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A short history of magic...


Summuary
- Magic in Prehistory
- The First Writings
- Magic and Witchcraft
- The First Books
- Street Magic
- Robert-Houdin Advances the Hands of Time...
- Large Productions...
- The Birth of Vaudeville
- From Close-up to Table-hopping
- White gloves and Top Hats
- Bigger is Better!
- Close-up Grows up
- The 21st Century Will Be Spiritual or Nothing
- The Information Age
- The Present Day...



Magic in Prehistory
The art of magic—producing extraordinary phenomena that contradict the laws of nature—dates to the dawn of time. We can easily imagine that some of our prehistoric ancestors, scattered around the world, discovered that they had the talent of fooling their peers. Thus did they become the first magicians or sorcerers. Prehistoric implements and cave paintings suggest that, by 50,000 BCE, cavemen were performing magic rites as a part of their religious ceremonies. People called sorcerers or shamans at this time knew certain fundamental principles about life and nature (such as the beneficial effects of plants or potions on the body) and were surely skilled at deceiving their fellows either orally or visually.
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The First Writings
Many ancient texts allude to magic tricks or fakirism. The Bible itself tells us of the miracles of Moses and of his confrontation with the Pharaoh’s magicians: water changes to wine, a staff turns into a snake (a classic trick of the fakir), etc. The first historical texts that describe a magic trick come from ancient Egypt. An image representing the cups and balls dating from around 2500 BCE was discovered on the walls of Beni Hassan’s tomb. Likewise, the Westcar Papyrus provides the first written account of a magic performance. It suggests that priests used magic to demonstrate the Pharaoh’s powers of mere mortals and to simulate supernatural powers. For instance, they used mechanisms involving sand to stop fountains from flowing on command or to open temple doors as if by magic. During the same era in China (between 2700 and 2500 BCE), magicians were already performing the famous Chinese Linking Rings, metal circles that can be linked and unlinked at will. There is also a description of the cups and balls in a letter from the Greek sophist Alciphron (200 AD).
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Magic and Witchcraft
In the Middle Ages, everyone believed in magic, and thought it linked to religion or other superstitions. People attributed magic with the power to heal, protect, or influence destiny. In some ways, things have hardly changed! When you consider how easy it is to fool people today who continue to believe in parapsychology, it’s hard not to smile imagining the powerlessness people must have felt before the inexplicable back then. Nevertheless, some people of learning already began drawing a distinction between sleight-of-hand and magic. In 1240, the Franciscan monk Rober Bacon offered simple explanations of conjuring tricks in order to demonstrate that they were harmless amusements that had nothing to do with the Devil.

But the Church saw conjuring with no kind eye, and began persecuting conjurors. Until the 18th Century, thousands of men, but mainly women, were accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake (there were around 100,000 trials and 50,000 executions). Thus, during the period of religious expansion in Europe and the dark days of the Inquisition, conjurors kept a low profile in order to avoid being suspected of witchcraft or of involvement with the Devil.
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The First Book
It wasn’t until 1584 that the first book about magic was published by the Englishman Reginald Scott. Entitled The Discovery of Witchcraft, the book gives detailed analyses of magic tricks in order to refute superstitions surrounding them. By distinguishing between sleight-of-hand and sorcery, it marked a turning point in the history of magic. Scott gives away conjuring secrets in order to persuade the Scottish king Jacques I that it was unjust to persecute people who were mere entertainers. Among the tricks described were effects with rope, paper, coins, and even a decapitation trick! Even though the book was written in order to protect the public from charlatans, it had the opposite effect: most people at the time were too uneducated to read and too poor to buy books! Those who benefited the most from Scott’s efforts were the rich... and charlatans! As a result, the kind ordered all copies of the book burned, and sorcerers along with them.

The same year in France, a book appeared on the same subject: “The First Part of Subtle and Amusing Inventions” by J. Prevost. The author reveals a number of conjuring secrets and suggests that the “magic,” an ambiguous term easily confused with witchcraft, should be replaced with “scientific amusements,” a term that reflects the practice of magic as a popular pastime. The influence of Prevost’s book in this age of scientific awakening led many magicians to call themselves “professor,” “physicist,” or “scientist.”

A number of books devoted exclusively to the art of magic were published in early 17th Century England, among them: “The Art of Conjuring” (1612) and “The Art of Juggling or Legerdemain” (1614) by Samuel Rid. In 1634, someone going by the name of Hocus Pocus published the treatise “The Anatomy of Legerdemain: The Art of Juggling,” the first book to describe in precise detail how to perform a number of magic tricks.
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Street Magic
From the Middle Ages to the 18th Century, magic was principally a form of street entertainment. Magicians entertained the public at fairs or carnivals, in public squares, and at noble residences. The European magicians of this period were generally itinerant performers who also specialized in juggling, sword swallowing, and flame spitting. They often traveled with animal trainers, acrobats, singers, and dancer. Engravings from the period show magicians performing tricks like the cups and balls or the cut-and-restored rope. Later, they would add tricks with coins and, beginning in the 14th Century, card tricks. It was not uncommon for a magician to work with an accomplice who, would take advantage of the audience’s interest in the magic show to pick their pockets!

Once the era of witch-hunts had passed, the art of magic became an increasingly popular form of entertainment. In the 18th Century, juggles and polite entertainers performed increasingly in the private homes of wealthy patrons. One of the typical figures of the period was Isaac Fawkes, who performed in private homes and public fairs, amassing a fortune with nothing but magic tricks.
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Robert-Houdin Advances the Hands of Time...
As the 18th Century progressed, magicians were gradually moving their performances from the street to the stage. The art of magic seemed to be in vogue throughout Europe. Even the famous German poet Goethe writes about an illusionist in one of his texts. Between the 18th and 19th century, professional magicians seemed to be replacing charlatans for good, giving magic a respectable image. These entertainers rented or even built magic theatres that filled with eager spectators. This shift lent itself to the development of stage gimmicks such as trap doors, leading to the creation of large illusions.

Of all thee new artist, one quickly emerged as the “Father of Modern Magic,” Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871). He stood out for the elegance of his presentation and the creativity of his illusions. He incontestably inaugurated a Golden Age, giving magic its “deed of distinction” and making it an art in its own right. Robert-Houdin quickly became a celebrity and, in 1845, opened his “Theater of Enchanted Evenings” in Paris. The theatre would remain pack for years on end, and the magician who had been destined for a career in clock-making, ended up giving command performances for European royalty. He even played an important role in France diplomacy by helping pacify Algeria. One might say that Robert-Houdin “advanced the hands of time” in magic.
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Large Productions...
Towards the end of the 19th Century, many famous magicians launch huge magic shows, which were either traveling or attached to permanent theaters such as the Mystery Egyptian Hall in London. These large-scale productions incorporated stage illusions (levitations, decapitations, appearances and disappearances of persons, etc.) or classic tricks from the magicians’ repertoire in Oriental packaging (the gypsy thread, bullet-catching, etc.). These shows competed to come up with original formulas, as can be seen in the posters from the period, designed to drum up public interest. Performers of the era showed few scruples about copying the most successful tricks of other magicians.

So that technicians had time to prepare between each large illusion, magicians performed manipulation routines with the accessories that would later become central to close-up: cards, coins, ropes, scarves, etc. In time, some artists gained celebrity by transforming these interludes into specialized acts. For example, Nelson Downs performed coin manipulations under the stage-name “the King of Koins.”
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The Birth of Vaudeville
Towards the middle of the 19th Century in England, Charles Morton opened the first Music Hall where patrons paid specifically in order to see a show. Until then, Music Halls had been simple cafés were people would pay for a drink and perhaps see a performance. Morton changed everything by building the paid-admission Canturbury Music Hall. His immediate success gave rise to what would later become known as Vaudeville, or the variety show circuit. Before long, there were countless variety theatres throughout England and the US—and all over the world, for that matter. Vaudeville offered many opportunities to magicians with simple acts (without large illusions) for the next 100 years, until television came along, threatening the extinction of live entertainment altogether.
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From Close-up to Table-hopping
At the beginning of the 20th century, the spotlight fell on Harry Houdini, whose stunning escapes made him a media icon and international star. At the same time, a new style of magic was developing: “close-up.” In England and the US, the evolution of close-up was partially driven by amateur magicians who formed clubs to share their expertise, wrote books and organized conferences. Professional magicians began specializing in close-up, which they performed in cabarets and swank restaurants, circulating among the tables to show off their magic skills at close range. In so doing, they created a new specialty: “table-hopping.”
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White gloves and Top Hats
In the mid-20th Century, conjuring became a popular hobby. Young boys commonly received magic sets as birthday or Christmas presents and, in the US, the famous Tarbell Magic Course was on sale in major department stores! While a number of specializations had emerged from close-up (cards, coins, ropes, etc.), related fields (mentalism, pick-pocketing, balloon sculpture, Chinese shadows, ventriloquism, etc.) gained importance, becoming arts in their own right. French magicians suggested the creation of a new umbrella organization, the F.I.S.M., that would bring together all the magic clubs in the world. France organized the first World Championships in magic. At the same time, magicians made their peace with television, and made frequent appearances on variety shows and children’s programs. In the 1960s, the Englishman Robert Harbin created a new sensation with the Zig-Zag, a variation of the sawing-a-woman-in-two illusion. The dashing Channing Pollock, became famous for his elegant dove routine. This was the heyday of magicians in coat-and-tails and top hats, which lasted until mega-illusions came into vogue in the US. David Copperfield brought back the tradition of huge traveling magic shows from the 1950s. He set the tone for a new era of excess in magic by making the Statue of Liberty disappear!
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Bigger is Better!
In the 1970s, Las Vegaas gave magicians free reign to let their imaginations run wild. Shows with big stage illusions reached a level of unparalleled sophistication. Theatres were created for star magicians first and then casinos added on as an afterthought! The German duo Sigfried and Roy represented the apogee of this phenomenon. Night after night, thousands of enchanted spectators witnessed the appearance or disappearance of cars, elephants, white tigers—and pink Flemish by the dozen. Las Vegas became—and still remains—the CITY OF MAGICIANS, where a casino without a celebrity magician is a casino destined to fail.
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Close-up Grows up
Meanwhile, close-up came into its own. Today every father knows at least a card trick or two to entertain his kids, and magicians often perform close-up on television. Table-hopping has firmly established itself; it’s no longer uncommon to find a magician entertaining at private receptions or in exclusive restaurants. Conjuring has become a popular hobby, accessible to everyone: it stimulates creativity and the imagination, hones concentration and attention to detail, and encourages contact with others. An increasing number of women are getting involved in magic, to everyone’s benefit. In France, table-hopping only emerged in the 1970s, and it is still difficult from French amateurs to find books describing more advanced tricks than those found in magic books. Gallic magicians continue to protect their secrets, but times are bound to change.
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The 21st Century Will Be Spiritual or Nothing
In the 1980s, the Israeli Uri Geller made headlines in England and then all over Europe by bending teaspoons and stopping watches... with the power of his mind! He set the stage for the magic of the 21st Century: mentalism. At a time when people are asking difficult questions about religion and about the future of the Earth, interest in ESP, spirituality, and parapsychology has never been greater. For or against, the debate is open and we can watch in glee as magicians unmask false mediums on television. Still, ancestral fears about the future’s uncertainty coupled with the need for belief, constitute a substantial basis for the reëmergence of mentalism.
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The Information Age
Towards the end of the 1990s, the US takes the lead again, and out of New York came David Blaine. Having understood that audiences were no longer surprised by simple card tricks, Blaine began playing with the threshold between mentalism and close-up. He capitalized on a widespread interest in the mysterious, framing his tricks like paaranormal phenomena. To this, he added spectacular demonstrations of physical endurance to enhance his mysterious image. Drawing inspiration from ancestral rites and Christian iconography, he fasted for 44 days, leapt from the top of a tall pole after standing there for 35 hours, froze himself for several days within a block of ice... Meanwhile, a masked magician began making appearances on a major television station in the US giving away the secrets behind classic magic tricks. An global outcry arose, much to the program’s benefit, but the death knell had already been sounded for the notion of secrecy in magic. From then on, information would be accessible to whoever bothered looking for it.
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The Present Day...
Today, magic has become a profitable business open to everyone. If the notion of secrecy isn’t what it used to be, secrets remain hard to come by because they are lost in a vast sea of information. In fact, today thousands of specialty videos, books, DVDs, and magic tricks are available from thousands of magic dealers. New Internet sites on magic seem to spring up every day. There are conventions, conferences, and magic clubs where magicians meet. Even the lay public, at one time totally ignorant about magicians’ techniques, is today better educated: many people know a few tricks or have a friend who is a magician—they know if a magician is good or bad. Today, the secret doesn’t only reside in knowing how a trick is done, but in the art of presenting it well.

Sadly, it seems that there are fewer and fewer magic shows in Europe. Most of the big shows remain concentrated in the United States. Paradoxically, the only option that remains is the very thing that destroyed Music Hall: TV. In comparison with television in other countries, French television doesn’t seem particularly interested in magic. Is the problem that French magicians have an image that is too outdated in respect to Anglo-Saxon magicians, or is it just that French viewers aren’t interested in magic? One thing is for sure: we won’t complain about seeing too much magic on TV.
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