Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business.
The Magic Circle was founded in 1905 and currently has about 1500 members, only 80 of whom are women. They have to be sponsored by existing members and perform a magic routine in order to be admitted, and then pass an exam within one year. They can then use the initials MMC after their name. There’s also an invitation-only Inner Magic Circle numbering 300 members (MIMCs). Their HQ is in Camden and has a theatre, library, dining room, and bar. Members have included the Prince of Wales, who was admitted in 1975 following a performance of a cup-and-balls routine.
Their motto is indocilis privata loqui ('not apt to disclose secrets'), and members give their word not to disclose magic secrets other than to bona fide students of magic, on pain of expulsion. You’re allowed to write about how to do magic, but only in books which are devoted entirely to that subject. In 1994 John Lenahan became the first magician to be expelled in 85 years for exposing the secret of Find the Lady on Des Lynham’s TV show How do they do that?
The Westcar Papyrus, an 18th–16th century bc Egyptian document now in a museum in Berlin, has the first known account of magic. In it King Cheops (or ‘Khufu’) is building the Great Pyramid at Giza around 2,600bc and he asks for a magician called Dedi. Dedi pulls the heads off a goose, a duck and an ox and then restores them to life, though he refuses to do the trick on a human prisoner. David Copperfield used to do this trick with a duck and goose on his tours.
The Cups and Balls is one of the oldest-ever magic tricks. It certainly existed 2,000 years ago and may be older; an Ancient Egyptian mural at Beni Hassan might depict the trick (although many people think it’s just a picture of a baker baking bread). Typically, you have three cups and three balls, which inexplicably move from cup to cup. It’s also the basis of the shell game, or ‘find the lady’ con trick. It’s regarded as the litmus test of a good magician; the Prince of Wales performed the cups and balls in his induction test for the Inner Magic Circle.
The first book of tricks in English is called The Discoverie of Witchcraft written by Reginald Scot in 1584. It was skeptical about witchcraft, which it examined in rational terms, partly by explaining how easily fooled people were by conjuring tricks. In 1603 James I had all the copies he could find burnt.
‘Hey Jingo’ is a magician's call for something to appear. It is the opposite of ‘Hey Presto', which calls for it to be gone.
‘Magic’ and ‘machine’ both come from magh - the power or ability to do something. It became associated with the Magi, the priestly class of Ancient Persia, who were followers of Zoroaster and famed astrologers (hence their importance to the Christmas story). The word 'magic' in the sense of ‘influencing events and producing marvels’ began to be used in English in the 14th century. Before that the Old English wiccecraeft was used.
Magicians divide tricks into different groups. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat is 'production'; sawing a woman in half and putting her back together is 'restoration'; getting out of handcuffs is 'escapology'; and putting a sword into an assistant’s body or walking through a mirror is called 'penetration'.
The trick of pulling rabbits out of hats was originally done as a parody of Mary Toft (1701-63), a famous con artist who claimed to have given birth to a number of rabbits. Actually she had secreted them in her birth passage when nobody was looking.
The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
John Henry Anderson, Scotland's most famous ever magician, was the first person to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
Ferns were once believed to be magical as they appeared to grow from nowhere.