For many years, calling the illusions presented by stage performers “magic” could get you in trouble for pretending to be supernatural, even if what you were doing was comedic tricks for kids. As a result, many performers, rather than calling themselves magicians, used other terms such as “conjuror,” “juggler,” or “prestidigitator.”
Aleister Crowley came up with a different solution for making a written differentiation. He used an archaic spelling, magick with a final “k,” to indicate the real practice and used “magic” to represent the entertainment. [The “k” also had another meaning for Crowley, indicating a reference to sex magick, but that’s a different issue.] In my Modern Magick and Modern Sex Magick I adopted the Crowley differentiation.
But the differentiation has not always been there. There is ample evidence that everything from simple magic tricks to elaborate, state-of-the-art technology was used in support of the spiritual. A book by Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), is honored by many Pagans because it indicated that Witches did not worship the Devil. According to Wikipedia, “Scot believed that the prosecution of those accused of witchcraft was irrational and un-Christian, and he held the Roman Church responsible. All obtainable copies were burned on the accession of James I in 1603.” The book also may be the first book on magic, revealing how tricks of the jugglers (the term for magicians) were done. Performing magicians tend to focus on that part of the book, going so far as to claim that Scot’s real reason for publishing the book was that he loved magic and believed that magic had floundered and was not advancing. By revealing his fellow magician’s tricks he supposedly felt that this would advance the magical art.
There are also records of ancient temples using tricks to make statues of deities appear to move and talk—advanced tech for the time—to “encourage” people to believe in the supernatural aspects of the group.
Marjoe Gortner, the youngest ordained minister at 4 years old (and later an actor), revealed that as an evangelist he had put a cross of glow-in-the-dark paint on his forehead to appear in the middle of his preaching, resulting in everything from gasps of astonishment to conversion (and donations).
I Am a Magician
For those of you who don’t know it, I am a practitioner of magic. For decades I was a member of Hollywood’s famed Magic Castle, a nightclub for performing magicians. I have come to believe, however, that most people don’t like magic.
Why? Because pure magic consists of the magician indirectly telling the audience, “You’re all idiots because you can’t see what I’m doing. Therefore, I’m better than you.” As a result, most magicians today are either comedians who do magic, or magicians who do comedy. Magic has moved even further away from its magickal roots because some magicians, rolling in their secret knowledge like a pig in mud, focus on exposing those who use magical (not magickal) skills for nefarious reasons. For example, one magician and his crew exposed a famed televangelist for using an extremely tiny radio receiver hidden in the televangelist’s ear to get information about people in his congregation (obtained by confederates before the service) in order to reveal the information as if it had been given to him by God. The purpose of the televangelist was clearly to make money for himself rather than to Praise the Lord.
But what if that hadn’t been the televangelist’s purpose? Should a person still be exposed? In India, a world-famous religious leader was known for producing vibhuti, or sacred ash, along with small trinkets, from nowhere. Should he have been exposed? I’m not so sure. His organization has built hospitals, schools, and piped fresh water to people who didn’t have any. He and his groups have saved thousands of lives and educated thousands of children.
In the book, A Clockwork Orange, the author asks, “Is it better to do evil than to have no choice but to do good?” It’s a question about free will. In the instance above, the question would be, “is it better to allow people to believe a person has miraculous powers or allow thousands to sicken or die and not educate children?”
I don’t have an answer to this. Perhaps you do.
Putting Magick Back Into Magic
Fortunately, the self-centered debunker magicians—although very public and vocal—are only a small part of performing magicians. I remember a discussion of Uri Geller, the famed psychic and spoon bender, at the Magic Castle. Although some publicity-gathering magicians were denouncing Geller, one famous performer (he marketed a trick where an ordinary book of matches would seem to hop around in your hand with nothing touching it) said to me, “Leave him alone. He’s got his own thing going.”
Going back even further, the one person considered to be the father of modern magic (no pun intended), was a Frenchman named Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (Harry Houdini based his stage name on Robert-Houdin’s name, the “i” at the end meaning “like,” so he was “like Houdin”). An episode in his life occurred after the French had conquered Algeria. A group known as the Marabouts were starting a rebellion. As today in the area, the rebellion was part religious, part political, and the Marabouts had magicians, showing the spiritual power of the movement, on their side. Robert-Houdin came over and used more advanced magic to defeat the Marabout magicians, much as in the biblical story where Moses was able to defeat Pharaoh’s magicians. Robert-Houdin said that his power was more powerful than their power, and the rebellion was stopped.
Magicians use magic to support the idea of magick. In fact, it could be said that the performing magician is simply an actor playing the part of a practitioner of magick.
So is it okay to use tricks to support a belief in magick? I think that in some cases it may be so. No, I’m not saying it’s okay to use tricks to start a cult with the purpose of self-aggrandisment. What I am saying is that for success in magick it is necessary to have a belief in magick. This does not mean that magick is simply subjective or functions like a placebo.
If you are ill, even though a doctor may give you the surgery or drugs needed to recover, your mental attitude plays an important part in the healing. If you think you will heal quickly you are more likely to do so. If you don’t think you will heal, it may take much longer to recover, or you may not fully recover at all. This is not a placebo, its a recognition that the mind and your attitude play an important part in the healing process.
In some ways, people today are ill. The wonder we had both in past generations and as children about the nature of the world and the universe has disappeared, replaced by 3D movies and iPads, scientists paid off by large corporations to present lies as truth and corrupt politicians.
I would contend that even though we need to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, we also need to bring back some of the wonder into our lives. We need to be able to experience the awe we once had at the stars at night and the opening of a flower. We need to put magick back into the way we see the world.
One way to do this is to restructure the approach of the performing magician by putting the magick back into magic. Already, this is beginning to occur. There is an entire field of conjuring known as “bizarre magic” which, in some instances, focuses on making magic more magickal. This can range from opening audiences up spiritually to the wonder around us to a reproduction of alchemy or perhaps describing a supposedly bizarre event in the life of Aleister Crowley.
There may be some performers out there, a few of the remaining debunkers, crying, “No! It’s our reality or none at all!” I would remind you that even the magic performer’s demigod, Harry Houdini, in 1924, published the story “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” (also known as “Under the Pyramids” or “Entombed with the Pharaohs”). In this story Houdini, trapped within the Sphinx of Gizeh, sees the actual being on which the sphinx was modeled. The story, ghost written by H.P. Lovecraft, was so well liked by Houdini that the performer frequently offered writing commissions to the author.
I say, it’s time for a renaissance in magic, a renaissance that will put the magick back into magick.
I’ll be giving a workshop at Pantheacon in San Jose, California, in just one week! The workshop is on why the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram is such a valuable ritual and is far more than just a basic banishing. There are going to be lots of great presenters there. I describe why it’s good to attend such conventions and some of the presenters at this year’s Pantheacon in my recent blog post. I will also be giving a presentation on Saturday, at the midnight hour (it will start at 11:00 p.m.) called “The Seance Experience.” In this presentation I will share a brief history of seances brought up to date with some of the latest ghost hunting equipment. I’l also show how a fake medium could easily make people think they were experiencing strange, paranormal phenomena with the help of ghosts!
There absolutely will be a seance held. Will we contact any spirits? You will have to attend to find out. There will be extremely limited seating and half of the seats can be reserved. For details see my web site HERE. I hope to see you there.