In World of Warcraft, mana is a universal magical resource. It’s the latent energy with which all spellcasters fuel their magical abilities. Practitioners as diverse and incompatible as Warlocks, Priests and Druids all tap that exact same “pool” of energy. Mages blatantly violate the laws of the Universe by using tiny quantities of mana to conjure up magical food and water that grants vast quantities of mana when consumed (dammit mages). Various classes provide an effect which causes the dealing of damage to “replenish” the lost mana of those around them. We gain more total mana by increasing our intellect and recover lost mana through spirit. But mana is just a resource: as long as you have enough mana to cast your next spell, there’s no difference between having full mana or having nearly no mana.
Warriors, Rogues and Death Knights don’t even have any mana.
Of course RPGs did not invent the concept of mana, they merely took an existing word from the fields of cultural anthropology and religious studies.
Mana as an earthly concept
The term is actually native to the primal Polynesian peoples of the South Pacific, whose beliefs are broadly animistic and polytheistic. That means that the world is considered to be alive with spiritual reality, and that part of this spiritual reality is comprised of gods or powerful beings that may positively or negatively influence the lives of humans and the world around them.
In this worldview, mana is not so much a commodity as it is a state of being. That is, not something you have in the sense of having a boat or having a job, but is more like “having” fame or good luck. It’s not a human resource, but is connected in some way to the influence and power of the gods. It’s very closely related to another term that has been Anglicised to taboo.
Mana is, broadly speaking, a good thing. Having mana enhances your effectiveness and success. If you’re particularly good at playing a musical instrument, it may be attributed to your mana. If the water from a well is particularly clear and sweet, the spring itself may have a lot of mana. If a sword is thought to be especially powerful and invincible in battle, it may be because of its mana.
Mana is not merely a short-term attribute like the idea of good luck as a result of doing something (like finding a four-leafed clover). Rather, it’s a more long-term, permanent strengthening or positive influence of the gods. Mana can stretch throughout entirely family lines or linger in one special place or thing for countless lifetimes. In this sense it can be loosely associated with our Western ideas of inherited nobility or, in the case of objects or places, holiness or the sacred (but without the associated Western ideas).
We’ve probably all heard of the concept of “a taboo” and may even use the word in conversation: in English, something that’s taboo is off-limits or inappropriate. But we get the word, like we get mana, from the Polynesian term tapu. A simple way of thinking of tapu is like the opposite of mana: Tapu also stems from the influence of the gods, but whereas mana is positive and efficous, tapu is dangerous and restrictive.
In some ways tapu functions like a protective law. A place or a person may be tapu at certain times – that may mean being off-limits, or it may attach a propitiatory requirement (that means to perform an action to appease or to attribute proper respect and acknowledgement). But the focus is not the requirement so much as the reason for the requirement: failing to abide by the tapu would bring disaster. The tapu place may be under the influence of a god, and ignoring the tapu may anger or offend the god. Or it could simply draw the god’s attention to you, which – as Polynesian gods are often very dangerous and even malevolent – is a really seriously bad idea. Tapu is kind of like a sign that says “handle with care”.
But people with mana may also have tapu associated with them, precisely because both are signs of the influence of the gods. A tribal ruler may have great mana, and as a result great power and influence, but that makes them dangerous and interaction with them may be governed by a great many taboos. Likewise someone with mana may have to abide by special taboos to preserve their mana.
Unlike mana, taboo is often temporary or short-lived and unstable, easily transmitted: for example, a river may be fine to bathe in most of the time, but during a certain month or season it may become taboo, and anyone entering it during this dangerous time will be afflicted with the same taboo. Mana can be lost or diminish over time, but you can’t really gain mana just by coming into contact with someone who has it. Taboo, however, can affect you through the slightest direct or even indirect contact. This means that there have to be special rituals and practices to get rid of or release taboos once they are transmitted. It’s kind of like how we would think of a very infectious disease, but without the inherent dramatically negative connotations.
Both mana and tapu are important for the idea of “power” in Polynesian religions, and are also going to be key concepts for understanding totemism when we look at that in a couple of weeks’ time. But it doesn’t really seem to relate much to mana as we have it in World of Warcraft. Certainly the core ideas are transferable – WoW’s powerful sorcerers and spiritual practioners gain their abilities from their mana and have to abide by special rules (like taboos) to keep their power under control – but only very loosely.
If, however, you’re interested in roleplaying (or even fan fiction), the real-world meanings of mana and related ideas can be a clever way to add depth to the World (of Warcraft) and your character’s place in it. It ceases to be merely a banal resource like gasoline and becomes instead a dangerous, special and mysterious power that underlies everything your character can do and the preservation of which may not be a simple matter. It also suggests that those classes that don’t have mana as a resource may well actually have “mana” in the broader sense… or, some may prefer to think of them as sort of the luckless and charmless brutes who succeed through sheer force of physical prowess. Either way, it’s an intriguing idea!