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What is Magic?

So, what is Magic?

If you could define it in a single sentence, how would you do it?

Take your time.

It is a struggle, isn’t it?

Your definition of what magic is could be completely different to the person sitting in the next room.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “magic” is defined as the power to apparently influence events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

Very hip. Very tra la la!

Throughout recorded history, magic is often referenced should an event occur that we could not understand. Day turning into night?  Magic. Lightning storms? Magic. Medical remedies? Say it with me… Magic!

This has stretched back all the way to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Even they were fascinated with it! The Western interpretation of magic emerged from ancient Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman heritage.

Archaeologists have unearthed Greco-Egyptian papyruses – dated between the 1st and 4th Century – which contained astounding details. Some included magical recipes including animals, in addition to vocal invocations in tandem with ritual preparations to ensure a spell is performed to its optimal levels. Irrespective of what magic is, it has undeniably been apart of society since the dawn of time. Because of the thousands of years since it’s inception, it has undeniably taken many different forms.

Divination and Charms

Divination has been around for seemingly the formation of our species. This may range from Etrsucan art (the reading of animal entrails to see the future) to augury (interpreting the life cycle of birds), practices which became in vogue depending on the situation. More often than not, it became a device for political strategy making: going to war, for example.

Scholars would claim that to counter an opponent’s sorcery (which included necromancy – the invoking of spirits), light magic came into being. This breaks down to the light versus the dark, the yin versus the yang.

Very fancy.

Richard Kieckhefer, a renowned American historian, identified two schools of magic: low magic depicting charms, protective talismans, prominent divination, and medical magic through the appliance of herbs and general consumption. High magic, also known as intellectual magic, arises from formal education. To clarify, subjects such as necromancy, alchemy, astral magic, and astrology fall under this umbrella.

The creation and life cycle of a phoenix – mythological birds – are chronicled heavily across various medieval bestiaries. Origins dictate that the creature emerged from Arabia, had a potential life span of half a millenia (or 500 years), would be consumed with a raging fire before mysteriously rising again following nine days. The phoenix would, over time, find itself a firm staple in magic lore and entertainment. For instance, contemporary audiences would recognise one from the “Harry Potter” franchise: Professor Dumbledore’s feathered companion, Fawkes.  Unquestionably, the phoenix is perhaps the most celebrated magical creature in the West, with the dragon serving as its Eastern counterpart.

The concept would evolve and spread throughout Europe during the medieval period before eventually reaching global status following further exploration and colonialism following the 1500s.

The History of Magic

The history of magic encapsulates an individual accomplishing a feat that is seemingly impossible to others.  This has been interpreted and defined (fairly or otherwise) as the supernatural, rituals, illusions, and dark magic – often viewed as witchcraft.

Did you know, for example, that it was widely believed that you could make yourself invisible by chanting a specific set list of words?  In a 17th Century manuscript called “The Book of King Solomon”, there is a chapter named “The Key to Knowledge” which details how any one individual may achieve this.

I am prepared to share this with you now.

Are you sitting down?

Repeat the following:

“Stabbon, Asen, Gabellum, Saneney, Noty, Enobal, Labonerem, Balametem, Balnon, Tygumel, Millegaly, Juneneis, Hearma, Hamorache, Yesa, Seya, Senoy, Henen, Barucatha, Acararas, Taracub, Bucarat, Caramy, by the mercy whitch you beare towardes mann kynde, make me to be invysible.”

Let us know if you successfully became translucent following the chanting of the above mantra. My fingers and toes are crossed!

The above may be identified in a chapter entitled “Howe experyments to be invysible must bee preparedd”.  The owner of the text – scholar and writer Gabriel Harvey – allegedly disappeared for large considerable chunks during his later years.

Did he crack the code?  What do you think?

Supernatural Magic

It gets weirder.

Clairvoyance – looking into the future – is often depicted as one being gifted with magic. But how would we be able to visually identify and locate an individual possessing this ability? According to “The Old Egyptian Fortune-Teller’s Last Legacy” which was published in London in 1775, a clear-cut method of determining an individual’s path was by deciphering the moles on their face and body. Particularly, on their buttocks – an honourable man, or a rich woman. Yes, you read that correctly.  Moreover, a considerable amount of lines in one’s palms would indicate that a particular individual would undoubtedly be a “trusty and faithful person”. If only life was so simple!

However, while this became widespread, it was not universally accepted. In contrast, it was outlawed and punishable by torture – even death.

Medieval Magic

This proved to be deadly accurate four hundred years previously during the late Middle Ages. Magic was interpreted to be both antisocial and blasphemous, in no small part due to the growing power of the Catholic Church.  This can be encapsulated from a single source: “The Hammer of Witches” – or Malleus Maleficarum – written by Jacob Sprenger and Henry Kramer in 1486.  The book would detail in-depth witchcraft practices such as the witches’ sabbath: a secretive congregation where individuals submit to the Devil.  We can pinpoint this document, which was heavily re-printed and distributed, to be the primary instigator of misogynist behaviour towards women (and some men) which society deemed to be ostracised. The growing witch hunt would continue to soar as societies across Europe struggled to balance magic, religion, and ever-growing science.

But how do we differentiate light magic from its dark counterpart?  A trio of Italian philosophers – Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, and Giordano Bruno – were accepted as their practices were deemed to be within social and religious parameters.  In addition, a majority of others, however, were labelled as evil magicians who had sold their soul to the Devil – as reflected in Faust legends.

I hate to say it, but history is undeniably recorded by the winners. In light of this, some aspects are constructed to reflect the predominant narrative.

Magic For Entertainment

Let me be the first one to say that I 100% cannot influence events by using supernatural forces. I cannot bring back the dead. I cannot transform my body and assume the image of Hugh Jackman.  Finally, I cannot transmute metal into gold: trust me, I’ve tried!  Many times!

What I CAN do is perform powerful psychological illusions. Professional magicians accomplish their feats by taking advantage of cracks and flaws in our collective conscious understanding. It is quite simple when you break it down: when someone expects to look up, you make them look down.  To summarise, magicians apply misdirection to respectfully manipulate what the audience sees before their eyes, before eventually surpassing all their expectations with a subversive reveal.

Modern Magic Tricks

Contemporary magic may be formally broken down across eight sub-divisions (read about different types of magicians here):

Appearance:

Making something appear from the thin air.

Levitation:

Making an object or person float in the air.

Penetration:

Passing an object through something or someone.

Prediction:

Announcing what another person shall say or do in the impending future.

Restoration:

Transforming something damaged or destroyed to its original settings.

Transformation:

Changing one object into another.

Transposition:

Switching two items in each other’s place.

Vanish:

Making an object or person disappear.

Performance magic, however, is no different to watching a film.  It works in the same manner!  Films – typically – operate under a three act structure: the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution.  Ostensibly, this may be interpreted as the Beginning, the Middle, and the End. (Check out our magic in movies article here!).

Magic too functions under a similar three act premise.  Arguably, this is more of a Hollywood interpretation, but nonetheless a magic act may be broken down into the following:

Magic Premises

The Pledge

The Turn

The Prestige

Every magic trick consists of three parts or acts.  The below is taken from Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige”, which was released worldwide in 2006 and is unquestionably a great summary:

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts, or acts.  

The first part is called ‘The Pledge’.  The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man.  He shows you this object.  Furthermore, perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal.  

But of course… It probably isn’t.

The second act is called ‘The Turn’.  The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.  Now, you’re looking for the secret… But you won’t find it, because of course, you’re not really looking.  

You don’t really want to know.  You want to be fooled.  But you wouldn’t clap yet.  Because making something disappear isn’t enough: you have to bring it back.  

That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige’.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

What are your thoughts about magic?  Is there a particular brand of magic, timeline, or individual that peaks your curiosity?

Please let us know in the comments section below!  Irrespective of whether you agree or disagree, I would love to hear from you!

Take care, and stay safe!