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2 September 2017: The History of Magic

Yesterday marked #19yearslater. For the muggles among us, the 1st September 2017 is the date featured in the epilogue to the final Harry Potter book. In this epilogue, it is nineteen years on from the Battle of Hogwarts and Harry is taking his son to King’s Cross Station to begin his journey at the magical school. This year also marks Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone turning twenty years old. Thousands of people turned up to King's Cross station yesterday to mark the anniversary, which is further proof of how J K Rowling’s magical world has captivated audiences of all ages. 

On the note of all things Potter, one of the subjects in the well-known series is ‘History of Magic’. This blog post shall briefly explore the history of magic in our own world, specifically stage or street magic. Street-magic differs from ritual magic and is strictly of the performative variety. We have also taken this opportunity to showcase some works on magic from our library.

Etymologically speaking, the term ‘magic’ actually derives from the Greek word mageia. This comes from rituals Persian priests would conduct during the Greek and Persian wars. The word soon came to mean anything unorthodox or illegitimate.

 Magic is actually one of the oldest performing arts in the world, with the earliest books being Gantziony’s 1489 publication Natural and Unnatural Magic. Following this, the first book specifically referencing sleight of hand magic tricks in the English language was published in 1584 and was Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft. Unfortunately, this work coincided with a national, religion fuelled fear of witchcraft and all procurable copies were burned when James I came to power in 1603. The work is very scarce today.  Further works on magic tricks continued to be published during the 17th century and tricks were a very common source of entertainment at fairs. The average fair-goer of the seventeenth century could typically see spectacles such as sword swallowing, juggling and fire breathing. 

With the decline in fear of witchcraft the 18th century performer became more respected and rich, private patrons wanted shows. We have a work in our library on experiments and natural philosophy. The title includes several spectacles that would be considered a branch of magic. It was very common in the 18th century to perform feats of magic under the guise of scientific exhibitions. One individual known for this was Jacob Philadelphia. The work we are referring to here is W Hooper’s Rational Recreations. We have a four volume set of this fascinating work which discusses a range of experiments from optics and chromatics to pneumatics and pyrotechnics. Click here to see our listing. 

As time progressed the popularity of magic and illusions grew. The founding father of the modern entertainment magic we know today is widely considered to be Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Robert-Houdin was originally a clockmaker by profession and opened a magic theatre in Paris in 1845. He was one of the first to provide a specific arena for audiences to pay to see magic. The 19th century saw the development of magic as we know it today and many written works were produced to explain to audiences exactly how they are done. We have a book by Robert-Houdin providing the secrets behind many conjuring and magic tricks. The work provides step-by-step guides to various illusions such as coin tricks, cup and balls, handkerchief tricks and more. Click here to see our listing. 
 
The above work was translated into English and edited by an English writer of magic books, Angelo John Lewis. The work was published under his pseudonym Professor Louis Hoffman. Our library has two other works by Hoffman, his 1904 title Later Magic and the 1893 work Puzzles old and New. Both works are illustrated and instruct the reader on many puzzles and tricks.

Hoffman was actually a lawyer and professor by profession. Despite being a leading author on magic he did not practise as a magician. His works are some of the earliest to explain, in English, many theories and practises of modern magic. He details the apparatus, tricks and methods of many magicians during that period. 

Another 19th century work we have which focuses more on sleights, card deceptions and puzzles is The Boys Own Conjuring Book: Being a Complete Hand-Book of Parlour Magic. Click here for more information.

 Audiences have been captivated and intrigued by magic for centuries. Stage illusions and magic shows are still incredibly popular today and the tricks explained in these books are still performable and of interest today, despite being written over 100 years ago. For us mere muggles who aren’t able to go to Hogwarts, I suppose it will have to do!  

 
 

 

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