History of Magical Illusions and Tricks

Magic illusions have existed for centuries. This performing art has been called magic. But it is not the same as witchcraft, which is also called magic. Witchcraft used the attempt to control the natural world through supernatural or paranormal methods.

Illusion magic creates things or performs actions that seem supernatural, impossible, but all achieved by conventional means. Such tricks were used to entertain crowds. Modern illusionist tricks can be traced back to the eighteenth century, but their very origins lie in antiquity.

The word “magic” has ancient Persian roots. It was later borrowed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In English, the word magic replaced the Old English wiccecrft, which meant “witchcraft”. However, it is believed that examples of magical practices existed even before the ancient Persians. For example, drawings on the walls of Egyptian tombs have the oldest depictions of magical actions. Such a tomb was discovered by archaeologists in the necropolis of Beni Hassan. It belongs to the pharaoh Baqet III, who lived in the XXI century BC. The ancient drawing presents scenes with two kneeling men.

Between them are four inverted bowls. Some historians suggest that this is the first trick with balls and cups where there is a magical sleight of hand. Other scholars say that some other ancient Egyptian game may be depicted in the drawing. Of course, there is no absolute certainty that the wall of an ancient Egyptian tomb depicts exactly the game of balls and cups, but it is reliably known that such tricks were done by the Romans. Lucilius Seneca the Younger mentions it in his letters, dating back to ‘65.

He wrote that the magician’s cups were harmlessly deceptive, and he was pleased that it was only a trick. Thus the trick with cups and balls is recognized as the oldest trick in the world. It was invented as far back as Ancient Egypt or Rome and has survived to this day. In the modern world, it is known as the thimble trick. This trick is still extremely popular today. In the past, bowls and balls were used in it. The magician makes the ball disappear imperceptibly in one of the bowls and just as imperceptibly appear in the other.

The number of balls under the inverted bowls also increases or decreases. The magician skillfully manipulates the objects, retrieving the ball now from under one bowl, now from under another. In Italy, this trick is known as a “dice game.” Italian magicians use cylindrical containers and cubes of boxwood instead of bowls. In the ancient world, this trick was also known in the Middle East and various Asian countries.

Often European magicians wore their paraphernalia for tricks tied to their belts. In this way it was convenient to hide the objects inconspicuously to those around them. Hieronymus Bosch depicted such a magician in his painting. But apart from the trick with bowls and balls, almost nothing is known about other magical illusions in medieval Europe.

But besides entertainment, the tricks of illusion were often conflated with witchcraft. The Englishman Reginald Scotus was engaged in exposing such practices in 1584. He wrote the book “The Discovery of Sorcery”, in which he revealed some secrets of tricks. He called magicians and sorcerers charlatans. Scott’s work is considered the first published guide to magic. The author argued magicians were simply performing tricks, not witchcraft, so it was not worth burning and drowning for witchcraft either.

Scott claimed that the Roman Catholic Church and authorities were mixing optical tricks with witchcraft, so they declared a hunt for magicians as witches. But Scott’s work did not affect attitudes toward magicians. The book was often criticized, even by scholars. When King John VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England in 1603, he ordered almost all copies of the book to be burned at the stake. Hence, almost no copies of Scott’s work have survived.

As the years passed, magic became more and more entertainment. Fakirs and magicians were often seen at fairs entertaining the crowds with their tricks. Magic took on a respectable appearance. Some magicians achievedes, such a celebrity in Europe was the magician Isaac Fox. He performed at the annual Bartholomew’s Fair in London. This event was attended by a huge number of people, both rich and poor. Fox performed his tricks, even for King George II. The illusionist made a handsome fortune from his art. At the time of his death in 1732, he had over 10,000 pounds, which in today’s world is equivalent to one million dollars. Fox is remembered in history not only as a magician but also as a talented artist.

The birth of modern magic illusion took place in the 19th century. The father of modern magic is considered being the French illusionist Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, born in 1805 in Blois. As a young man, Jean-Eugène trained as a watchmaker and wanted to continue the work of his father, a watchmaker. But the young man was also fond of magic tricks. During his leisure time, he honed his skills as a magician. Jean Eugène differed from other magicians. He did not wear bright wizard costumes. The young man dressed in a strict evening suit, which was adopted by the next generations of illusionists.

Perhaps this type of clothing was necessary for him to expose the mystical aura around his tricks. In addition, Robert-Ouden was telling the secrets of his tricks. Another reason for the strict attire might have been Muslim magic tricks. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Algeria came under French rule, which did not suit the Muslims living there. Dissatisfied with French rule, Islamic leaders incited people to revolt, including the use of magical tricks.

In the middle of the 19th century, Robert-Oudin was sent to Algeria on a mission to expose Muslim fakirs. He performed the same tricks as they did, then revealing their secret. One day, he performed his tricks for the leaders of 60 tribes. After the secrets were revealed, half of the chiefs defected to the French.

During the same years that the Frenchman Robert-Ouden was touring, magicians in England were also achieving brilliant success. They used various mechanical devices in their numbers. Two venues that were famous for their magical performances were the Egyptian Hall and the Royal Polytechnic Institute. George Alfred Cooke and John Nevil Maskelyne, among other magicians, performed there. Harry Houdini, then an unknown illusionist, also began his career at the Egyptian Hall in 1898.

Even today, magicians continue to adapt and develop ancient tricks and illusions, incorporating modern innovations into them. This only adds more mystery to their art.

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