Magic and Magicians

MAGIC. . . .

The hand is not really quicker than the eye. The skill of the magician is in getting an audience to focus its attention where he wants it at a specific instant. The success of magic lies in the ability to create illusions that have the appearance of reality.

Magic and MagiciansFor thousands of years it was believed that magicians or sorcerers were able, by use of supernatural powers, to gain control over natural forces. Magic was, therefore, closely allied with religion. A king's personal magicians were supposedly able to make it rain, ward off enemies, prevent and cure diseases, cast spells on an invading army, and most significantly gain the favor of the gods.

From the days of ancient sorcerers to the present-day feats of such master illusionists as Harry Blackstone, Jr., Doug Henning, and David Copperfield, magic as entertainment has surpassed the appeal of magic in religious ritual. There are ancient Egyptian records giving details of performances before Pharaoh Cheops, who died about 2494 BC.

When in the 4th century Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, it turned against all magicians. They were outlawed nearly everywhere. Later, in the Middle Ages, magicians were caught up in condemnations of witches, sorcerers, and devil worshipers. They were often jailed and sometimes executed. Not until the Renaissance did it become possible for traveling entertainers, such as jugglers and other wonder workers, to perform before royalty, nobility, and even bishops if not always for the public. By the 16th century there were professional magicians doing card tricks, reading minds, and making objects disappear.

There are today many books of magic that show anyone with manual dexterity how to perform tricks. During the Renaissance there were no such instruction manuals. Illusionists passed the secrets of their trade from one generation to another.

Books on magic began to appear late in the 16th century. One of the earliest was published in France in 1584: 'The First Part of Subtle and Pleasant Tricks' by Jean Prevost. The first book in English came out in 1612: 'The Art of Juggling'. Debunkers of magic also published. In England Reginald Scot issued the book, 'The Discovery of Witchcraft' in 1584 to expose the sleight-of-hand artists of his time.

By the 18th century magic as entertainment was well established in Europe. One of the most famous illusionists was Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. In 1770 he devised an automated chess player that took on all challengers. Benjamin Franklin played against the machine in 1783 and lost.

Early American Magicians

Emergence of Modern Magic

Houdini and After

Tricks of the Trade