In this article, I am going to attempt to present a history of magic.
I am going to confine myself to the western view of magic.
My reason is that the concept of magic is a global phenomenon that varies incredibly across the world, often very different according to the region.
Since most of my readers will be from a western background it will be less confusing to concentrate on magic as we understand it in the west.
In Part 1 I intend to look at the early history of Magic and how it became part of western society.
I will then move onto Part 2, which will be a history of Stage Performance (Conjuring).
Table of Contents
History Of Magic
Many people who have studied the subject are of the opinion that magic is older than religion and that western society has been dominated first by magic, then by religion, and finally by science.
The very roots of the western view began in the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman heritage.
This structure gradually spread into northern Europe during Medieval times, before being spread globally after 1500, in the colonial era.
The basic framework of this view follows the rise of Magic, and its subsequent decline, as it was replaced by Religion.
Then later the primacy of Science replaced Religion.
Zoroastrianism And The Magic
The origin of the word Magic is Greek and is based on the word Mageia (in Latin Magia).
This term refers to a Tribe in Persia (Iran) that had a religion called Zoroastrianism.
If we refer to the Bible and think of the Christmas Story, we have the three Kings (The Magi) who came from Persia and were following a prophecy from their religion.
According to the Roman-Greco tradition was that the members of the Median Tribe in Persia “The Magicians” had secret knowledge and powers.
A widespread belief in these magicians spread across the Middle East and eventually collided with the Greeks and Romans, who became very interested in the wide varieties of sorcery that they came across.
They also investigate ways of countering sorcery that might be used against them by their rivals.
The other appearance of the Magic in the Bible is “Simon Magus (the singular word for Magic)” also known as Simon the Magician who tried to buy the miraculous powers of the disciples (Acts 8:9-25).
This belief in Magicians continued well into the early years of the Christian Roman Empire.
The belief ran in parallel with Christian beliefs.
Part of this was the need for Christian counter rituals to fight magic. Even in Byzantium times, there was a belief in the “Evil Eye” which required Christian Rituals to defeat.
Between 300 – 1500 as Europe converted to Christianity there was resistance from the established religions that had previously developed out of magical roots.
These Pagan religions were connected to magic by Christians.
The Christian missionaries would simultaneously demonize the existing religions as Pagan and at the same time absorb Pagan holidays and Folk Medicine.
Despite these attempts to wipe out Magic during this period it still survived alongside the Christian religion.
Later on, in the Medieval times (1050-1350), the Christians started to associate Magic with heresy, in a further attempt to kill its influence.
This was the beginning of the end of the Magic Era and the ascendancy of Religion.
By the 1400s this persecution had developed further and active persecution of Pagans and other non-Christian Groups was extended to include Jews and Muslims.
This was the source of the belief that the Magicians (Pagans) were in league with the Devil.
This developed into a belief that magic was a constituent part of the devil’s plan, and the association with witchcraft was made.
Even while this persecution was going on and practitioners of “Black Magic” were being condemned, so simultaneously there was a serious interest in aspects of magic that had financial benefits (like alchemy and astrology).
This interest in magical traditions from the Middle East was extended as the west entered the period of colonization and contact was made with other cultures, like India and China.
Interest in exotic magic was merged with the existing beliefs but at the same time, many activities that once had been described as magic were becoming associated with Science.
This was the early stage of the transition from a religious-based society to that of a scientifically based one.
A religion that had overcome Magic was now in turn losing out to Science.
The loss of power of religion strangely enough allowed a resurgence of interest in Magic, which was regarded as mere superstition by the majority (and consequently not a threat to society and therefore not in need of suppression).
The Western concept of Magic was now as “a set of beliefs and practices that were neither Christian nor Scientific.”
Society could now be described as having a world view that included several strands, including Magic, Religion, and Science, combining to represent how we see the world.
This first section has been devoted to placing magic in its correct historical setting.
I have looked at how society has understood, and reacted to magic over history.
This article will now move on to Magic as a performance within Western Culture.
In my previous article, I discussed the history of Magic Tricks and how Magic had developed as performance art over the years.
How some of the earliest magic tricks were still performed today, and how modern Stage Magicians were part of a long line that stretched back into antiquity.
I will now look at this western stage magic in much more detail.
History of Magic and Conjuring
The definition of conjuring is: “the performance of tricks which are seemingly magical, typically involving sleight of hand.”
This definition fits in very well with what modern stage conjurors do.
This is not the same as a Magick: “In Wicca and certain other belief systems, action or effort was undertaken to effect personal transformation or external change.”
This is a continuation of the old Pagan beliefs.
It is conjuring that we will now discuss in part 2 of the article.
Descriptions of magic, as a form of entertainment stretch back to Egypt in 2500 BC.
The first book to be written about magic secrets was “The Discoverie of Witchcraft” which was published in 1584.
It was published by Reginald Scot in an effort to stop people from being killed for witchcraft.
During the seventeenth century, many books were published on the subject and magic shows were a regular feature of fairs.
One of the acknowledged founders of magic as an entertainment form was Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.
He was a French watchmaker who pioneered the transition of magic shows from a low-class entertainment that took place at fairs to a much more professional entertainment that was performed at a theater in Paris, in a formal setting.
This is where the concept of a magician performing in a top hat and tails originates.
During the time that he was performing as an amateur and working in the watchmakers, he spent a great deal of time working on mechanical tricks, a skill which overlapped his work on clockwork automatons for timepieces (such as figures that would come out of the clock and strike the hour).
Eventually, he opened the “Palais Royale” theater, a very plush theater that mimicked the plush drawing rooms of the nobility at the time.
This theme was completed by Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin wearing full evening dress.
The opening night was a disaster because of his stage fright and the theater almost was closed, but over-time he became an acclaimed magician.
Another groundbreaking magician was Englishman Isaac Fawkes who claimed to have performed for King George II.
The work of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin and Isaac Fawkes helped move magic to a more sophisticated audience than it had enjoyed at local fairs.
A third figure, Jacob Philadelphia toured Europe and Russia in prestigious venues with a show that was often described as a “scientific exhibition.”
Five years before Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin had opened his theater in Paris, John Henry Anderson opened the new Strand Theater in London’s West End where he performed Magic.
He became one of the earliest Magic superstars.
Five years after his opening of the new strand Theater, he opened a second theater in Glasgow.
This snowballed until the end of the century the performance of Magic predominantly took place in large theater venues.
British Magician John Nevil Maskelyne opened and performed at the Egyptian Room in London’s Pall Mall, with a residency that lasted 31 years.
Many of the illusions developed there are still performed today. Incidentally, as an interesting aside, John Nevil Maskelyne was also the inventor of the “Pay Toilet.”
One of the most famous illusions invented by Maskelyne and his partner Cooke was Levitation.
The new century was marked in 1905 by the creation of the Magic Circle in London, to “Promote and Advance the art of stage magic.”
A year earlier in the USA Harry Houdini (who had taken his name from Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin) started to make waves with his own style of tricks that involved escaping from a variety of seemingly impossible situations.
He first made his name on the vaudeville Circuit but later carried out high profile stunts like being suspended between two skyscrapers.
He became President of the Society of American Magicians, the American equivalent of the Magic Circle.
In 1906 Houdini’s fame was such that he was encouraged to get involved with movies and he starred in a number of roles until 1923 when he realized he was better sticking to magic. He was also an active Freemason.
Magic was now a mainstream entertainment with its own superstars.
With the coming of television, this opened a brand-new opportunity for Magicians who moved from theaters to television specials in both the USA and UK.
An Alphabetical List of Recent Magic Shows in the USA:
- Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed
- The Carbonaro Effect
- Criss Angel BeLIEve (TV series)
- Criss Angel Mindfreak
- Death by Magic
- Doug Henning’s World of Magic
- Magic for Humans
- The Magic Land of Allakazam
- Masters of Illusion (TV series)
- Mystery Magical Special
- Penn & Teller: Fool Us
- Penn & Teller: Off the Deep End
- Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular
- Phenomenon (TV program)
- Real Magic TV
- Television Magic
- THEM (2004 TV series)
- Wizard Wars
- The World’s Most Dangerous Magic
- The World’s Greatest Magic
An Alphabetical List of Recent Magic Shows in the UK:
- The Heist (Derren Brown special)
- How to Be a Psychic Spy
- How to Control the Nation
- How to Take Down a Casino
- Messiah (Derren Brown special)
- The Best of Magic
- Derren Brown: The Events
- Dynamo: Magician Impossible
- Killer Magic
- The Magicians (British TV series)
- Monkey Magic (UK TV series)
- The Paul Daniels Magic Show
- Penn & Teller: Fool Us
- The Secret Cabaret
- Street Magic TV
- Trick or Treat (TV series)
- Tricked (British TV series)
- Tricky Business (British TV series)
- Tricky TV
- Troy (TV series)
- The Unpleasant World of Penn & Teller
The TV specials made several magician’s very wealthy and opened new avenues of revenue for them, making them household names.
Just another example of how Magic has remained current with modern changes.
Las Vegas is the ultimate destination for magicians today.
To get a residency in one of the major venues can earn the performer substantial amounts of money.
Las Vegas is not just about gambling; it is a complete destination with some of the most fun-packed theatrical venues in the USA.
Night after night shows take place and many of them are in the genre of Magic, with some of the most well-known performers on stage.
No longer confined to pulling a rabbit out of the hat, today’s magic shows go so much further producing illusions that blow the mind. Here are some Recent Magicians that have appeared at las Vegas.
Penn and Teller
Performing at the Penn & Teller Theater at RIO is one of the most popular magical acts in the world.
This duo has been together since 1975 and performing at the Rio since 2001.
They are the longest-running resident act in the history of Las Vegas.
Performing at the MGM Grand Theater.
More people have seen Copperfield than even the famous Harry Houdini and he has had some truly astounding tricks over the years, like making the Statue of Liberty disappear.
The Mentalist LIVE
Gary McCambridge is the longest-running Mentalist show in Las Vegas.
With over thirty years of experience and a global reputation for his Mind reading, this is a show that challenges our perceptions
Mat Francis: Magic Reinvented Nightly
Mat Francis was the only Magician ever to win America’s Got Talent and performs at the Linq Mat Franco Theater.
It was voted one of the five best shows to see in Las Vegas.
Effect of COVID-19
Since the COVID-19 Pandemic hit, theaters all over the world have been going dark and performers have been struggling to continue to make a living.
This includes the world-famous Las Vegas Theaters and the big names from 2019 above have been shut for most of 2020.
In response to the long-term shut-down of many theaters and the restriction on parties in many places, a brand-new style of the magic act has started to appear.
There are many local party magicians now offering exclusive performances on ZOOM for children’s parties and corporate events.
It has provided some income for magicians for now during the crisis and opened new opportunities for the future.
Learn Magic Tricks!
If you’re interested in magic and learning magic tricks, there are some great options out there that you can choose from.
To make things a bit easier, I prepared a list of the best websites and YouTube channels where you can learn magic step by step:
Enter the amazing world of magic and start practicing today!
It is very clear that Magic has evolved over its extremely long history.
Dealing with religious intolerance and later moving from being a low-class street entertainment to prestigious theaters, then on to the world of movies and television, and now the internet.
Each generation of magicians is building on the work of the last.