Magic in historical fiction is a controversial subject. Some people think that any magic in a novel automatically excludes it from being historical fiction, that authors who include magical elements are polluting the genre. Recently historical fantasy author Stephanie Dray blogged about why historical fiction and fantasy go together, arguing that it is perfectly acceptable to infuse historical novels with magic. Most ancient and early modern cultures believed in magic. (Fun fact: the last European to be accused of witchcraft was executed in 1782.) In fact, for some of them, like the ancient Egyptians, it was a vital part of their religions.
The Egyptians had no word for religion. Even their word for magic, heka, shouldn't be translated as "magic." That's because it was very different from our concept of magic. It was woven into the very fabric of their religion. Most magicians were also priests, and almost all spells referenced at least one god. Our word "magic" brings up images of primitive folk superstition, or else of cute young children dressed up like Harry Potter. In Egypt, everyone from the lowliest peasant to pharaoh himself believed in and practiced heka. It was perfectly respectable and deadly serious.
I've been struggling with the portrayal of magic in my novel. It's about an Egyptian magician in pharaoh's court. It's a challenge figuring out how to be faithful to the Egyptian concept of magic while adapting it to a modern audience. I'm relying on older translations (not always the best) of spells and sacred texts and adapting them into my own words with the help of more modern translations. Still, I have to adapt--I can't replicate. The Egyptian culture is too remote, too far removed from our own. Modern readers wouldn't be able to understand or connect with the story. And neither would I.
But including magic in historical fiction doesn't mean that I'm sacrificing history for fantasy. In the Egyptian mind, magic was a simple fact of life. They took it for granted that a magician could wreak havoc on pharaoh's enemies, speed the healing of injuries, and control demons and other negative outside forces. Although my novel is ultimately an historical fantasy for a modern audience, I like to think that the ancient Egyptians would recognize their beliefs in my writing.
What are your thoughts about magic in historical fiction? Is it a good idea, or should it be off-limits?