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History of Magic


An ancient Egyptian papyrus, dating back to approximately 2500 BCE, illustrates a tale of a magician named Dedi captivating the pharaoh with an animal decapitation trick. As the story goes, Dedi astoundingly restores the severed heads and proceeds to offer prophecies to the king. While some scholars dismiss the narrative as purely fictional, others note parallels in Egyptian lore featuring magicians who also prophesied.

In a depiction found on the tomb wall of Baqet III from the 21st century BCE, two individuals are depicted seated around a table with overturned bowls. Interpretations vary, with some viewing it as an early rendition of the “Cup and Balls” routine, while others suggest it may represent a different type of game. Additionally, the painting portrays jugglers and various leisure activities.

However, it wasn’t until around 50 CE that magic as a performance art was reliably recorded. The Acetabularii, a group of magicians, entertained audiences in ancient Rome with the Cup and Balls routine for approximately 250 years. Around 65 CE, Roman historian Seneca the Younger remarked on his enjoyment of the cup and dice trick’s mystery, likening it to harmless deception.

Between 400 and 1500 CE, little is documented about the history of magic, although much of it is associated with the occult rather than entertainment. In 1584, Reginald Scot challenged the persecution of individuals for simple magic tricks by publishing “The Discoveries of Witchcraft,” revealing many conjuring secrets and considered the earliest material on performance magic. Despite its significance, first editions of Scot’s book became moderately rare after King James I ordered its burning in 1603.

Until the 18th century, magic shows were a popular form of entertainment at fairs, with itinerant performers showcasing tricks to the public. As belief in witchcraft diminished, magic gained respectability and attracted wealthy private patrons. Isaac Fawkes, an English showman, played a pivotal role in this transition, advertising his act from the 1720s onwards and reportedly performing for King George II. Fawkes’ amassed wealth upon his death in 1732 was reportedly substantial, exceeding ten thousand pounds, equivalent to over a million dollars today.

Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, originally a clockmaker, stands as a seminal figure in the evolution of modern entertainment magic. In 1845, he inaugurated a magic theater in Paris, thus earning the moniker “The Father of Modern Magic.” Robert-Houdin’s innovative approach shifted magic from its traditional setting at fairs to a theatrical experience for paying audiences.

Concurrently in London, John Henry Anderson spearheaded a similar transition. In 1840, he unveiled the New Strand Theatre, captivating audiences under the persona of The Great Wizard of the North, thus establishing himself as one of the earliest globally recognized magicians.

By the century’s end, grand magic spectacles permanently staged in prominent theaters became commonplace. John Nevil Maskelyne, alongside his partner Cooke, held court at London’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly for an impressive 31-year span.

Alexander Herrmann, also known as Herrmann the Great, epitomized the quintessential image of a magician: sporting thick wavy hair, a top hat, a goatee, and a tailcoat. As part of the esteemed Herrmann family, often hailed as the “first family of magic,” he left an indelible mark on the art form.

Harry Houdini, the renowned escapologist and magician, adopted his stage name as homage to Robert-Houdin. He pioneered numerous stage magic tricks, notably those associated with escapology, solidifying his status as an icon in both magic and show business history. Alongside contemporaries like Maskelyne and Devant, Howard Thurston, Harry Kellar, and others, Houdini flourished during what is now revered as “The Golden Age of Magic.”

Performance magic seamlessly transitioned from theatrical stages to television specials, captivating vast audiences. Notable magicians of the 20th century included Okito, David Devant, Harry Blackstone Sr. and Jr., Howard Thurston, Theodore Annemann, Cardini, Joseph Dunninger, Dai Vernon, Fred Culpitt, Tommy Wonder, and the legendary duo Siegfried & Roy. In the 21st century, luminaries such as David Copperfield, Lance Burton, James Randi, Penn and Teller, David Blaine, Criss Angel, Hans Klok, and Derren Brown continue to enchant audiences worldwide.