As it turns out, it actually does have a real-world connection. Today, I came across a fascinating article on the subject entitled "The History of Mana." I encourage you to check it out for yourself. But if you just want a quick summary, here's how the term got to be where it is today.
Mana is an Austronesian (think Pacific Islands like Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia, Philippines, Taiwan) word that means power, effectiveness, or prestige. While originally referring to powerful weather phenomena, eventually the term shifted more to the idea of supernatural power. Interestingly enough, this is actually pretty close to how the term is understood in fantasy. So how did this idea come to be such a staple of Western fantasy?
- The Austronesian culture was first studied and later documented by Christian missionaries in the late 1800s. Their writings were picked up in the 1950s as part of a larger movement with religious studies to find parallels between religious beliefs in different ancient cultures.
- In the 1970s, Dungeons and Dragons emerged into the market, along with a host of fantasy variants in both gaming and literature. One particularly influential author was Larry Niven, who first used the concept of mana as a supernatural but limited resource tied to a particular geographic area.
- In the 1980s, there was rapid development of the fantasy genre from gaming and literature to electronic media, spawning popular games such as the Ultima series, Final Fantasy, and Dungeon Master, all of which made use of the concept of mana as a resource of magic.
- This concept was popular with one Richard Garfield, who utilized the concept of mana as a mystical energy force tied to a particular geographic area to create the mana system for Magic the Gathering, where it serves as the source of power for dueling wizards. In fact, Garfield pays homage to Larry Niven in several of his designed games, including through the Magic card Nevinyrral's Disk (which, in case you didn't catch it, is not only Larry Niven spelled backwards but also a reference to an actual magical artifact in Niven's writings).
Hope you enjoyed this fascinating history of how the term mana came to play such a significant role in fantasy gaming. See you next time.