One of the most common uses of magic, especially in low magic worlds, is through some sort of item, or an artifact. The classic example is the one ring in the Lord of the Rings. It has the power to make one invisible (and supposedly Sauron could take over the world using it). In fact, most of the magic seen in these books are through items, like Sting glowing when orcs were near. Gandalf had his magic, but we didn’t see very much of it, and it was always with his staff. Many legends have heroes questing after some sort of magic item, like the golden fleece of Jason of the Argonauts. Some stories require magic items, like wands or brooms for magic, like in Harry Potter. Sometimes crystals are used, like in some Final Fantasy games. King Arthur’s Excalibur might be considered a magic sword, or the holy grail. Star Wars had its lightsabers. Some items act as charms, like four leaf clovers, and have just a little magic. Many religions have sacred objects, like the arc of the covenant, or holy water, or bones of a saint. Often, the quest to find or use one of these artifacts is the main point of the story. Other times, they don’t serve much of a purpose, aside from adding to the story or producing cool action scenes. So why do so many stories have these special items?
Part of this might come from humans’ desire to anthropomorphize the world, making it more relatable to them. Children think animals are as intelligent as they are, that they just speak a different language. People see faces in rocks, clouds, and buildings. So making these items special is natural. We don’t like feeling alone in the world, alone in our intelligence, so we assign it to other things and animals. But sometimes items that are intelligent have their own will and might plot against their owners.
Not all artifacts are intelligent, though. Many represent great workmanship. A man who labors days over making what he considers the perfect sword is going to want to believe it is special, maybe that he poured his soul into it and there is something about it that other swords don’t have. Others may feel they were inspired in what they made, that some divine being was guiding them, and so want to give their work divine attributes. Idols were made, often from precious materials like gold, and then worshipped as gods. Because people want to believe in some higher power, but they also want to control it. Nowadays, instead of idols, people might worship knowledge and science, or their expensive car, or the work of their hands.
Because of ignorance of how things really work, people sometimes assign mystical properties to what they don’t understand. If they pray to an idol, and it rained, it was a sign. Some people thought photographs would steal part of your soul when they were first invented. Magnets magically were attracted to metal. Stage magicians use tricks to make things appear like magic. Any technology sufficiently advanced appears to be magic to those who don’t understand it.
Sometimes in legends, the hero was so much larger than life, that his clothes and weapons had to be larger than life as well, or rewards for his valor. And men have always dreamed of having the upper hand, getting better weapons, from knives to swords to arrows to guns to canons to planes to bombs to missiles to nukes to death stars. Magic sword beats normal sword.
Often they are a sign of status. King Arthur became king because only he could pull the sword from the stone. A wizard has his staff. A teen has his iphone, connected to google, the source of all knowledge. He uses it to see what his friends had for lunch and look at pictures of cats.
With magic, spells on humans usually seem to wear off, don’t have permanence, because that would be too much of an advantage, but on items it is fine, because the item can switch users, and sometimes the artifact itself will change owners on purpose, like the one ring.
With many stories about the quest to find or destroy an artifact, the artifact is the source of power, either to defeat the enemy, or the source of the enemy’s power.
So artifacts often play a big part in a story for different reasons, but sometimes they are very unnecessary. A sword of strength+1 and dexterity+2 won’t change the fate of the hero. A sword that can cut through anything and lets the hero escape from prison will.
Brought to you by a Macbook of intelligence+5