) the cultivators hovering in mid air above the Aqua Demon’s whirlpool.
“Liberate, suppress, eliminate.” In episode four, Lan Zhan says this is the appropriate cultivator way to deal with troubles, such as a dead executioner who is haunting a village.
Musical Compositions. Played with spiritual power to calm or to promote agitation. Lan Zhan recognizes Wei WuXian in Mo’s body because he plays the song Lan Zhan has composed for the two of them.
Musical Instruments. Played with spiritual power (e.g. flutes and guiqins). Often used to calm situations or repel aggression. Wei WuXian plays his “Chenqing” flute. Lan Zhan plays his “Wangji” guiqin. Lan Xichen uses his “Liebing” flute in the exorcism of the Aqua Demon, among other instances. Wen Qing plays a tiny whistle or flute to subdue the villagers who have been turned into puppets.
Nails. Puppet control can be achieved by sticking two nails in the back of someone’s head, presumably at an accupuncture point. (Don’t try this at home.) Used on Wen Ning and Song Lan.
Night Hunts. The sport and pursuit of hunting down supernatural prey.
Paper Dolls. Used for exploring, physical control, and in the practice of empathy. Wei WuXian uses them twice to pester Lan Zhan.
Portraits of the Yiling Patriarch. Sold on the street as folk magic protection for homes.
Ropes and Cords. Conjured out of nowhere.
Sigils (see Talismans). May be written on paper or conjured as a pattern of light and propelled toward a target (person or object).
Silence Spell. A Lan Clan specialty, lasts as long as a stick of burning incense.
Soul Calming Ceremonies. A preventative ritual for children of cultivators, given to prevent them from ever turning into ferocious ghosts when they die. Wei WuXian threatens to turn into a ferocious ghost who will haunt Wen Chao and his mistress, should they torture and kill him. He says he was not given such ceremonies, as he was adopted into the Jiang clan.
Spiritual Cognition. [Description to come.]
Spirit Snatch. [Description to come.]
Stygian Lure Flags. Painted banners designed to draw ghosts or other evil beings. Ones developed by Wei WuXian are used by Lan clan cultivators. Called Phantom Attraction Flags in the book.
Stygian Tiger Amulet. Constructed by Wei WuXian in the Burial Mounds. It is the first magic we see in the series, as it flies around the feet of warriors during a battle. It contains Yin Iron.
Swords. Can be imbued with a spirit. Are often named. Can seal themselves. Can serve as vehicles for flying through the air. Can be used as projectiles.
Talismans (see Sigils). Can be paper, beads, or other objects. Wei WuXian offers a protective talisman in a bag to Wen Qing as a protection for her brother against ghosts. Wei WuXian changes protective talismans with “4 strokes” to reverse them as attractions for evil spirits (taking care of Wen Chao’s bodyguards and mistress).
Telepathy. Some “inner dialogue” between Lan Zhan and his brother, and Lan Zhan and Wei WuXian looks as if it is supposed to be telepathic.
Teleportation Talisman. Used by a masked swordsman.
Teleportation. Did Lan Zhan use this to escape Wen Chao in episode eleven?
Wards/Seals. Fields of energy used to block entrances or protect areas.
Yin Iron. A powerful cosmic object broken into five shards, hidden for many decades. Revealed as the missing part of the Dancing Fairy in episode nine. During part of the story Lan Zhan carries a shard that had been hidden by the Lan clan. Part of the Stygian Tiger Amulet.
Zidian. A magical tool looking like a ring (book) or bracelet (series), with a purple lightning force that is often used as a whip. Bequeathed to Jiang Cheng by his mother. Recognizes its owner or verified substitute user. Was unable to detect Wei WuXian’s soul as “foreign” to Mo Xuanyu’s body.
CONTEMPORARY AND HISTORICAL MAGIC?
Here in the United States we have “witch privilege” in that we are not usually actively persecuted for witchy and neo-pagan practices. Magic is big business here, and entertainment depicting magic and witchcraft is popular. (However, another round of “Satanic Panic” hysteria seems to be gathering steam in this country among trumpites and evangelicals and this is not good.) Some countries still persecute and kill witches. August 10th is “World Day Against Witch Hunts.”
I was curious about contemporary witchcraft laws in China–if any–and while I haven’t come up with any information yet, I did come across this account of Empress Chen Jiao of Wu, accused of black magic, who “is remembered as an ancient Chinese witch…She was the wife of Emperor Wu of Han, who ruled between 141 and 87 BC” [Western Han dynasty?]. I don’t know if this information is accurate, but I am still intrigued. Supposedly the Empress was drawn to witchcraft as a last hope for producing a child for the Emperor. I feel very curious about the development of magical arts and folk magic in ancient China, and though The Untamed is set in a historically inaccurate fantasy world, it should be fun to see what fictional magic elements are based in actual traditions. This is completely new terrain for me.