The Performance Magician Thru The Ages

The Performance Magician Thru The Ages

Juan Santiago


“I am a magician.”

Depending on the time and place, that statement could have earned me many reactions ranging from fear and loathing, to awe and wonder.  These reactions would also have been colored by the possible interpretations of the kind of magician I claimed to be.

Magicians throughout history have often been depicted as mysterious individuals who consorted with demons and spirits in order to accomplish miraculous feats.  But what about the performing magician?  What about the individual who used sleight of hand to entertain an audience?  This magician did exist in history, but is much less obvious an individual and, therefore, more difficult to find.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss that individual.  There are vast amounts of material discussing the occult or pagan practitioners through history, so they will only be covered here to the extent of painting the backdrop for the performance-oriented magician.

First, let me define three terms which will be helpful in understanding the mind set of medieval magic:  Natural Magic, Demonic or Occult Magic, and Performance Magic.  Because almost all the existing resources are from the Catholic Church, I will be using its definitions.

Natural Magic, or Miracles, as defined by the Church, is magic which stemmed from nature and natural sources, and therefore, from God.  However, there is a great deal of ambiguity in this definition, which left room for many debates by church scholars.

Demonic or Occult Magic, again as defined by the Church, is magic which was meant to draw power from demons or spirits.

Performance Magic is the type of magic with which this article is concerned.  It includes those individuals who used trickery to convince others of their supernatural powers, as well as the performer who practiced this art for the purpose of entertainment.

The earliest record of magic comes to us from an ancient Egyptian scroll called The Westcar Papyrus (named for the archeologist who discovered it).  The papyrus, which dates back to approximately 1700 B.C., tells the stories of the feats of several magicians.  The stories themselves are mostly embellished, but they may have had some grains of truth in them.  One very notable story tells of a magician named Dedi of Dedsnefru who performed for the Pharaoh Cheops who built the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Dedi was said to be one hundred and ten years old at the time the papyrus was written, and was the possessor of a tremendous appetite.  According to the story, Dedi*s daily menu consisted of five hundred loaves of bread, a shoulder of beef, and one hundred jugs of beer.  It is more probable that this is an accounting of what Dedi was rewarded for his performance of magic, but since the papyrus is telling stories from five hundred years prior to its writing, the information seems to be exaggerated.

Dedi*s performance for Cheops involved the removal and restoration of severed heads.  Cheops offered one of his prisoners for decapitation, but Dedi explained that this was forbidden, since it was not right for him to perform such wizardry on “the noble herd.”  It sounds like a good explanation, but it could be that Dedi*s refusal had more to do with the acquisition of the needed prop (a severed head).

At this point Dedi proceeded to remove the head of a goose and restore it.  Cheops called for an encore and Dedi repeated the feat, this time with a pelican.  Apparently, even then, magicians did not repeat tricks in exactly the same way.  Kings will be kings however, and Cheops was no exception.  Thoroughly baffled by Dedi*s performance, he demanded a final repetition of the feat.  This time Dedi did the trick with an ox, severing the head with a sword and pronouncing his magic spell to restore it.  The story may be embellished,  but decapitation feats have survived and are among the oldest in the magicians bag of tricks, and they are still being performed today.

What was thought to be the oldest trick in the magician*s repertoire is the classic “Cups and Balls” or “Shell” game, and which is a feat that captured the interest of artists and writers thoughout history, not to mention a fascinated public.  The feat involves the use of several cups and small pebbles or balls.  At its most simple, it involves seeming to make the pebbles or balls travel from underneath one cup to underneath another through various combinations of movements.

The reason that the “Cups and Balls” was thought to be the oldest performance trick was due to the misinterpretation of a hieroglyph found on the burial chamber wall of a tomb in Egypt.   According to the book Magic:A Picture History written by the magician Milbourne Christopher (????-1984) the tomb belonged to an Egyptian Pharaoh named Beni Hassan and that it dated back to about 2500 B.C.  No Egyptian Pharaoh would have an Arabic name, however! [FIG 1]

Thanks to the book Conjuring by James “The Amazing” Randi (????-present), we know that the hieroglyph is, in fact, a depiction of an ancient game known as “Up from Under” and that the tomb is located at Beni Hassan, not that it belonged to a Beni Hassan.  It is possible that the “Cups and Balls” feat is at least as old as the decapitation feat described in the Westcar Papyrus, but we currently have no record that far back of its performance.

Seneca the Younger, who was born in Spain in the year 3 B.C., wrote in his forty-fifth Epistle to Lucilius that he thought the “Cups and Balls” feat was a harmless trick.  In fact, he seemed to be very impressed by the skill of the magician.  “It is in the very trickery that it pleases me.  But show me how it is done, and I have lost my interest therein.”

Alciphron of Athens wrote an eye-witness account , in about 200 A.D., of a performance of the cups and balls routine:


“A man came forward and placed on a three-legged table three small dishes, under which he concealed some little white round pebbles.  These he placed one by one under the dishes, and then, I do not know how, he made them appear all together under one.  At other times he made them disappear from beneath the dishes and showed them in his mouth.  Next, when he had swallowed them, he brought those who stood nearest him into the middle, and then pulled one stone from the nose, another from the ear, and another from the head of the man standing near him.  Finally he caused the stones to vanish from the sight of everyone.  He is a most dexterous fellow and even beyond Eurybates of Oechalia, of whom we have heard so much.”


Alciphron confessed that the feat “rendered me almost speechless and made me gape with surprise.”

“Cups and Balls” became a feat which captured the interest of artists as well.  Joseph of Ulm included a magician doing the “Cups and Balls” feat in a drawing from 1404.  This drawing was intended to show the influences of the moon and was included in his astrological manuscript which was written in 1405. [FIG 3]

In a woodcut called Wirkungen der Planeten, from circa 1470, a “Cups and Balls” performer is prominently displayed.  On his table there are also coins and what is probably a ring.  An audience is gathered around looking on in wonder. [FIG 4]

Hieronymus Bosch (1460-1516) painted what is probably the most famous medieval painting of a magician.  In his painting, “The Conjuror”, the magician is performing the “Cups and Balls” feat.  On his table are several implements such as small balls and a wand.  On the ground can be found a hoop or ring, and a dog apparently wearing a cap and belt, and hanging from the magician*s belt is a small basket with a monkey peeking out of it.  The audience is standing in poses of wonder and awe across the table from him, and at the back is a thief who is stealing the purse of one of the spectators.  [FIG 2]

The chronicler of Hernand Cortes* expedition to Mexico in October 1524 noted that the Indians were familiar with conjuring.  He also mentioned that a member of the expedition who was a retainer of Cortes would perform at night both magic and puppeteering, though neither the performers name, nor the tricks he performed were mentioned.

So far, everything we have seen here suggests that magic was common and accepted, but this is not exactly the case.  In fact performance magicians faced a real danger in practicing their art: that of being accused of witchcraft.

Early in the 15th century a German girl in Cologne was charged with witchcraft.  Her crime was performing a feat most magicians have in their repertoires today: “tearing and restoring” a handkerchief.

A magician named Triscalinus performed in the court of Charles IX and made the rings disappear off of the fingers of one of the courtiers.  The audience claims to have seen the rings fly through the air and as one they rose up against him and forced him to admit that he used “demonic” assistance to perform the feat.

A card magician in Paris was arrested on a charge of witchcraft in 1571.

Because so many people feared supernatural events and occult magic, anything that was not understood became suspect.  Performance magic was certainly one of the least understood of the theatrical arts.

Although the Church*s opinion on specific forms of magical practice (such as astrology and alchemy) seems to vary from time to time, the overall attitude can be summarized in one very important idea.  The Church didn*t seem to mind the performance magician when he was attempting only to amuse or entertain an audience, but when he attempted to portray himself as more then just a man, perhaps gifted with supernatural powers or able to summon and control spirits, then he was committing mortal sin.

The common belief that magic and magicians were evil can be traced back to attitudes established by interpretations of the Bible.  Passages which refer to magicians are in fact describing holy men of other religions.  For example, the ‘Three Magi of the East* who come to visit the baby Jesus were probably meant to represent Zorastarian priests from Persia.  Elsewhere in the Bible, Babylonian priests are referred to as magicians.

The Bible does relate a story about a performance magician, but even here, he is cast in an unfavorable light. Acts 8:9-24,talks about a performance magician known as Simon Magus.  Simon Magus performed apparently for the entertainment of others and convinced others of his divine powers by his arts.  But upon meeting with Simon Peter and seeing the power of the apostles, Simon Magus attempted to buy the secret of the apostle*s magic and was refused.  By the second and third century, Christian authors where elaborating on this story and casting Simon Magus into the role of arch heretic and rival of Simon Peter.

Most surviving sources for the techniques of performance magic in the Middle Ages come from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  It could be that performance magic did not become common until then, but it is more likely that this is the result of the increase of written material in general during these centuries, and the accompanying increase in literacy.  It is certain that various performance techniques existed well in advance of this era, but again, these techniques were probably passed down more by oral tradition than by written word.

One of the earliest medieval records of performance magic technique comes from the notebook of a monk named Thomas Betson, from late fifteenth century England.  He lived at Syon Abbey in Middlesex and was reputed to be a very pious man, but was also known as a trickster and a dabbler in magic.

His notebook contains instructions for a number of tricks, including making coins seem to move on their own, and to make an egg seem to float in mid-air.  He also copied down information on much more elaborate tricks such as the use of mirrors to make images seem to appear and for the use of coins and water to create interesting optical illusions.

The first book written in English which revealed the techniques of performance magic was written by a man named Reginald Scott in 1584.  Discoveries of Witchcraft was intended as a kind of expose showing the performance magic tricks used by some to convince others of their supernatural or occult powers.

While Reginald Scott was attempting to debunk witches and witchcraft, others argued that witches were  real.  One such opponent was King James I of England  (who commissioned the  King James Bible).   He gathered together as many copies of Reginald Scott*s book as could be found and had them burned.  King James also wrote his own book, a refutation of Reginald Scott*s, called Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, published in 1603.

Although Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue was more concerned with “heretical witchcraft” then performance magic, King James I did write the following in his preface, specifically mentioning the work of Reginald Scott:


“The fearful abounding at this time in this countrie, of thse detestable slaves of the Divel, the Witches or enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following Treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serve for a shewe of my learning and ingine, but onely (moved of conscience) to preasse thereby, so farre as I can, to resolve the doubting hears of manie; both that such assaults of Sathan are most certainly practised, and that the insruments thereof, merits most severly to be punished: against the dambable opinions of two principally in our age, whereof the one called Scot, and Englishman, is not ashamed in publicke print to denie, that there can be such thing as Witch-craft: and so maintains the errours of the Sadduces in denying of spirits.”

Not long after that, an actual magician*s handbook was written.  In 1634, Hocus Pocus Jr. The Anatomie of Legerdemain or The Art of Jugling set forth in its proper colours, fully, plainely, and exactly, so that an ignorant person may thereby learne the full perfection of the same, after a little practice was written.  Although this book is commonly referred to as Hocus Pocus Jr., according to Conjuring by James Randi, “Hocus Pocus Jr.” is actually the pseudonym of the author (this is also the first time that the words ‘Hocus Pocus* appear).

              Hocus Pocus Jr. contains a variety of magical tricks explained and diagramed accordingly, though no mention is ever made of juggling.  However, several variations of the “Cups and Balls” fear are listed, as well as such feats as ‘How to seem to cut ones nose half off,  How to breath fire out of your mouth, and How to draw ribbins of any colour out of your mouth, and to deliver it by the yard.*

              Hocus Pocus Jr. also contains a warning about when it is right and when it is wrong to perform magic:


“The end of this Art is either good or bad, accordingly as it is used:  Good, and lawful when it is used at Festvals, and merry meetings to procure mirth:  especially if it be done without desire of estimation above what we are, Bad, and altogether unlawful whenit is used on purpose, to cozen, deceive, or for vaine glory to be esteemed above what is meet, and honest.”


A good warning to help one avoid accusations of witchcraft.

Our interpretation of magic today is very different than that of medieval society.  This change occurred after the Middle Ages, but the beginnings of that change can possibly be attributed to the behavior of magical practitioners in various medieval courts.

Although courts as early as that of Charlemagne at Aachen (768-814) were becoming institutions and cultural centers, it wasn*t until about the twelfth century that rulers began to compete with each other by establishing glamorous courts as tokens of their own importance.  Not only kings, but dukes, counts, popes and bishops were setting up such courts, and in all of them there was likely to be some type of magical practitioner.

Chretien de Troyes (1140-1190) in telling the story of the marriage of Erec and Enide, tells how minstrels came from all over the countryside to provide entertainment for the occasion: “one leaps, another does acrobatics and another performs magic tricks, one tells tales, one sings, others play on the harp.”

Another story in the work A Study of the Magic Elements in the Romans d*Aventure and the Romans Bretons (Baltimore: Furst, 1906), tells of a magician who is brought to  court to entertain the hero, Erec.  He is supposedly renowned for his feats of “necromancy and conjuration.”  According to the account, he astonishes his audience with such abilities as turning stones into cheese, causing oxen to fly, or to have asses play on harps.  Much like the older story of Dedi, he severs the head of a person only to have that head turn into a lizard or snake.  Other magicians in literature turn animals into knights, make water run uphill, increase the size of rooms, or conjure forth hundreds of knights to joust with each other.

At the same time within courtly society, diviners seemed to be in great demand.  John of Salisbury (1115-1180) complains at length about this situation in his work Policraticus.  He appears to abhor all type of magical practice, yet when he gets to the topic of divination, he gives an almost complete treatise on the subject.  It seems obvious that he felt that courtiers should be warned against the practices of magic and the pitfalls he felt were contained within.

Roger Bacon seems to alternately praise and condemn performance magic.  The saying of “The hand is quicker then the eye” can be attributed to Roger Bacon, who wrote in the early thirteenth century of “men who create illusions by the rapidity of the movement of their hands.”  He also wrote that “wonderful things that do not exist” could be simulated “by the assumption of various voices or the use of subtle apparatus, or by performing in the dark, or by means of confederacy.”  However, Bacon seem to look disparagingly on such performers of sleight-of-hand, ventriloquism, and illusion.  Bacon was not writing specifically about magicians in court, however, so it is possible that the performers at court were much more skilled and sophisticated.

It would seem then, that within courtly society all types of magician were available as advisors and entertainers.  Such individuals obviously inspired some amount of wonder with their abilities to predict the future or make wondrous events happen with a wave of the hand.  Whether or not any of these abilities had any practical use, they did serve to make magic somewhat more acceptable.  They could be both councilor and entertainer, though the advice given would have been taken lightly by their courtly patron.

In conclusion performance magic has existed in one form or another throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Magicians of this type were enjoyed by all, though they had to be cautious so as to avoid being accused of  witchcraft.  Magical performers enjoyed the company of kings and commoners alike, and even members of the Church dabbled in entertaining others.  Books such as Discoveries of Witchcraft, Hocus Pocus Jr. and the notebook of Thomas Bentson show us that while the materials may have changed, the actual techniques of accomplishing various magical feats have changed very little.

So if you happen to be interested in performing, feel free to pull out that deck of cards or your set of “Cups and Balls”, secure in the knowledge that you have a long tradition behind you.











Anonymous  Hocus Pocus Jr.  London Books


Christopher, Milbourne  Magic: A Picture History  Dover Books

Joseph of Ulm Manuscript – The manuscript is in the Tuebingen University library in



Flint, Valerie I.J.  The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe  Princton Paperbacks


Kieckhefer, Richard   Magic in the Middle Ages   Cambridge Medieval Textbooks


Price, David  Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater  Cornwall Books


Randi, James  Conjuring







Lord Juan Santiago (AoA, ORL) spends most of his time as a performer in the troupe ‘The Golden Stag Players* and performing magic to entertain and delight at various campsites.  When not performing for an audience he spends his time working on (and sometimes swearing at) various pieces of jewelry he is creating.

Tim Converse spends his days in front of a computer at Borland International  answering questions for frustrated people who call him when their computer doesn*t want to work.  When not doing that he spends his time working on (and sometimes swearing at) his computer at home, trying to figure out why it doesn*t want to work.



Thanks to Mistress Aldith Angharad St. George for being my chief editor and handling my ego gently when I made really stupid mistakes.  Also to Master Hirsch von Henford for encouraging me, and to Lady Rose de LeMans for putting up with my excessive enthusiasm for the topic of performance magic.  By the way, I have this trick I want to try out on you……..



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