For most Traditional magi, the notion of a "true form" which is the natural state of any entity, and to which that entity will always tend to return, is self-evident. Many Technomancers, by contrast, are skeptical of the notion, despite its incorporation in several forms into their belief systems. Nonetheless the concept is important to the Mage system, and a number of powerful magi have devised various means of manipulating these nebulous entities.
Origin and History
The earliest shamanistic paradigms, while not incorporating the idea of a True Form in the modern sense, generally involved a hidden spirit which to varying degrees gave form to and animated any object. Despite the resemblance to modern concepts, it appears that the similarities (such as the notion that True Forms are contained in the Umbra) are the result of later syncretism, and some theorists claim that the split between the Spheres of Prime and Spirit began with the separate recognition of these "animae" and later "noumena".
Records of the later concept in its entirety cannot be reliably dated to earlier than the time of Plato, but Plato himself is believed to have received the concept from Hermetic magi who derived it originally from the Egyptian concept of a True Name. True Names are said to reflect and contain the essence of an entity, and any change in the name to alter the being it represents. The concept remained endemic to Egypt as far as Sleeper society was concerned, but the earliest ancestors of the Hermetics, the Cult of Theuth, spread it among the various societies of the Western world in their travels.
By the time of Plato, who popularized the concept among Greek society, the True Name had been expanded into the idea of an idealized ("Platonic") form which encompassed all objects of a particular type. Also known as "noumena", these forms were believed to reside in a world all their own, imperceptible to the unenlightened. Some Traditional historians claim this Hermetic theory is the original root of a High Umbra separate from the (natural) Middle; others (less popularly) that the Middle Umbra and the Low Umbra developed from virtually identical Dreamspeaker and Euthanatoic beliefs, respectively, and the separation is due solely to their coexistence in a briefly multi-paradigmatic world.
During the period of the Macedonian and early Roman empires, the concept of True Forms was temporarily eclipsed by a popular pragmatism that would come to be the hallmark of the early Order of Reason. Though Hermetic theories continued to propagate among philosophers, the majority of early technomancers discarded the idea entirely, claiming that the only real world was the phenomenal world which could be studied by sensory investigation. Only as the Roman Empire took on its mature form and absorbed Greek thought did the idea become popular once more, often in mythologized forms, and spread to the Empire's boundaries. Neo-Platonist and, later, Gnostic thinkers added a theological spin by identifying the Forms with a pantheistic over-deity and relegating the natural world to the status of an inferior being created by a bungler known as the Demiurge. In this way the Forms were absorbed by the then-weakened Singers who would eventually reorganize into the Celestial Chorus, first by the Mithraists and later by the Messianic Voices. During the Middle Ages, the intelligentsia, such as they were, almost universally accepted neo-Platonic ideas, cementing the hold of True Forms on the paradigm.
The hold of True Forms on reality has been such that in the beginning the Order of Reason never really tried to dislodge them from existence. Only following the reorganization into the Technocracy was any real effort made to eradicate them, under the auspices of Iteration X. Initially, the Iterators were successful in severing the Technocratic paradigm from "foreign superstitionist elements", to the degree that no Technocrats now connect their concept of a True Form with a spirit world in any way. However, soon thereafter, the Progenitors, the Syndicate, and the New World Order were forced to readmit a limited notion of True Forms back into their paradigms in order to cope with various entities that remained an ingrained part of consensual reality that they still had to deal with. The Iterators continue to find the situation uncomfortable, but for the moment there is little they can do.
The standard Traditional concepts of True Forms as "animae" and "noumena" have already been briefly described. The former describes the True Form as an inhabiting spirit; the latter, as a Platonic ideal or universal concept. Although noumena were once the standard Reasoner explanation for the phenomena associated with True Forms, their increasing association with the Umbra eventually led to their demise, and factions such as the Alexandrian School and House Thig are the only technomantic magi who still make use of them. As noted, the concept of noumena developed from that of the Ren or True Name, originally an Egyptian idea.
Common usage among the Progenitors ascribes True Form only to living organisms and associates it with the genetic code. Progenitors already had a number of means of manipulating the visible forms of living creatures prior to the concept of DNA; the genetic code was originally introduced to explain the transmission of characteristics after preformation and pangenesis theories were abandoned as inadequate. Since then, Progenitors have expanded the theory to cover bodily maintenance, including healing.
More recently, the New World Order and Syndicate redeveloped True Form concepts almost accidentally out of the broader idea of organizational power; the truth about an individual or object was what an organization recorded of it. Initially faced with the paradox of having to record such data on literal paperwork, itself a set of physical objects, the organizational Conventions were relieved by the invention of computers powerful enough to store it in electronic form. Though frustrated by the Virtual Adepts' taking up of the concept and using it to create the Digital Web, apparently destined to become yet another Umbra, the Conventions appear to be taking matters in stride, seeking to increasingly restrict internet access to "nonessential data".
Iteration X, the Void Engineers, and the Sons of Ether have continued to stoutly disavow the existence of True Forms (though the individualist Etherites sometimes go back to espousing them). For the most part, this is possible because they rarely deal with properties that require an understanding of the concepts. However, in recent years necessity has begun forcing aspects of the Forms back into the paradigms of these Conventions, despite their denials. In order to cope with the phenomena in question without openly acknowledging the existence of a mysterious aphysical entity, the concept of metastability has been introduced into the mix. Related to some forms of the concept of historical inertia, metastability theory in this context suggests that there are a set quantity of shapes which are mathematically relatively stable and a larger variety that are too unstable to be sustained for long. These semi-stable shapes correspond to the True Forms of other paradigms but have no real substance of their own and are considered to be dependent on the physical entity more than the other way around.
True Forms (not to be confused with the apparently Nephandic Pure Forms) are responsible under most theories for the continued existence of the baser "phenomenal forms". Therefore they regulate such properties as maintenance of the physical form (including healing and Quintessence transport) and transmission of its shape (primarily reproduction). True Form is responsible for the eventual reversion of Patterns following the end of an effect's duration and for Pattern Leakage.
Many Forces Patterns--those that appear only briefly and then are gone, such as lightning strikes--are not considered to have individual True Forms at all, though they draw on the greater, generalized Platonic forms like those of lightning or fire. Only more stable Forces--shadows, reflections, holograms, and the like--have actual True Forms which are as resistant to change as those of more substantial objects.
Living Patterns, by contrast, have especially resilient True Forms that conduct flows of Quintessence through them rather than allowing it to pool. As a result, although Life Patterns change readily according to their own dictates, they are more than usually resistant to change or disruption from without and can reproduce their own kind.
Matter Patterns occupy a middle position. While they do have True Forms, these Forms (like those of static Forces) simply collect a pool of raw Quintessence within. Thus while they are fairly stable and somewhat resistant to change, they usually remain the same once modified and typically don't reproduce without assistance.