We have all been sitting in the audience and delighted by a stage magician at one time or another in our lives. They produce coins from nowhere, can handle cards better than any sharp and will make objects, animals and even people disappear and reappear, all with the audience mouths agape. A great stage magician will fool us and delight us in being fooled. They will make us wonder how the trick was done and make us believe, even just a little, that they are indeed invested with truly supernatural powers. But where did magic start, who was the first magician to practice stage magic? In this article we will plumb the mysteries of history seeking answers that have been hidden from our modern view.
At a cursory glance the first named Magician of history is claimed to be Dedi of Dedsnefu performing the cup and balls trick. The evidence cited for this claim is very weak indeed. There was a Dedi depicted in the Westcar Papyrus Scrolls and he did perform magic. However, Dedi was a traditional Magi, and practiced a supernatural magic of making prophesy and even bringing three creatures he had slain back to life. Nowhere in the Westcar Papyrus was made mention of the cup and balls trick. The other piece of supporting evidence for the practice of stage magic in ancient Egypt is the Ancient Egyptian mural in the tomb of Baqt III at Beni Hassan depicting what seems to be two men adjacent with four cups between them. This is cited as compelling evidence for the cup and ball trick, other scholars however ascribe the image either to more prosaic game play, or of bakers baking bread, as the majority of the illustrations recorded there are of activities that the interred would enjoy in the after life.
It is widely held that the first sleight of hand illusion was the cup and ball trick. Many in fact regard the Cup and Ball trick as the epitome of stage magic. It goes under many names, such as the shell game or thimblerig, but back in ancient Roman times the trick was known as acetabula et calculi. This was first quoted by Lucius Annaeus Seneca 2000 years ago in his epistles to Proconsul Lucillus, and in short he remarked that once he knew the workings of the cup and ball trick then his interest and delight vanished. It is claimed that the great Harry Houdini said that no magician could be called accomplished until they had mastery of the cup and ball trick. One thing is certain, the cup and ball trick is common to most developed cultures throughout the world. It is known as the Immortal Sowing Beans trick in China and is supposed to originate around 1600BC, pre-Shang Dynasty in the Longshan Culture Period. Again it is very difficult to verify this claim made by Fu Qifeng in his book ‘Chinese Classical Illusion Magic’, however it would not be surprising if this ancient illusion has been around for at least this long. Like all tricks the accomplished magician makes, the origin of this trick and of illusion magic in general is swathed in mystery, we are not sure when it was that this illusion was first conceived and perhaps that is just as well. For we would be left as Seneca was after discovering the secret to the cup and ball trick. And no one really wants to be disappointed by knowing how it all turns out.
Thankyou for reading this article on Magic.