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Although magic has been around for a lot longer than The Seven Crystal Balls, the art form has never been as popular as it is today, at the outset of the twenty-first century. For proof of this you need look no further than Harry Potter and his school for magicians. Yet what lies behind the movies and stage magic we see today ? Prepare yourselves for a spellbinding tour of sorcery.
A fakir with a hypnotic gaze ? Cigars of the Pharaoh. Madame Yamilah, an extra-sensitive clairvoyant ? The Seven Crystal Balls. Turning water into wine ? The same story ! Magic isn't lacking in the Adventures of Tintin, but it often appears in the form of entertainment as opposed to the quasi-religious sorcery practised by many holy madmen and shamans in the past. Such activities sometimes proved hazardous for practitioners, even fatal: at certain times during the Medieval Inquisitions (from the 13th century) sorcerers and witches were relentlessly pursued.
Do you know the seven secrets of magic ?
All magic essentially consists of some kind of distraction from reality. As the old adage goes, 'seeing is believing', and the magician's art lies in his ability to make you believe what you can see without guessing at the reality behind the scenes. Modern magic plays on seven awe-inspiring effects :
Levitation : a person or object seemingly floating in the air.
Apparition : making a person or object appear in unexpected places. This is the type of effect seen in the most well known magic trick of all time: pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Disappearance : making things disappear. An assistant goes into a cupboard with the doors closed behind her. When the doors are opened, she is nowhere to be seen.
Transformation : the magician hides his assistant behind a screen of some kind ; when he lifts the screen (following some magic spells of course) the person has been transformed into an animal.
Teleportation : The magician's assistant is in a particular location on the stage and then suddenly appears in a completely different place.
Invulnerability : an assistant is locked inside a box which is then pierced with swords. At the end of the trick, the assistant steps out of the box without a scratch.
Mentalism : the magician reads thoughts, or sees people or objects while blindfolded.
Who invented modern magic ?
Today, magicians from all over the world consider the father of modern magic to be Frenchman Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871). In 1945 the conjuror opened his own theatre in which he performed his elaborate tricks: Le Théâtre des soirées fantastiques. Robert-Houdin was a true genius. He wasn't only the inventor of many of today's classic magic tricks but was also the creator of the first incandescent electric light bulb and the electrical switch ! He became so famous that in 1856 he was asked by the French government to travel to Algeria to pacify the tribes with his acts of prestidigitation. He successfully demonstrated the superiority of French magic to that of the sorcerers from the religious tribe of the Marabouts, who were using their skills to incite rebellion.
One of Robert-Houdin's secrets unveiled !
It is doubtful whether Robert-Houdin would have become as famous as he did were it not for electricity, despite the fact that he was a skilled engineer and watchmaker, and created intricate human-sized robots able to challenge members of an audience to a game of cards. Electricity enabled the French magician to invent new magic tricks, the most famous being the 'Light and Heavy Chest'. He would bring on stage a little wooden box, about a foot wide, and invite a member of the audience, a small woman or child, to lift it up. The spectator would manage this task with ease. Then Robert-Houdin would choose one of the strongest men in the audience to come on stage and this member of the audience would be unable to lift the box at all ! The trick worked in the following way : after the first member of the audience had lifted the box, but before the second member of the audience tried his luck, Robert-Houdin discreetly pressed a button. An electric current passed through a coil hidden under the stage, creating an electromagnet. The magnetism acted on a piece of iron hidden within the box, rendering the box immovable.
Do magicians play tricks or chase tricksters ?
His fame led Robert-Houdin to be recruited by police on the trail of charlatans and con artists. Some of these tricksters were organising séances and purporting to be able to communicate with the dead. The unscrupulous villains would gather their victims in a darkened room. After some patter, a 'medium' would ask : 'Are there any spirits in the room ? Give two knocks to reply.' Surprise surprise ! Two knocks would come from the ceiling, signalling the spirit's presence. In reality it was nothing but a trick. The 'spirit' had kindly installed a button under the table, which controlled an electric current. When the fraudster pushed the switch, a powered mechanical hammer rigged up to the system banged a drum. The entire apparatus was concealed within the ceiling. It was guaranteed to dupe any client, keen as they were to make contact with their dearest departed. Hoaxers managed to extort fortunes from their victims, yet Robert-Houdin had no trouble rooting out the imposters !
Can magicians change the course of nature ?
Certainly not ! The proof can be found within the pages of Prisoners of the Sun. So as to escape from being burned alive by Inca priests, Tintin makes use of an old trick. He discovers, through a newspaper clipping, that an eclipse of the sun has been calculated to take place in, 'eighteen days' time, at 11 o'clock...' He therefore asks to be executed at precisely this time. When the hour of reckoning comes he makes the Incas believe that he has the power to make the sun disappear, resulting in pandemonium... and also convincing the Incas to spare the lives of Tintin and his friends. Nevertheless, a magic show or trick really does have some power to transform your life by helping you relax and enjoy yourself, forget your worries or suddenly solve a problem you have been worrying about.Tintin would definitely have made a good magician !
Can a hypnotist take control of your mind ?
We should not confuse hypnosis and hypnotism. These days even some doctors use hypnosis to relax patients. It can also be used as a form of anaesthetic. As Belgian doctor Eric Mairlot says : 'Hypnosis is like aspirin. Even if we don't believe in it, when we use it fevers and pain are reduced.' Hypnotism hasn't always had such noble goals. The main aim of hypnotism in magic is to place the willpower of a person under the control of the magician. Hypnotised, the 'victim' does things without being conscious of them making the phenomenon a wonderful element of drama and suspense used in many nineteenth century novels and modern detective stories.