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Many fantasy stories use the idea of "mana", an energy source for magic that if it's consumed denies magic users the possibility of casting more spells. Some stories which uses this are:

  • A Certain Scientific Accelerator (2019)

  • Arifureta shokugyou de sekai saikyou (2019)

  • Black Clover (2017)

  • A Certain Magical Index (2008)

But which was the first one to use it? Which was the first story to feature mana as energy source for magic?

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    Off the top of my head I've got Niven's "Not Long Before the End" (1969).
    – DavidW
    Feb 3, 2021 at 12:44
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    I'm thinking it stems from 'manna' in the Bible which was of very mysterious origin. See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manna
    – tgrignon
    Feb 3, 2021 at 13:22
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    Since the concept of "mana" is taken from Maori beliefs (and it is used to this day), is the oral traditions counting?
    – Yasskier
    Feb 3, 2021 at 20:28
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    This article discusses how mana made it into video games (as well as tabletop RPGs like D&D). In particular it mentions a Romanian author of nonfiction Mircea Eliade, who wrote about mana in the late 50s. Feb 3, 2021 at 21:18
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    @tgrignon I was thinking about biblical "manna", but my understanding of that is it's just food. Maybe food of divine origin ("manna from heaven"), but it doesn't give the consumer magical energy, just regular energy like you'd get from eating any old food. A closer parallel might be "ambrosia" from ancient Greek mythology, but that doesn't have a similar name. Feb 3, 2021 at 21:30

5 Answers 5

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(Note: I wasted too much time getting the quotes, so I'm late, but I'm posting this anyway because it contains the quotes.)

1969: Larry Niven's "Not Long Before the End," The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1969. It was republished in the collection The Magic May Return (1981), which is where I read it.

The Warlock hints that he has discovered a terrible truth:

The Warlock had found his terrible truth in middle age.

By that time he had traveled widely. It was not from choice. It was simply that he was a powerful magician, and he used his power, and he needed friends.

He knew spells to make people love a magician. The Warlock had tried these, but he did not like the side effects. So he commonly used his great power to help those around him, that they might love him without coercion.

He found that when he had been ten to fifteen years in a place, using his magic as whim dictated, his powers would weaken. If he moved away, they returned. Twice he had had to move, and twice he had settled in a new land, learned new customs, made new friends. It happened a third time, and he prepared to move again. But something set him to wondering.

Why should a man's powers be so unfairly drained out of him?

It happened to nations too. Throughout history, those lands which had been richest in magic had been overrun by barbarians carrying swords and clubs. It was a sad truth, and one that did not bear thinking about, but the Warlock's curiosity was strong.

So he wondered, and he stayed to perform certain experiments.

His last experiment involved a simple kinetic sorcery set to spin a metal disc in midair. And when that magic was done, he knew a truth he could never forget.

And then he is forced to use it, and he explains:

Hap clutched his messily severed wrist, and he said, "But what happened?"

"Mana," the Warlock mumbled. He spat out a complete set of blackened teeth. "Mana. What I discovered was that the power behind magic is a natural resource, like the fertility of the soil. When you use it up, it's gone."

For some reason "he spat out a complete set of blackened teeth" is one of those body horror images that has always stuck with me.

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  • The last quote means he lost all his teeth?
    – Clockwork
    Feb 4, 2021 at 8:56
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    @Clockwork Yes, they instantly rotted out of his mouth.
    – DavidW
    Feb 4, 2021 at 12:35
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    @Clockwork Spoiler . . . . . . . The warlock is very old (hundreds of years) but kept the vigor and appearance of youth through magic. With the Mana drained, he is rapidly aging to reach his true age.
    – DoxyLover
    Feb 4, 2021 at 12:36
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According to New Mana, mana was mentioned briefly in the following fantasy works before Niven; however, the Niven story remains the earliest use I can find of mana as a substance that can be used up.

  • "The Moon Moth", Jack Vance, 1961
    Mana here is just a synonym and carries no quantitative magic power:

    Prestige, face, mana, repute, glory: the Sirenese word is strakh. Every man has his characteristic strakh, which determines whether, when he needs a houseboat, he will be urged to avail himself of a floating palace, rich with gems, alabaster lanterns, peacock faience and carved wood, or grudgingly permitted an abandoned shack on a raft. There is no medium of exchange on Sirene; the single and sole currency is strakh. . . .

  • Dream Master, Roger Zelazny, 1966
    Here again, mana is not really a quantitative measure.

    "If an object of value ceases to exist, then the psychic energies which were bound up in it are released. We seek after new objects of value in which to invest this—mana, if you like, or libido, if you don't."

New Mana also mentions where Niven got the idea of mana (according to Niven):

During his years as an undergraduate at Washburn University, Niven read The Trumpet Shall Sound (Worsley 1968) and in an interview with Golub said that he learned of the concept of mana from that book (Skype interview with Niven, 5 June 2013).

The full title of that nonfiction work was The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of "Cargo" Cults in Melanesia.

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Larry Niven's Not Long Before the End published in 1969, the first of the series The Magic Goes Away is a good contender, and most of the articles I'm finding, along with Wikipedia reference this as the first story to use mana as a fuel to cast spells.

The plot summary taken from the Wikipedia article:

The Warlock, whose actual name is both unknown and unpronounceable, is a powerful sorcerer in excess of 200 years of age. He observes that when he stays in one place too long, his powers dwindle and will return only when he leaves that place.

Experimentation leads him to create an apparatus (now known as the Warlock's Wheel) consisting of a metal disc enchanted to spin perpetually. The enchantment eventually consumes all the mana in the vicinity, causing a localized failure in all magic. The Warlock realizes that magic is fueled by a non-renewable resource, which would cause great concern among the magicians, as it was through their magic that nations enforced their wills both internally and abroad.

The widespread diminishing of magical power in The Magic Goes Away triggered a quest on the part of the most powerful of the magicians of the time to harness a new source of magic (the Moon), resulting in the events described in the book.

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Likely some time in the 19th Century, when the Maori were indoctrinated into written language. If you consider knotted ropes to be 'writing', then it may be a few hundred years earlier.

In several Polynesian mythologies, mana is a mystical force that grows over time with renown, competence, authority and/or influence, and could be defined as something close to 'justified confidence' or 'one's ability to inspire awe'. The reduction of mana, called whakamā, is attributed to feelings of depression, anxiety or lack of surety in decision-making.

So if you consider force of presence/charisma/mojo to be a magic power (and many people over time have done so), then its use as a depletable resource goes waaaay back.

For those of you using Larry Niven as the first source, know that he read Peter Worsley’s The Trumpet Shall Sound in college, which mentions Polynesian cargo cults.

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    Is there evidence of a connection in the minds of these authors between the mana in the question and the Maori/Polynesian concept of mana?
    – Batperson
    Feb 4, 2021 at 20:45
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    @Batperson Larry Niven read Peter Worsley’s The Trumpet Shall Sound in college, which mentions Polynesian cargo cults. smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/…
    – Carduus
    Feb 4, 2021 at 21:01
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    @wnoise That's not completely inconsistent with Niven's mana. In The Magic Goes Away, mana can come from murder; the group murders the Ouroboros to get enough mana to wake the sleeping god. Feb 4, 2021 at 22:11
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    This is the correct answer. Note the OP doesn't ask for "novels" or "writing", simply "stories", thus Maori legends easily pre-date any of the novels mentioned
    – RedTera
    Feb 5, 2021 at 3:45
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    @RedTera Niven took his ideas from the Maori mana ... but all of the works mentioned in the original question use mana the way Niven did, not the way the Maori thought of it. Niven is the right answer for this question, IMHO. Feb 5, 2021 at 16:42
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According to TV Tropes, the concept of spells powered by mana can be traced back to Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away (1976). According to Wikipedia, the story is an allegory for the 1973 oil crisis.

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    Yes, the story is (in part) an allegory for the 1973 oil crisis; but the concept of mana running out dates at least to Niven's earlier story from 1969, as the other answers say. Feb 3, 2021 at 20:58

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