Mario's Brief History of Magic

“He asked me if I wanted to see a card trick.  I said NO.  He showed me five."

Somerset Maugham

Magic, and man’s need to believe in it, is probably as old as man himself.  It was held in awe long before it was ever given a name.

In the beginning, man was a very vulnerable being in an extremely hostile Jurassic environment, of which he had little or no understanding. To him, as he crouched in his cave during long nights of fear, everything was magic. Some good … some bad.

There was magic in the clouds, the rain, the storms, the tides, the sunsets, the sunrises, the flowing of a river, the animals, the birds, fire, birth and death.  All seemed to be alive and moved to the bidding of unknown magical forces.  As he imagined demons, devils, spirits, monsters and gods,  he felt smaller, more insignificant and much more vulnerable.

Magical power

Magic was man’s first attempt to understand and master the world around him.  It represented power.  Power to control what he did not understand.

Wizards, shamen, medicine men and witch doctors created spells and charms against the terrors of death and destruction.  They also created rituals to honor and gain favors from the various gods on behalf of the locals.  The god of rain, the god of the harvest and so on.  Many used simple conjuring to enhance their claims.

High priests in Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, mediums, gurus and false prophets combined jealously guarded new scientific principles/phenomena and principles of conjuring, with a generous dollop of hocus-pocus theatrics and showmanship to gain profit, prestige and power as the agents of the gods.  Nice job if you could get it.

The history of Magic has an endless parade of colourful eccentrics.  Some of my favourites are:

Dedi of Dedsnefru

Egyptian Heiroglyphs on magic

Egyptian Heiroglyphs on magic

Years ago I tried it at a kids’ party.  Once. 
Never again.

Dedi of Dedsnefru was a favourite in the Egyptian court of Cheops (he who built the Great Pyramid).  He was most famous for decapitating a goose and then reattaching the head with noill effects to the goose.  I suspect the goose may have been a little confused though.  He also did the same to a pelican and an ox.  A few years ago I was privileged to witness this effect (with a goose) using Dedi’s method and it knocked my socks off.  Luckily I always wear 2 pair for just such occasions.

It was common knowledge at the time that Dedi, who was well over 100, had a huge appetite.  His daily menu included 500 loaves of bread, a shoulder of beef and 100 jugs of beer.  Weba-aner (circa 1700 BC) would take a wax model of a crocodile, put it on the floor and turn it into a full sized, live, snapping croc !!!  Years ago I tried it at a kids’ party.  Once.  Never again.

The Magician of King Henry VIII

Magicians in the time of Henry VIII

Magicians in the time of Henry VIII

Henry VIII enacted a law that made magic punishable by death, yet had a magician in his court.  His aura was such that nobody dared confront him, let alone arrest him.  My favourite story is the one when he came into court, opened a window, drew a bird on the wall with chalk, pointing at one pigeon on the adjacent rooftop with his dagger, stabbed the drawing 3 times and the bird fell off the roof, dead.  He would then leave the room saying nothing.  Wow !!!  No wonder he was able to ensure his safe passage through a time when even jugglers were not safe from execution (it was considered impossible to keep three balls in the air without the help of demons). How did he do it?  Magic chalk obviously.

Reginald Scot

In 1584 a Justice of the Peace, Reginald Scot published “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”  which contained the methods used by magicians of that time. It was written specifically to show that those who worked these sort of wonders were not witches and warlocks at all. This book helped save the lives of many magicians and jugglers of the time.

Jean Robert-Houdin

...he quelled a civil war in Angola single handedly

It wasn’t until the 19th Century though that magic gained some respectability, mainly through the efforts of the ‘Father of modern magic’, Jean Robert-Houdin.  He took conjuring out of the world of mountebanks, swindlers, pickpockets and gypsies and took it into theatre halls as an art-form, heralding a new age for magic when the intention of the artist is to entertain his audiences, rather than fleece them.  To this day, people will check their wallets and belongings when they know a magician is in their midst.

One could write a book just on this ingenious Frenchman.  I will write more about him some other time when I have more time.  My favourite story is when he quelled a civil war in Angola single handedly.

The 20th Century

The beginning of the 20th Century saw magic enter its golden age, where people like Houdini, The Great Lafayette, Howard Thurston and Chung Ling Soo became household names as miracle workers.  Incredible stories abound of their enchanting and miraculous antics.  As David Copperfield is to our time, these wizards were to theirs.

Mind you, Chung Ling Soo is mainly remembered for his death.  He was shot dead on stage during the performance of his world famous bullet catching act.  

The future of history

This is a very brief overview of what is an absolutely huge history.  I haven’t had time to write about the famous magician with no hands (or legs … I kid not) nor how the British Military created a special unit led by a magician who used stagecraft and principles of magic to create amazing illusions which bamboozled the Nazis and the Italian fascists during WWII … plus so many other stories that it beggars belief.  In time, I will add to this history.  Let me know if you would like to be notified when I do so.

I must say that it’s good to be a magician.