Back in 2007 I posted about mana, but that was about an early Japanese writing system called mana or man’yōgana. This is about mana the Polynesian concept of supernatural force — and, as it turns out (heretofore unbeknownst to me), a common term for magic points in contemporary role-playing games. This is laid out in detail in an article by Alex Golub sent to me by bulbul, who was surprised from the other direction: “13 years of gaming and I had no idea” (about the Polynesian origins). In the section on the Polynesian word it links to this, which drew my attention to the Polynesian Lexicon Project Online, aka Pollex Online, which makes my day all on its own; since they say “If you use the POLLEX-Online database, please cite: Greenhill SJ & Clark R (2011). POLLEX-Online: The Polynesian Lexicon Project Online. Oceanic Linguistics, 50(2), 551-559,” I am hereby doing so. And if you’re curious about how the word ended up in gaming, here’s the crucial paragraph:

Mana has been floating around fantasy and gaming fandoms for some time, partially because of Eliade, but also because of Larry Niven. In 1969, Larry Niven published the short story “Not Long Before The End.” The story was set in the distant past, when the environment was suffused with mana. Wizards consumed mana by casting spells, slowly using it up. The result was our current, disenchanted world. Published four years after Frank Herbert’s Dune and the same year as the Santa Barbara oil spill, some people saw in Niven’s work an ecological message about nonrenewable resources. In fact, Niven’s inspiration was a book he had read in college: Peter Worsley’s The Trumpet Shall Sound. Worsley’s book described cargo cults in New Guinea, many of which drew on Austronesian visions of the distant past as a time of powerful ancestors whose knowledge and capacities had been imperfectly handed down to us in the present. The story was superbly told, frequently anthologized, and resulted in several spin-offs. As a result, word of mana spread.

But there’s lots of good stuff in there, and I recommend reading the whole thing. (I’m almost afraid to mention this, but in my Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary, the etymology given for mana is “PPN manga.” Nothing to do with this, honest!)


  1. Oskar Sigvardsson says

    The word is indeed incredibly common in gaming (not just role-playing games, though it’s most common there). In any game where you have some sort of magic power, you traditionally get two bars on the screen: one red and one blue. The red one represents your health (and if it goes down to 0, you die) and the blue one represents your mana, which you use to cast magic spells. Even if the game itself doesn’t refer to it as “mana”, most gamers do, since that’s the accepted term for it (either that or “MP”, for “magic points” or “mana points”).

    Even games that doesn’t have magic frequently use the “mana” gameplay concept, and people who play games frequently refers to things that have nothing to do with magic as “mana”. An example would be a science fiction game, where you have a bunch of technological, science-fiction powers. Those games might give you an “energy” bar or something similar, representing how many of those powers you can use right now. Since this is functionally identical to a mana bar, gamers often use the word mana to refer to it (as in “I can’t help you right now, I’m out of mana”, or something similar).

    I had always assumed that the word derived from “manna”, as in the biblical “manna from heaven”. I had no idea it was Polynesian.

  2. I learned this one on sabbatical in New Zealand, where the term has completely entered English: pundits talk about politicians gaining or losing mana. This also made for one of my favorite bilingual puns (if this is the correct term): the book title

    Mana from heaven: a century of Maori prophets in New Zealand
    by Bronwyn Elsmore

    Moana Press, Auckland, N.Z. 1989

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Both uses seemed obvious/uncontroversial to me (and the linkage likewise obvious) although I pretty much exited the pre-computerization RPG subculture around 1981 (no doubt coincidentally the same year in which I had my first real romance with a girl and also got my driver’s license . . .) and never returned. That said, the linked article about the RPG usage and its development had a lot of references to things that were important to me at the time but I had totally forgotten (the Arduin Grimoire! P.E.I. Bonewits! etc.).

  4. Oskar,
    I had always assumed that the word derived from “manna”, as in the biblical “manna from heaven”. I had no idea it was Polynesian.
    Me too! I hope I will be forgiven because I never paid much to Polynesian lang…. No, wait, no one should be forgiven for something like that.

    please allow me to present you with this award acknowledging your total awesomeness as evidenced by the fact that you are both smarter than us and cooler than us (as evidence by you having had sex and owning a car). You, sir, are an inspiration and we salute you!

  5. Need to make a plug here for my abs fav island grocery / produce market, Mana Foods in Paia. Their deli signature wraps are also not to be missed. Needless to say, until today I remained falsely convinced that the word must have come from Sanskrit 🙂

  6. as evidence by you having had sex and owning a car

    Now, now, that’s not what he said — he said he had his first real romance with a girl and got a driver’s license. Your inferences are unwarranted. (I, for instance, got a driver’s license sometime around 1972 but didn’t own a car for another thirty years.)

  7. hat,
    Your inferences are unwarranted.
    I’m not so sure about the first one, but you are, naturally, correct about the second one. My apologies to everyone involved.

  8. I hope your apology is as tongue-in-cheek as my chastisement. This is the trouble with dry wit — as with a dry martini, it can be hard to tell there’s any Martini & Rossi involved.

  9. Rodger C says

    I read that Larry Niven story long ago, and it stuck in my mind as a clever concept, but I never knew it had had such influence. My favorite remembered line, in a discussion about the mana crisis: “Do you realize the whole continent of Atlantis is tectonically unstable?”–and it was only being held up by mana. By the way, I already knew where “mana” came from, but I suspect this has something to do with my age and the sort of things we read in those days.

  10. But of course. Apologies again, this time for the low quality of my comebacks. I need more practice.

  11. J. W. Brewer says

    I got my first driver’s license in Nov. 81 and bought my first car in July 04 (I suspect that my life arc was similar to hat’s in this regard – penniless student years followed by living-in-Manhattan years). As to the other issue, I will say only that the time gap between that rather innocent-in-hindsight youthful romance and the birth of my first child was approx 20 years.

    It would probably be more accurate to say that the time/attention I had previously deployed toward D&D/Runequest/etc/etc was by the time I was 15 going on 16 redeployed toward increasingly deep obsessions with increasingly obscure rock bands. It might be special pleading to argue that that latter activity actually ranked objectively higher on the coolness/nerdiness axis. (When I went with my now-spouse to a high school reunion decades later lots of people told her how smart I had been but only one classmate told her I had actually been sort of cool back in the day, so I was particularly appreciative of him . . .)

  12. I suspect that my life arc was similar to hat’s in this regard – penniless student years followed by living-in-Manhattan years

    Yup. And the one time I tried driving from New Haven to New York I got (inevitably) lost somewhere in the Bronx, so I pretty much gave up on the whole idea.

  13. Coincidentally, reading this review the other day, I was reminded of Irving Goldman‘s identification of the three sources of chiefly power as mana, tohunga and toa.

  14. As someone who’s lived his whole adult life in Manhattan, I actually was part-owner of a car for a few years without ever having had a driver’s license. I have always relied on the kindness of loved ones (and the NYC transit system) in this respect.

  15. Wow, mana isn’t manna? And here I always thought we were just worried about copyright! (Some firms you don’t mess with, you know.)

  16. Rodger C: I believe the quote about Atlantis being tectonically unstable comes from Niven’s 1972 story “What good is a glass dagger?”, which is where I learned the word “mana”, which I had assumed he had made up, and of whose popularity in the role-playing game community (of which I was never a member) I knew nothing.

  17. Rodger C says

    @Etienne: You may well be right. I hadn’t realized Niven had used this concept in more than one story.

  18. In addition to those two stories, there is also the novella (or nivella) The Magic Goes Away and numerous short stories by both Niven and others listed at the link. The Niven/Pournelle “Golden Road” novels are also part of the Warlock’s universe.


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