Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring

Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring

by Michael Mangan



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841501499
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 08/30/2007
Series: Theatre and Consciousness Series
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.75(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael Mangan holds the chair in drama at Exeter University, United Kingdom. He has also worked as a playwright, director, literary manager, dramaturge, and actor.

Read an Excerpt


Binaries: early attitudes to conjuring

Originary myths

What are the roots of conjuring? Is it even possible to ask such a question? It is certainly true that the lack (or at least the very fragmentary and ambiguous nature) of any documentary evidence makes it difficult to do more than speculate about the roots of conjuring. It is worthwhile doing so, however, since the stories we tell about origins are an integral part of how we understand the present.

In fact, the literature of conjuring is ready enough to supply answers to the question of origins – and Egypt features prominently in most accounts. Early writers were pretty much unanimous that the origins of conjuring – or 'juggling' as it was called in the early modern period – could be traced back to the time when

[c]ertain Egyptians banished their country (belike not for their good conditions) arrived here in England, who being excellent in quaint tricks and devices, not known here at that time among us, were esteemed and had in great admiration, for what with strangeness of their attire and garments, together with their sleights and legerdemains, they were spoke of far and near, insomuch that many of our English loiterers joined with them and in time learned their craft and cozening ... These people, continuing about the country in this fashion, practising their cozening art of fast and loose and legerdemain, purchased to themselves great credit among the country people, and got much by Palmistry and telling of fortunes.

According to the standard historical account in the early modern period the original jugglers are 'Egyptians'. But 'Egyptians' is actually an ambiguous word: on the one hand it has its modern meaning of an inhabitant or native of Egypt. On the other hand it is the origin of the word 'gypsy' – and in common usage the two ideas merge into one another, as the distinction between place of origin and travelling subculture becomes blurred. The gypsies and travellers, marginalized and exotic in appearance and language, become identified with the criminal subculture of the sixteenth century with 'their craft and cozening'.

There may be some truth to this. Gypsies – travellers – have traditionally had an important role to play in popular culture. For the settled majority this ethnic minority has always, like the magician, represented something a little beyond the boundaries of accepted knowledge, custom and common sense. It seems to have been in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that gypsies first made their impact on the European consciousness. The first record of their appearance in the British Isles is in 1505 in Scotland,

... in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer. They presented themselves to James IV as pilgrims, their leader being lord of 'little Egypt' ... In England, this category of persons was first recorded in 1514 in the form of an 'Egyptian' woman who could 'tell marvellous things by looking into one's hands' ... One origin for this Egyptian label, both in the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe is, according to Clébert, that well before Gypsies or 'Tsiganes' were publicly recorded in western Europe (in the fourteenth century) 'all mountebanks and travelling showmen found themselves dubbed "Egyptians"'.

The social identity of gypsies, then, seems bound up from the very beginning with both magic and performance. The gypsy genealogy of conjuring is only part of the story, however. Another version of the theory that the art of conjuring is Egyptian in origin looks back to a much earlier period – that of the Old Testament. Thomas Frost, author of one of the first detailed histories of conjuring, begins there:

As Egypt was the cradle of the sciences, so it is in Egypt that we find the first instances of the practice of the arts by which the senses of the observer have been, from time immemorial, deluded and imposed upon.

That the practitioners of magic had attained a high degree of skill as early as the epoch of the Pharaohs is shown by the Biblical account of the wonders which they were able to display in competition with Aaron. We read in that remarkable narrative that 'Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents: but Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods.' The trial of skill between the Hebrew and the Egyptian magicians was well contested at the outset, and in its progress must have been one of intense and growing interest to the people of both nationalities.

The story of Aaron's rod (to which we will return in the next chapter) features in most histories of magic. But a different kind of case for the Egyptian origins of conjuring was bolstered by a discovery made by nineteenth-century Egyptologists. The earliest accounts of magic tricks that we have today come from the document known as 'p.Westcar', or the Westcar Papyrus – named after Henry Westcar, who acquired it in Egypt round about 1824–5. The text is fragmentary and incomplete and is written in hieratic (i.e. cursive handwritten) rather than hieroglyphic script, and it seems to originate from the Middle Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt history, round about 1700 to 1800 B.C.E. It has been the subject of scholarly debate, and many different translations, ever since Westcar passed the papyrus to German Egyptologist Richard Lepsius. Among these fragments is the frequently told story of Dedi (or Djedi) and the Pharaoh. It is the incident which most modern histories of magic take as the starting point of magic as performance. Here is a fairly typical version of the story:

The first magic exhibition took place almost five thousand years ago when Cheops, the pharaoh who presided over the building of the Great Pyramid summoned a magician named Dedi to his palace. He was said to be able to restore decapitated heads ... The pharaoh wanted to see Dedi do his famed decapitation, so he offered the magician a condemned prisoner, but Dedi refused to decapitate a human victim. Instead he randomly chose a goose from the pharaoh's menagerie. He grabbed the goose's body with one hand and with the other pulled its head off. He then extended his arms, demonstrating that the goose's head was no longer connected to its body. Then he laid the goose's limp body on the floor, walked a few paces away, and set the head down on the ground. After everyone could observe that the decapitated goose was dead, he put the body under one of his arms and walked back over to the head and picked it up. He pushed the lifeless head onto the body and suddenly the goose squawked, full of life, and ran around the room.

The particular re-telling of Dedi's performance which I have just quoted, suitably coloured and angled towards his own style, is by the successful contemporary illusionist David Blaine. Like most historians of magic who refer to the story, Blaine treats Dedi's decapitation routine as 'The first somewhat reliable account of an actual magician's performance being presented solely as an amusing entertainment'. And, indeed, five thousand years later, the same trick of decapitating and restoring the head of a fowl can be seen performed by Blaine himself on TV and video. He does it in his own very streetwise style, on the streets of a downtown area of an unnamed American city, to an audience of passers-by rather than to a Pharaoh in his own court, but it is certainly the same trick.

There is, in fact, something quite 'staged', and rather knowing, about Blaine's echo of this, one of the earliest recorded conjuring tricks. The video performance is driven, at least in part, by Blaine's own sense of intellectual showmanship: he is very aware (often ironically) of his own relation to his heritage as a conjuror, and a large amount of his act relies on intertextual quotation and reference to earlier feats of previous generations. Even so, the five-thousand-year span between the two performances is significant. Not many of the performing arts can point to routines with so long a shelf life. The decapitation feat ('one of the oldest in the bag of magician's tricks', according to Milbourne Christopher) appears to be a perennially popular illusion.

But although the trick is substantially the same, its meaning will not remain constant. Magic tricks and illusions take place in the minds of spectators as much as they do in the hands of the prestidigitator – and this has several consequences. Spectators bring to performance a set of assumptions about how the world is, how it operates, the limits of possibility within that world, the place of performance within it, the limits of performance – and so on. An illusion such as the above performed within a culture which officially acknowledges the ability of humans to influence natural processes by means such as religious ritual will have a very different meaning from the same illusion performed in one which officially believes this to be impossible. Blaine, on the streets of America at the end of the twentieth century, positions himself as an entertainer rather than as an occult practitioner, and his actions are received accordingly. The audience experience a momentary shock, followed by laughter, relief, admiration. We may not know how it was done, but we are impressed. It's a clever trick.

But how appropriate is it to project our contemporary experience of the street-conjuror's illusion back in time, to read Dedi's decapitation as 'the first somewhat reliable account of an actual magician's performance being presented solely as an amusing entertainment'? One of the recurring themes of the book will be the interplay between the two apparently separate categories of magic which is perceived as performance or entertainment and the magic which is perceived as manifestation of the occult or paranormal. Where does Dedi's performance lie in this nexus?

The answer is quite complex. Problems of translation and interpretation have been compounded because the Westcar papyrus is incomplete and possibly corrupt, with key sections of the text missing. The extant text is written in a jerky and fragmented style, possibly that of someone unskilled in such writing. It has even been suggested that it was written by 'a child [who] was learning [hieratic script] in school and attempting to copy it.' More to the point, the Papyrus itself is telling stories which are set in a distant past. The characters include Prince Hordadef – one of the main narrators of the stories in the papyrus – and his father King Khufu (better known nowadays by the Greek form of his name, Cheops). Khufu lived and ruled in the early twenty-sixth century B.C.E., and commissioned the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza. By the time the manuscript was written – about a thousand years later! – Khufu himself was effectively a mythical character.

If we look at the context in which Dedi's decapitation routine is placed in the manuscript, we begin to get a slightly different picture. First of all, there is the way in which Dedi is introduced into the narrative. It is interestingly ambiguous. King Khufu has been listening to tales of magic from the past – tales of a scribe who makes a wax crocodile that comes to life to punish an adulterer, and of another with the power to divide the waters of a lake. Then his son offers to introduce him to a present-day magician.

Prince Hordadef stood before the king, and he said: 'Your Majesty has heard tales regarding the wonders performed by magicians in other days, but I can bring forth a worker of marvels who now lives in the kingdom.'

King Khufu said: 'And who is he, my son?'

'His name is Dedi,' answered Prince Hordadef. 'He is a very old man, for his years are a hundred and ten. Each day he eats a joint of beef and five hundred loaves of bread, and drinks a hundred jugs of beer. He can smite off the head of a living creature and restore it again; he can make a lion follow him; and he knows the secrets of the habitation of the god Thoth, which Your Majesty has desired to know so that you may design the chambers of your pyramid.'

In the context of the Westcar narrative, then, Dedi looks at first like a much more 'real' figure than the mythical heroes of the stories Khufu is listening to: he is, after all, living in the 'present day' and Hordadef offers to bring him into the King's presence. But when Hordadef starts to describe him, Dedi turns into yet another miraculous figure – more bizarre, in fact, than the comparatively humdrum chief scribes of long ago. He is a hundred and ten years old and he eats five hundred loaves of bread and drinks a hundred jugs of beer a day! Even more significantly, he is credited with divine knowledge – he 'knows the secrets of the habitation of the god Thoth'. This is something which particularly interests Khufu: Dedi is summoned to the court.

The decapitation routine which Blaine describes (and re-creates) involves just one goose. The account in the Westcar papyrus describes Dedi building up to a rather more impressive climax. Refusing to decapitate a human prisoner, Dedi first performs the trick on a duck; then he repeats it with a goose; finally 'King Khufu then caused a cow to be brought in, and its head was cut off. Dedi restored the animal to life again, and caused it to follow him.' Geese and ducks are comparatively simple subjects for the decapitation trick. The performer relies largely on the natural instinct of a fowl to tuck its head under its wing; he then provides a false head to substitute for the real one. Cows, which lack both wings and any instinct to hide their head under them, are somewhat trickier?

After performing the decapitation trick, Khufu quizzes Dedi about this knowledge. Dedi answers with all the ambiguity of a practised soothsayer:

His Majesty then spoke to the magician and said: 'It is told that you possess the secrets of the dwelling of the god Thoth.'

Dedi answered: 'I do not possess them, but I know where they are concealed, and that is within a temple chamber at Heliopolis. There the plans are kept in a box, but it is no insignificant person who shall bring them to Your Majesty.'

'I would fain know who will deliver them unto me,' King Khufu said.

Dedi prophesied that three sons would be born to Rud-dedit, wife of the chief priest of Ra. The eldest would become chief priest at Heliopolis and would possess the plans. He and his brothers would one day sit upon the throne and rule over all the land.

King Khufu's heart was filled with gloom and alarm when he heard the prophetic words of the great magician.

Dedi pleases the king, however, and is duly rewarded: 'thereafterwards [he] dwelt in the house of the Prince Hordadef. He was given daily for his portion an ox, a thousand loaves of bread, a hundred jugs of beer, and a hundred bunches of onions.'

Quite apart from the munificence of Dedi's fee, the context of the decapitation trick suggests that this is by no means simply an account of a 'magician's performance being presented solely as an amusing entertainment'. On the contrary, the Dedi of the Westcar papyrus is a prophet, a sage, and a priest-like figure who knows the secrets of the gods. The story which is told about him is set around with religious and mystical apparatus which is clearly taken with complete seriousness by Khufu, Hordadef and their court – and as far as we can tell, by the writer(s) of the papyrus, one thousand years later, as well. The decapitation routines which he performs are merely a demonstration – a token of his abilities. What he is really there for is to prophesy to the King.

Dedi himself may or may not have existed; the performance in front of Pharaoh may or may not have taken place. But whether it did or not, it is wrapped up – like the tales of Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights – in a concentric series of narratives-within-narratives, each of which refers us back to an earlier era. The Westcar papyrus itself comes to us from 25 centuries ago. The writer of that papyrus tells of Khufu, who lived more than a thousand years before that – and in that narrative Khufu listens to tales from a time even longer ago. These tales effectively frame Dedi's performance and give it meaning. When Khufu sees Dedi's performance with the duck, the goose and the bull, he concludes that he is in the presence of a magician as great as – or greater than – those in the fables, and he goes on to ask his advice about the building of the pyramids.

And what meanings are we to make of it? Historians of magic tend to read the Dedi story as if it were an event which really took place. And, since historians of magic are a sceptical bunch, with little or no time for supernatural explanations, and since they know how the trick of decapitating a bird is done, they quite reasonably attribute that technique to Dedi. One of two readings is now possible. Either the whole performance was analogous to a modern conjuring show, with everybody knowing that it is all an illusion and enjoying the fact; or else Dedi was fooling his audience, using techniques which street magicians still use today, into believing he had supernatural powers.


Excerpted from "Performing Dark Arts"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Intellect.
Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface and acknowledgements
Introduction: magic and performance
Chapter One
Binaries: early attitudes to conjuring
Chapter Two
"The evil Spirit has a hand in the Tricks of these Jugglers':
conjuring and Christian orthodoxy
Chapter Three
'Fire and faggot to burn the witch'? Conjuring between
belief and unbelief in early modern England
Chapter Four
On the margins: ciminals and fraudsters
Chapter Five
On the boundaries of the human
Chapter Six
Acting and not-acting: Robert-Houdin
Chapter Seven
Before your very eyes: life, death and liveness
Chapter Eight
Narrative ambiguity and contested meanings:
interpreting Harry Houdini
Chapter Nine
Mediums and the media
Chapter Ten
Magic, media and postmodernism

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews