The History of Magic
Magic is a super cool hobby and top professional magicians make serious wads of cash performing in Vegas and on TV, but how did it all begin? Who was the first magician and what was the first trick invented?
Magic has a long and illustrious history with the early origins shrouded in mystery, controversy and speculation. If ancient reports are to be believed, the earliest magic performances could date back to over 5000 years BC, making the first magic tricks nearly 7000 years old! That’s just the start of the incredible story of how magic became so popular today.
What is Magic?
Magic has delighted, shocked and astonished people for thousands of years.
Magic is the art of using supernatural forces, invisible gimmicks and highly practised physical skills to perform superhuman feats which break the rules of physics, predict the future or even apparently read someone's secret thoughts.
During a party, a magician can walk around in-amongst the guests performing close to people with small objects or reading minds. This is the most popular form of magic and is called close up or walk-around magic.
More formally a magician may prefer to perform on stage. Either presenting small effects on a table during a "parlour routine" or larger scale illusions as part of a cabaret show. These are often performed on cruise ships.
A few magicians may even get a chance to appear on TV. Traditionally TV magic has been similar to stage magic but recently, magicians such as David Blaine and Dynamo have helped develop a new genre of magic call street magic. As it sounds, the magician with a small scale TV crew, approach members of the public on the street and perform for them.
A lot of magicians perform card tricks as they are easy to carry, readily available and most people are familiar with what they are. Magic isn’t just limited to card tricks though as some magicians specialise in coin tricks, mind reading or huge illusions big enough to fill a football stadium.
Entertainment is key in modern-day magic. The art of magic and the skill of a magician is to deceive in a delightful way, much like a roller coaster gives the impression of being out of control but in reality, it is well designed, engineered and executed making it safe, enjoyable and fun.
Magic is so powerful many people over the years have used magic to deceive people and trick them to hand over large sums of money.
Magic routines take years to develop and magicians practice for hours to flawlessly perform feats of great skill and obsess over the tiniest details in the pursuit of the perfect trick. One that has an invisible method but appears to hold great power.
People have paid huge sums of money for magicians notebooks, travelled all over the world to catch a backstage glimpse, or paid dishonest theatre staff to find the secrets of a well-engineered trick. The allure of discovering a well-kept secret is powerful enough to make people dedicate their whole lives to seek out an answer.
Magicians are notably different from psychics as magicians are honest about their dishonesty. Psychics claim to have powers above and beyond most human’s abilities and ask people to pay for access to these questionable and unproven capabilities. Many psychics have been challenged to prove their skills under scientific conditions but as yet no one has been able to do so. Between 1964 and 2015 the magician James Randi offered $1 million to a psychic who could prove their powers under scientific conditions and the prize was never claimed.
Magic is enjoyed all over the world every night at parties, banquets, weddings, charity fundraisers, in theatres and on TV.
Who Invented Magic?
A magician by the name of Dedi is believed by some to be the first person to perform magic but it is not known if he invented the tricks that he performed. Stories of his magic tricks include many references to removing and reattaching the head of a bird, having a trained and untethered lion follow him and the ability to drink vast quantities of beer.
Stories of Dedi’s magic routines were passed on through word of mouth for nearly 500 years before allegedly being written down in the Westcar Papyrus. In this time stories almost certainly would have been exaggerated, distorted or misremembered so it is impossible to say with any certainty if Dedi performed the acts as they were described.
The Westcar Papyrus
The Westcar Papyrus is an important document for magical historians as it apparently contains some of the earliest descriptions of magic tricks in existence. However, as we will see, the Westcar Papyrus is in itself quite mysterious making it unreliable as a historical source.
What we do know is that the material used as paper is similar to other texts from the same period and that it is written in hieratic, a common Egyptian language at the time. It is well written, indicating that the author was probably well educated. The papyrus had been used previously with evidence of old writing having been removed. This was common at the time because writing materials were so expensive. The papyrus has been carbon-dated could be from around the correct time period.
So far, so good. Everything seems to be pointing towards the Westcar Papyrus being a legitimate ancient work. However, this is where this gets sketchy.
The author of the Westcar Papyrus is unknown, so the 12 fables within cannot be cross-referenced or verified. It is not known how much of the text is a historical record and how much is fictitious or exactly when it was written.
The papyrus is extremely fragile and it is broken into many parts with some missing and frayed making the stories hard to read and some details are left to best guesses.
Rumour has it that around 1820 Henry Westcar “discovered” the papyrus while travelling in Egypt. As he didn’t document when, where or how he acquired the text, many believe he may have stolen it.
Around 1840 Karl Richard Lepsius acquired the papyrus. Again, the exact details of the acquisition are unclear, leading many to question it's legitimacy.
Strangely, given the significance of the artefact, rather than put it on display, Karl chose to keep it in his house adding fuel to the fire that is was either fake or stolen.
In 1886 Adolf Erman bought the papyrus from the Lepsius estate and donated it to the museum of Berlin. Since then the text has been studied numerous times which have resulted in a number of differing translations.
The text describes someone performing magic tricks in ancient Egypt for Pharaoh Khufu around 2700 BC. There is speculation that this is Dedi, however, the magician described performing is not named so it is impossible to say it is Dedi for certain.
It has been speculated that a painting discovered in the tomb of Baqet III at Beni Hasan pictures someone performing the cups and balls, a classic magic routine that many notable magicians believe to be the pinnacle of magician’s skill and showmanship, but others say the painting is nothing more than a game using two pots or even people trading goods.
Magic in Greek Mythology
Greek mythology gives us the first firm evidence of magic being performed. There are many references to magic being during this time and even some that can be cross-referenced from more than one source. Around 1000 B.C. Magic was seldom used as entertainment and it was more likely to be used by confidence tricksters and charlatans to trick unsuspecting spectators into parting with their cash in rigged games much like bar bets and con artists of today. There is even a picture of collaborators stealing from spectators while they were distracted by the magician.
Many of the modern classics we know today, like the cups and balls routine were invented around this time.
The Dark Ages provide little clues to how or if magic was being used but magic was almost certainly played a large part in witchcraft, the occult and faith healers of the time. I’d be interested to hear from you if you can expand on this era.
Discovery of Witchcraft
Around this time there is a huge development for magical historians. In 1584 Reginald Scott published what is believed by many to be the first-ever magic book. The Discovery of Witchcraft. Primarily published as a tool to expose the methods of cheats and tricksters it is a fascinating expose of the magic methods being used at the time. Little did Reginald know that nearly 500 years later magicians would still be pouring over his pages fascinated to find out some of the earliest methods ever to be published.
The 1800s saw a real step change for magicians with magic gaining huge popularity and making many magicians great fortunes.
Notable magicians born and or working around this time include Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, considered to be the inventor of modern magic, Harry Houdini, perhaps the greatest known magician of all time, Professor Louis Hoffman, Dai Vernon and Joseph Pinetti to name just a few. Automata became a popular attraction by provoking intrigue at circus sideshows and carnivals.
Many magic texts were written and published around this time, most of which are still considered to be the first books beginner magicians should read or the absolute pinnacle examples for their area of expertise. Titles include Expert at the Card Table by SW Erdenase and Modern Magic.
The early 1900s saw the publication of many other classic magic textbooks. Houdini was performing all over the world with great success and magician scholars were inventing new illusions such as the classic Sawing in Half by PT Selbit.
Magic enjoyed a surge in popularity around the 1960s due to the variety scene in the UK and the TV becoming cheap enough for people to have them at home. Magicians such as David Nixon, David Burglas and Paul Daniels become household names, performing in working man’s clubs, in variety halls and making numerous appearances on TV. At the same time across the pond in the USA, the Vegas strip was just getting started and magicians such as David Copperfield and Sigfield and Roy took centre stage with the grand illusion shows, delighting thousands of tourists every year.
The Magic Circle
Since 1905 magicians have been meeting regularly in London to discuss and perform magic to one another. In a pub in Soho over 100 years ago 23 members agreed to create a magic club and the magic circle was born.
Notable members such as Dynamo, Paul Daniels, David Devant and the Prince of Wales have taken and passed their entrance exam to join the world’s premier magical society.
Now boasting its own dedicated headquarters, with practice rooms, offices, a 100-seater theatre, a museum and a library around 1500 members enjoy lectures, discussions, competitions and socialising.
More details are at the magic circle’s website www.themagiccircle.co.uk
The Magic Castle
The Magic Circle’s counterpart in the United States is the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. Not only a clubhouse for the 5000 members of the Academy of Magical Arts and Sciences the magic castle boasts a world-renown 5-star restaurant and 5 different bars, each with its own unique style. Visits to the Castle are strictly by invitation only, so if you want to see inside the “Mecca for Magicians” you can find all the details you need right here www.magiccastle.com
Modern Magic is enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to many high calibre performances on popular TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent, Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, Dynamo’s Magician Impossible and the film Harry Potter. Many people are making good livings working as magicians at weddings, parties and corporate functions all over the UK.
There is a huge industry supporting these workers with inventors and creators developing new tricks, books, DVDs and downloads. Yet more magicians make good livings selling magic tricks through huge online magic shops. Magic as an industry is a substantial contributor to GDP.
Who would have thought that the act of removing and reattaching the head of a bird some 7000 years ago would lead to the creation of a large worldwide industry?