Magic, sometimes referred to as illusion, is a performing art in which audiences are entertained by staged tricks or illusions of seemingly impossible feats using natural means.
An Egyptian papyrus dated around 2500 BCE portrays a magician named Dedi performing an animal decapitation trick for the pharaoh. According to the story, Dedi magically replaces the severed heads and then makes a number of prophecies to the king. Some experts believe that the tale is purely fictional, while others point out that there are a number of Egyptian stories that describe magicians who also make prophecies.
In a painting from the tomb wall of Baqet III dating from the 21st century BCE, two men are sitting around a table with inverted bowls. Some people interpret this as the first “Cup and Balls” routine, while others point out that it may be some other type of game. The painting also depicts jugglers and other games and leisure activities.
It isn’t until around 50 CE, however, that magic as a performance art is reliably documented. A group of magicians called the Acetabularii performed the Cup and Balls routine in ancient Rome for roughly 250 years. Around 65 CE, the historian Seneca the Younger of Rome comments about taking pleasure in the mystery of the cup and dice trick:
“Such quibbles are just as harmlessly deceptive as the juggler’s cup and dice, in which it is the very trickery that pleases me. But show me how the trick is done, and I have lost my interest therein.”
From about 400 to 1500 CE, little is known about the history of magic, but much of it is associated with the occult. Magic as entertainment is not prominent. In 1584, Reginald Scot published The Discoveries of Witchcraft, a book designed to persuade others that people shouldn’t be burned at the stake or hanged for performing simple magic tricks. Many of those tricks of conjuring were revealed in the book. It is considered the first published material on performance magic. In 1603, at the accession of James I, Scot’s book was ordered to be burned, making first editions moderately rare.
Until the 18th century, magic shows were a common source of entertainment at fairs, where itinerant performers would entertain the public with magic tricks. As belief in witchcraft was waning, the art became increasingly respectable and shows would be put on for rich private patrons. A notable figure in this transition was Isaac Fawkes, an English showman, who began to promote his act in advertisements from the 1720s. He claimed to have performed for King George II. Upon Fawkes’ death in 1732, he reportedly had amassed a fortune exceeding ten thousand pounds, equivalent to at least a million dollars today.