Legend of Earthsea: online wizardry course

 In Articles by Paul Kieve, TV

Legend of EarthseaThis article – essentially a history of magic – was created by Paul Kieve as an “online wizardry course” for the Sci Fi Channel in the USA. The idea was that pupils could take an online course in magic, instructed via web seminars by Paul, and finally complete a wizardry exam. Paul devised and wrote the course based on themes from Ursula K Le Guin’s fantasy adventure “Earthsea” books. The site was created to promote the Sci Fi channel’s mini series “Legend of Earthsea”.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” – Albert Einstein


Magic, wizardry, sorcery – the manifestation of the impossible has appealed to human beings since the beginning of time. It is hard to imagine for us how magical such daily occurrences as the rising of the sun, the stars appearing in the sky and the tides of the ocean would have been to people who generally believed that the world was flat and at the centre of the universe! Magic was used to explain almost all of the universe, and formed entire belief systems. Today as sophisticated scientists, mathematicians and philosophers we see magic very differently, what we consider unexplainable and impossible is very different. But despite our relative sophistication man woman and children all respond to magic today in a way which connects them to the wonder our primitive ancestors felt as they puzzled over the mysteries of the universe. We still have the ability to experience the sensations of wonder and astonishment. That is why the art of magic is so important in an age where more and more things are explained to us and de-mystified.

The only art form that actually deals with the idea of the impossible & miracle is magic. Art forms such as music and painting deal with the subject in a representational way – but magic is the only one which confronts its’ spectators with the physical manifestation of the impossible. This is why it is such a fascinating subject and will appeal to mankind as long as he walks the planet.

Now you may not think that the magical world as portrayed in “Earthsea” has much to do with today’s wizards – modern master of magic such as David Copperfield and David Blaine, but their routes are the same. There was a time when the magician was the head of the tribe – the Shaman, where his power was held in awe. Only 400 years ago the authorities were so afraid of the power of unknown forces that innocent street magicians were put to death as witches! Magic still has a power and ability to connect to a time when all impossible acts were attributed to forces beyond our comprehension.

In the last few years of this new Millennium, magic has become incredibly popular again in popular culture – through the writings of J K Rowling and the subsequent films, and through the film trilogy of The Lord Of The Rings. In this respect Ursula K Le Guin was ahead of her time writing an amazing series of books about a young boy who becomes an incredibly gifted wizard. It is absolutely timely that these amazing stories be made into a wonderful TV mini -series.

The idea of this course is to explore the history and work of what we would term magicians, conjurers, illusionists – in a sense the real story and history of magic. It is an amazing world with a s many secrets, stories and strange personalities as appears in any work of fiction. If you get through this course and pass its various tests you will be able to say you are on the road to being a certified wizard. It is a winding road and, as Ged in Earthsea discovers, learning the basics of the art is only the start of the journey. I hope you will be inspired to follow the links and further reading and explore this amazing world further – it has certainly given me a lifetime of wonder and adventure.

1 Of Dragonlords and Archmages

In days long past the idea of magic and religion were inseparable. There are references in the Old Testament of Moses turning a wooden staff into a snake before the Pharaoh Ramses – and his feat (attributed to divine miracle) was apparently copied by the court conjurers. The ancient Egyptians had such an astounding understanding of astronomy and science as to be almost magical. The Abu Simbel temple in upper Egypt was aligned so that 3 out of four statues set almost 200 feet back in the temple would light up on only two days of the year – Summer solstice (the longest day of the year). And what of the statue that was not illuminated by the suns’ powerful rays? This was the figure of the Egyptian God of Darkness – Ptah. Ancient Greek temples were designed with hidden mechanisms that automatically opened doors and let out roaring sounds as fires were lit outside. The first recorded wizard is the magician Dedi who is described to have cut the head off a goose and then restored it again at the time of King Cheops – builder of the great Pyramid. He apparently performed the same gruesome act with an Ox but declined the invitation to perform it with one of the Pharaoh’s prisoners!

During the 16th Century in England and Europe there was an increase in the persecution of so called witches. In these darkly superstitious days even innocent street entertainers performing simple conjuring tricks were put to death unfairly for practising the dark arts of witchcraft. The word “conjurer” which today implies a harmless performer of magic tricks, stemmed from the suggestion that dark forces were conjured up to make the magic happen. Because of the ignorance of the courts towards the methods behind even the simplest of tricks, an English man named Reginald Scott wrote a book called “Discoverie of Witchcraft “ in 1584. It was the first book in the English language to describe methods behind magic tricks and illusions One of the feats described in the book was the so called “Decolation of John The Baptist“ a remarkable illusion in which A disembodied head and decapitated body were gruesomely displayed on a draped table.

The book also described an incredible wizard called Brandon. His most famous feat was to draw a picture of a bird on a piece of paper. When he stabbed the picture with a knife, a bird perched on a nearby rooftop would instantly fall down dead. It is perhaps not surprising that such feats would be considered witchcraft – but the cruel secret lay in the fact that Brandon had fed the bird with a poison called Nux Vomica some 15 minutes before the demonstration. The effect of the poison would be a delayed death for the bird . In Scott’s day one of the most popular tricks was seemingly cutting off your own nose and replacing it again, and the book describes a number of trick knives which enabled the conjurer to apparently perform such actions. After the death of Queen Elizabeth 1st and the ascent to the throne of James the First, the book was ordered burned by the common hangman. It is one of the rarest books in all of magicdom.

There have been many remarkable magicians through the centuries, but perhaps none more astonishing than Matthew Buchinger, The Little Man of Nuremburg. He amazed audiences with his superb conjuring skills in the 18th century. He was also a skilled marksman, portrait painter, calligrapher, played more than half a dozen musical instruments some of he invented himself), and danced the hornpipe. He was also married four times and fathered 14 children. This may not seem remarkable but for the fact that he stood only 29 inches high and possessed no feet, thighs or arms. He was one of the most famous human beings of his day

Ivan Ivanitz Chabert the incombustible wonder performed in the 1840‘s. His most famous act was to take a raw sausage and steak into an oven and sit there until they were cooked! He emerged unharmed and ate the cooked food for his dinner with a tankard of ale!

There was a great change in of magic in the 19th century with the appearance in France of Jean Robert Houdin – considered to be “the father of modern conjuring” . Houdin ditched the traditional wizards look of a conical hat and cape, he dressed in elegant tailcoat and took magic off the streets into the drawing rooms and theatres of Paris. He became internationally famous wrote the first truly studious books on magic, and in his own somewhat self-proclaiming memoirs wrote of his great achievements.

A young man named Erich Weiss, son of an orthodox rabbi ,who had moved to Appleton Wisconsin from Hungary at a young age was so influenced by reading Houdin’s book “Secrets of Conjuring and Magic” that he adopted his name with the addition of an “I”. He was became the most famous wizard of all time – Houdini – literally translated “Like Houdin”

The construction of new Vaudeville theatres in America and England lead to a huge wealth of magical performers during what is known as the “Golden Era” of magic. The most famous names of this time in addition to Houdini, were Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Chung lIng Soo, Ching Ling Foo!, The Great Lafayette. In the UK the Maskelyne family ran a permanent theatre o f magic in London for over 60 years David Devant, P.T. Selbit and Horace Goldin.

In the 1930’s the popularity of cinema caused a decline of variety and magic diminished as a popular art form until the growth of television. One of the great magicians who spanned this in-between era was Robert Harbin nicknamed “a wizard if ever there woz” He recreated great stage illusions that could be performed not only on the stage of a theatre, but on a cabaret floor with an audience all the way around him. His most famous creation was the “Zig Zag Girl” invented in 1965 and the most copied stage illusion of all time. In the 1970’s a young Canadian magician named Doug Henning entered the scene with a totally fresh style straight from the 70,s. Henning became a star and his first television special in 1975 was watched by more than 50 million viewers. Henning paved the way for today’s most famous names in magic – David Copperfield and David Blaine.

2. Fog weaving – magic and science

“True magic, the summoning of force that draws the magnet… drawn from the immense fathomless energies of the universe” Ursula Le Guin

Magicians have always had a fascination with science and have often been the first to utilise new technologies for magical purposes. Robert Houdin, the 19th Century French magician started life as a watchmaker, and his fascination with mechanical and scientific principles abounded in his inventions. One of his most famous illusions was known as the “light and heavy chest”. In this feat, a small box no bigger than a carry-on piece of hand baggage was placed on a small table. Even though Houdin could lift it with ease, the strongest man in the audience was unable to budge it off the table. The chest had an iron plate fixed on its’ base and Houdin was secretly using an electromagnet which attached the chest to the cast iron table.

Nowadays audiences would guess quickly that electro-magnetic force was the principle in use but in Houdin’s day it was virtually unknown. Houdin is also supposed to have installed the first ever intruder alarm in his home and was one of the first people to create an electric light bulb. He also attached all the clocks in his home to a central operating mechanism so that if he was hungry he could wind all the clocks back – the result being that his cooks would make dinner earlier! One of the strangest pieces of magic which used a scientific principle was P.T. Selbit’s Mighty Cheese. Again a demonstration of strength, a giant cheese of about 18 “ (??) in diameter was brought onto the stage. A number of strong men were invited to join the magician (and the cheese!). They were unable to lay it flat on its’ side and it frequently threw people to the ground as it struggled. The secret lay in the fact that a gyroscope was hidden within it. This was cranked up in the wings on a bicycle mechanism to set the gyroscope spinning before being taken on stage.

Walford Bodie in the early part of the 20th Century utilised the little known difference between current and static electricity to be able to withstand supposedly 20 million vaults. He also dubiously claimed to be able cure the sick and the paralysed utilising something he described as “Bodic force”. He became so famous with his electrical stunts that he was parodied by another famous Variety performer – Charlie Chaplin – who adopted his famous bushy moustache .


3. Shadow quest – on the raising of spirits

“No Wizard should conjure up the dead … for they can not be sent safely back to where they came from” ….“Earthsea”

In the mid 19th Century two girls known as the Fox sisters claimed to be able to produce mysterious knocking sounds around them which were attributed to spirits from the other world . They became famous and taken so seriously that their manifestations lead to the formation of the spiritualist movement. In later life they revealed themselves to be fakes – the mysterious rapping’s were actually caused by their strangely double jointed toes that could be clicked loudly and echoed on the wooden floors of their home! But by this time the spiritualist movement was in full swing and the sister’s confessions made little difference.

A decade later (?) The Davenport Brothers from America toured the US and Britain with a spiritual manifestation act. This consisted of them being tied securely in a cabinet – yet they were able to move objects and cause tambourines to rattle and be thrown from the top of the cabinet. A young British man named John Neville Maskelyne caught a glimpse inside the cabinet during a performance at Cheltenham in England and realised their secret. The Brothers were not in contact with the spirits at all but were cleverly releasing themselves from their bonds and re- inserting their hands into the ties before the cabinet was opened, thereby effecting the supposed spiritual manifestations. Maskelyne created his own escape trunk as a result – and this was the origin of the escape act which Houdini was to make famous. Both Maskelyne (who was to become the most famous magician in England) and Houdini devoted a great deal of time to the revelation of fake spirit mediums, and both wrote books on the subject.

Houdini’s quest in revealing the methods of fake mediums came from a heartfelt desire to genuinely contact the spirit of his dead mother, who he dearly loved, and who had died when he was on a tour of Europe(?). It was during this quest that he came to realise how many fakes spirit mediums there were. He believed there were two types of mediums – those who were bordering on criminal and set to exploit the grief of the families of recently departed loved ones for financial gain, and those that were essentially well meaning and believed in their own ability but were still unable to make true contact with the spirit world. In over 30 years of investigating Spiritualism, he became convinced that he had not seen one single example of true contact with the other world. This was despite a firm belief in the afterlife and a desperate desire to contact the spirit of his mother.

In the introduction to his book “A Magician Among The Spirits” published in 1924 he wrote “I believe in the hereafter and no greater blessing could be bestowed upon me than the opportunity, once again, to speak to my sainted mother who awaits me with open arms to press me to her heart in welcome”

His mission to expose the charlatan mediums made him very unpopular with the spiritualists, and he fell out with his life long friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself an ardent spiritualist, over the subject.

Houdini demonstrates a method used by fake mediums to make bells ring

Houdini demonstrates a method used by fake mediums to make bells ring

Houdini agreed a code with his wife Bess, which only she knew, so that after his death she would know if he ever came back to contact her. If anyone could escape from the other world, after all, surely it was the Great Houdini!

Houdini died on Halloween 1926 after suffering from peritonitis caused from a ruptured appendix after a challenge to punch him hard in the stomach was taken a little too enthusiastically. Every year on the anniversary of his death a highly publisised séance was held in order to contact the spirit of the departed Houdini. The code was never received, but the séances kept the Houdini name before the public for many years and in many ways kept his name alive beyond the grave.

Poster illustrating Carter The Great's Spirit Cabinet

Poster illustrating Carter The Great's Spirit Cabinet

Magicians also imitated the Davenport routine as honest entertainment. Great posters still exist of the amazing spirit cabinet routines of Carter The Great, Thurston and many others. Variations of the spirit cabinet are still performed today by magicians such as David Copper field who featured a routine which he called the “Berkely House“ on his 1995 TV special “Unseen Forces“.

The idea of contacting the other world is not something that should be taken likely, and there are many spooky stories of haunting and strange occurrences which have taken place in sites where traumatic deaths have occurred. Whether or not these are the work of spirits from another world, or the creation of overactive imaginations, still remains to be proven. The Magic Circle – the famous magic club in London, has an occult committee to investigate strange happenings, and in all the decades it has been running not one single example of a true paranormal event has been recorded.

4. Sleights and wondering jugglers

“Manhood is patience, mastery is nine times patience ”Ursula Le Guin

You may have heard the popular expression “the Hand is Quicker than the eye” in reference to conjurers. In fact this statement is not really a true indication of how great sleight of hand magicians work their wonders. Rapid hand movements draw attention to an action. What a great sleight of hand performer has mastered is a combination of incredible skill with the hands, together with a mastery of “misdirection” or – if you like, attention direction – being in control of where an audience is looking and when. Mastering dexterity on its own results in a display of just that – dexterity – as in the performance of a great juggler – where all the skill is there to be admired. In order to make sleight of hand look like magic, the skill has to be concealed – hidden behind natural actions to such an extent as to be invisible.

Sleight of hand magic goes back many centuries. In my collection of magic books, I have a volume called Hocus Pocus first published in the 18th century which includes quite a few sleight of hand tricks which are still popular today. In the first chapter the author, Henry Dean, describes the characteristics of a good performer of “Legerdemain” or sleight of hand..

1. “He must be one of a bold and undaunted resolution, so as to set a good face upon the matter”

In other words he must be very confident with what he or she is doing)

2. “He must have strange terms, and emphatical words, to grace and adorn his actions: and the more to amaze and astonish the beholders”

In other words, he should use his patter, or words, in such a way as to increase the impact of his magic)

3. “He must use such gestures of body, as may take off the spectators eyes, from a strict and diligent beholding your manner of performance”

I.e. He should use gestures and actions which distract the audience from your secret actions.

These rules are as true today as they were when Henry Dean first wrote them in 1722!

Caricature of Max Malini

Caricature of Max Malini

Sometimes the real secret lies – just as in the magic in Earthsea, in stillness, or in patience. One of the most famous sleight of hand performers of the past century was a man named Max Mallini. He was a short man with very small hands, but he was able to amaze audiences around the globe because of his amazing mastery of misdirection and understanding of their psychology. One of the reasons he astounded people so much was the extent he would be willing to prepare a trick. He would famously wait until the end of a long meal before seemingly miraculously producing a huge block of ice from under his hat. Now I don’t know how he got it there, but one things for sure – the trick required a great deal of preparation and a lot of patience as he waited for the right moment to perform it! One of his students asked him once how he could get away with doing a certain trick which required him being prepared beforehand “I Vait” Malini explained in his thick Eastern European accent “how long do you wait for” his student enquired “I Vait, I Vait a Veek” replied Malini.

One of my favourite stories about Malini was in connection to one of his most famous routines known as the card stab. Not one for you to try at home, but Malini would have a playing card chosen by a spectator. This would then be shuffled back into the pack and the pack would be spread over the table. He would then be blindfolded and he would stab downwards with a sharp knife, impaling one card on the blade. On lifting it up, it would prove amazingly to be the chosen card.

Once Malini performed this routine at a very elegant house, and made a large stab mark in an extremely valuable 17th Century table. “Look what you have done to my beautiful table” said the host in horror. “That’s true my friend – but you will be able to tell everyone that the mark was made by Max Malini” he replied.

Cardini with Swann - his wife and assistant

Cardini with Swann - his wife and assistant

Sleight of hand is also used by stage performers too, one of the most famous of the last century was a performer who became known as “Cardini”. He was born in Wales as Richard Pitchford and his act involved the most amazing manipulation with cigarettes, billiard balls, and playing cards. One of his great innovations was the character he adopted and the way he presented his magic – he portrayed a tipsy English gent who appeared to be as surprised as anyone else at the seemingly endless quantity of playing cards, cigarettes and billiard balls that seemed, rather inconveniently, to be appearing at his fingertips. Cardini invented many techniques which have become standard in magicians repertoires today. If you have ever seen any magician producing endless playing cards at his fingertips, you have probably seen work which was originated by Cardini. He became a huge star on the vaudeville stage.

Many people find sleight of hand close-up magic the most amazing type – because it happens right before you eyes without the assistance of special lighting or elaborate boxes! David Blaine has made a huge impact with it recently, performing on the streets of New York. Lets look at a couple of examples of close – up card tricks that you can do at home…

5.Illusions of seeming

“Illusion fools the beholders senses – it makes him see and hear and feel that the thing is changed. But it does not change the thing” Ursula Le Guin

There is nothing more fascinating than knowing that our own eyes are deceiving us. Although we trust everything we see as being reality, the process of vision and perception is a complex one and our eyes do not always show us things that truly exist. To begin to understand how our eyes can be deceived, we need to understand the nature of vision. This is a process which involves the reception of electromagnetic energy, which travels in waves, by the eyes. Many different sorts of information travels in wave form and they vary greatly in length. Gamma waves are very short and measure only 4 ten-trillionths of an inch. Waves used to transmit international broadcasts are over 17 miles long. In between there are waves used in infra red, X-rays, short wave and regular radio signals.

The wavelengths that our eyes respond to are known as the visible spectrum – longer than x-rays , but still pretty small! They measure between 1/16 millionth of an inch to about 1/ 32 millionths of an inch. So don’t expect to be able to measure them with a household tape measure! The eye’s receptors are sensitive to these waves in much the same way as a television set is designed to be receptive to much longer waves. The receptors in the eyes, known as “rods” and “cones“, convert this energy into nerve impulses which are transmitted to the brain. There are around one hundred million rods and six million cones in one eye and they transmit information to the brain via around one million separate nerve fibres, The Brain connects these impulses with other mental processes to make them understandable. This process is known as perception.

This amazing interpretation of information can easily be disturbed, and there are many examples and ways in which the brain can be tricked into seeing things that are not really there. This is an immense and fascinating area and taps into the areas of science, biology, psychology, and perception.

Here is an interesting example of how the brain can see something that is not really there – have a look at this picture – our Brain “sees” a large white triangle which is not actually in existence – this is the brain interpreting visual information and trying to make sense of it. This process is still not fully understood



Optical illusions have been used for centuries in decoration – the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Rennaisance artists such a s Michelangelo all knew how to arrange colours to make spaces look more spectacular, ceilings seem higher and hide the entrances to secret rooms.

We can actually experience the sensation of the brain trying to make sense and interpret visual information. How many faces can you see in this picture?

Three Faces optical illusion


There are three different ones but the brain can only see one at a time. You may have trouble in finding the third! Different personalities see differing faces at different times. When you stare at this picture, note how your brain literally switches between images – it is actually impossible to see more than one face at one time.

The artist MS Escher built his career on representing impossible 3 dimensional images in the 2 dimensions of his drawings. Have a look at this impossible staircase and allow your eyes to go up the steps one at a time until you reach the top. On second thoughts don’t wait until you reach the top- you may be staring at the screen for ever more!

The famous optical illusionist Jerry Andrus has actually managed to build a couple of these impossible objects in 3d. Here is a picture of him with an impossible cube. How do you think he was able to do this?

Andrus also created one of my favorite optical illusions – an amazing rotating spiral which causes something he calls the Spiral Aftereffect. This effect is based on a odd phenomenon called the “waterfall effect” so named by the Greek scholar Aristotle in 350 BCE, who noticed it as he sat gazing at a waterfall and realised that his eyes memorised the falling motion of the water and therefore affected other things that he looked at straight afterwards.

Stare into this rotating spiral for about 30 seconds – then look at the back of your hand and you will get a nasty shock!

What keeps our eyes going after we stop looking is an after-image. After-images are a natural side-effect of sight. After we expose the rod and cone receptors (which were mentioned earlier) to light, they take a few moments to return to normal. A faint image may briefly remain in our mind’s eye. This spooky image we sometimes “see” is known as an after-image.

The most famous and greatest optical illusion of all which relies on the principle of retention of vision, or after image, is cinema. When you watch a film, you are not aware that in fact you are viewing dozens of different still images every second. The illusion of movement comes from your brain momentarily retaining the previous image and linking it to the next. This principle had it’s origins in a Victorian toy called the Thaumatrope, a small disc of cardboard which was cut and spun on two pieces of string.

Another interesting tie-in between Cinema and magic is that great magicians such as David Devant from the UK and Carl Hertz from America were amongst the first to display cinema to a public audience as entertainment.

Georges Melies, a magician who ran the Robert Houdin theatre in Paris, was one of the first independent film makers. He originally filmed the performances of magicians as an experiment and then discovered that he could create far more impressive illusions by stopping the camera, moving the actors, and then re-starting. This is what is known now as “stop motion” photography. Melies built amazing fantastical sets and directed and starred in his own films. He is considered to be the father of the Science Fiction film and the originator of film wizardry . His most famous work is “A Trip To The Moon” made in 1902.


Georges Méliès Trip To The Moon

Georges Méliès Trip To The Moon


Sadly, the films of his day were not valued highly and many originals were melted down during the First World War to extract nickle (?) from them. Meilies himself destroyed many more in a fit of fury. Today only a quarter (?) of all his films survive.

The brain also relies a lot on memory to interpret information, it makes assessments and adjustment of distance and size of objects. If you look at your face in the bathroom mirror, and then allow the mirror to steam up, if you trace your finger around the outline of your head you will probably be surprised to find that the reflection is no bigger than a large orange. When you see your friend down the other end of the street, although they appear much smaller in size than when they are standing next to you, the brain knows that it is not because they have shrunk, but because they are in the distance.

This interpretation of size and distance is one which some scientists have used to explain what is popularly known as the “moon illusion“. Scientists for centuries have puzzled over why the moon when viewed close to the horizon looks far bigger than when it is up in the night sky. It is generally thought that this is in fact an optical illusion. When the moon is viewed next to objects that we can “scale” it against, the brain decides that is actually a much larger object located far closer to the viewer.

Occasionally this property of the brain can be fooled in a big way. In a remarkable experiment invented by Aldebert Ames, two people stand at the opposite end of a completely distorted room. At one end the room is tall and wide in all direction, at the other the room is less than half the width and height. All lines are kept completely straight between these two ends resulting in a sloping floor and ceiling, and a back wall which becomes narrower and shallower. Despite all this, there is one spot on the outside of the wall that if a spectator peeks through with one eye, the room will appear completely square, with floor and ceiling parallel. What is even stranger is that if two people of the same height are put at opposite end, the brain will see one as tiny and the other as a giant. If they walk to their respective opposite ends of the room, the brain will see one of them shrink and one of them grow – because it is interpreting what is a distorted room as a rectangular one and correcting the information accordingly.

To finish this section – here is a fun idea which plays on this idea of size distortion. You will need to print this Size Distortion Illusion and carefully cut out the two figures. Which one is larger? Try swapping them around and you may be surprised.

6. Foretelling – tricks of the mind

The idea of soothsaying or foretelling the future and reading the mind has always been a great part of magical folk lore, and the within the world of Earthsea this is no exception. Wizards of all ages have claimed to be able to read peoples secret thoughts, and even predict future events! The most famous soothsayer in history was the 16th Century French astrologer named Nostradamus who made many predictions about world events partly based on the positions of the stars. He originally studied medicine and healed many people struck down with the plague. He was a brilliant intellectual and upheld the belief that the world was round and circled around the sun more than one hundred years before Galileo was prosecuted for the same belief. His works are still in print, and people argue even today about the accuracy of his prophecies.

As far as the lighter side of magic as entertainment, one of the most common ways of supposedly reading someone’s mind is to ask them to pick a card, return it to the pack and then concentrate on it. The magician is then able to reveal the identity of the card. There have been literally thousands upon thousands of this kind of card trick but one of the most unusual versions was performed by so called “learned pigs”. Very popular in England at the early part of the 19th century, pigs would apparently be able to push forward a secretly chosen card from several laid down on the floor. In my magic library I have a wonderful book called “A Rich Cabinet with Variety Of inventions” published in 1780, and it shows a wonderful woodcut of how a magician can seemingly impossibly tell the name of a playing card in a pack. The engraving shows the wizard holding up a pack of cards and away from his face in front of a candle. He is able to tell the name of the card by looking at a reflection in a small drop of water on the table top!

From A Rich Cabinet with Variety of Inventions - 1684

From "A Rich Cabinet with Variety of Inventions" - 1684

In this sections webinar you will learn a simple version of how to guess a chosen card from a pack – and perhaps will start you on the fascinating road of card magic.

The great French magician Robert Houdin performed an amazing mind reading act known as “second sight” with his son in the 1840‘s. His son could apparently divulge any object held up by people in the audience, despite the fact he was securely blindfolded. The act relied on Houdin transmitting the information from the audience to his blindfolded son seated on the stage by the way of a special verbal code. Depending on exactly which words Houdin used to ask a question of his son, hidden clues were transmitted as to the answer of the question. Each starting letter of a sentence would indicate another letter and spell out the name of the object. This lead to some rather strange questions such as “ Here is a name. Do you see it? Hurry up, Have you got it” Would spell through the code the name Anna. As you can imagine, the act took years to perfect and must have been astounding to witness, as the code was very cleverly hidden.

Here is a great trick you can try at home which relies on a visual code from an accomplice to transmit secret information. The effect is that a pack of cards is shuffled and nine cards are layed out in a square on the floor. This all happens while the magician is out of the room. A card is secretly selected by one of the other people. On returning to the room, the magician is able to instantly reveal the card to the spectators. The amazing demonstration can be repeated many times and becomes more and more baffling to the spectators.

The secret lies in the fact that the person dealing the cards is an accomplice. When the cards are dealt onto the floor or on a table, the accomplice simply places his or her thumb on the back of the pack of cards in an exact position to indicate what position the chosen card is. If the thumb is rested at the centre of the pack, the magician knows that the card is located in the centre of the square of nine cards. Centre right means the card is on the second row (centre) on the right. This works easily and clearly for any of the nine positions. Try it with a pack of cards at home and you will see how quick you can spot the thumb position of your accomplice. Do try this – it will really amaze your friends! Oh – and remember to keep the secret!

Alexander - The Man Who Knows

Alexander - the greatest mind reader of the last century

The greatest mind readers of the last century include Alexander The man Who Knows – a hugely successful performer who could apparently read peoples minds. He would always wear a large turban, as depicted in this wonderful lithograph in my collection form around 1920.

The original turban exists today and is in David Copperfileld’s amazing magic museum in Las Vegas. The turban holds the secret to at least some of Alexander’s amazing acts. There are hidden electrical wires in the turban which allowed people off stage to send information to Alexander who was seemingly isolated on the stage.

Joseph Dunninger was one of the most successful performers of this kind of entertainment in the US, and was one of the first to become famous as a solo mind reader. One of his most amazing stunts to attract publicity was to drive a car to any destination whilst apparently blindfolded. Dunninger never claimed to have supernatural abilities – he called his abilities “telethesia”. There is no doubt that although Dunninger used many tricks in his performances, he also had a thorough knowledge of human psychology, and was expert at influencing peoples decisions. He pointed out that a mind reader has to use many more skills than a magician – and can also get away without being one hundred percent correct all the time. Indeed it sometimes added to the impact if, on predicting a newspaper headline, he would get one or two words wrong. This seemed to make the predication more genuine.

Kreskin was a more recent famous name in mind reading, again an expert in psychology. He became a famous name in the US through his amazing live shows and impressive television appearances.

Most recently, David Blaine has made an impact with seemingly psychological magic. His most memorable demonstrations include revealing a thought-of person by showing a tattoo of them on his body! His card predictions have also amazed millions of people throughout the world.

7. Marvels and Enchantments –

The greatest magical feats of all time…

Sawing a lady in half – first performed by a British wizard by the name of P.T. Selbit (Percy Tibbles) in 1921. His act created an overnight sensation and was imitated all over the world. In Selbit’s version the woman was completely enclosed in a slim wooden box, her body secured inside by ropes tied around her neck, hands and ankles. Members of the audience held the ropes on the outside to check she didn’t move. Although Selbit was the first to saw through the box, he was not the first to show the lady in two halves – his effect was more of a penetration of the saw through her body.

PT Selbit - Sawing Through A Woman

PT Selbit - Sawing Through A Woman

This was up to a portly magician by the name of Horace Goldin to achieve. He placed a lady in a much larger box with her head and feet out of the ends. He then sawed her in half and demonstrated that she was separated by pulling the boxes apart. He later developed a version with no box which he called the “living miracle” – a lady laying on a table with absolutely no cover was cut in half with a circular saw. Goldin maximised the impact of the illusion by having an ambulance parked outside the theatre with a banner along the side saying “In case the saw slips”. Modern versions include what is known as the slim line sawing in half where the box seems impossibly small. This was invented by a Turkish magician by the name of Zati Sungar in the 1950’s. Modern improvements have made the illusion even more astonishing – The Pendragons (USA) created a version with a tiny glass box, and David Copperfield is apparently cut in half when an escape goes wrong!

The Bullet Catch: The most dangerous feat of wizardry of all time. At least a dozen magicians have died attempting to perform this spectacular act. Robert Houdin was a able to quell a native uprising in North Africa against the occupying French by performing this feat – the tribe believed he had true magic powers after seeing it.

Chung Ling Soo and the bullet catch

Chung Ling Soo and the bullet catch

Attributed to Alexander Herrmann, it was also perfumed famously by a magician named Chung Ling Soo – the David Copperfield of his day. He was one of the victims of the trick – it went wrong one night and he was shot dead on the stage of the Wood Green Empire in London in February 1918. Today an incredibly spectacular version of the trick is performed by Penn and Teller in their Las Vegas show at the Riviera hotel. Definitely not one to try at home.

Levitation: Levitation is perhaps the most viscerally symbolic of all the feats of magic. The idea of being able to fly is a universal dream. One of the earliest accounts of levitation (which also ties into the feats purportedly produced by the spirit mediums) was an Indian street trick where, after being covered by a large blaket, the fakir was revealed suspended in the air, his arm resting on a wooden stick. Robert Houdin took this basic trick to another level and suspended his son from a pole – a feat he attributed to the magical properties of ether – hence the title “ethereal suspension”. The next major breakthrough in Levitation creativity was Nevil Maskelyne on the stage of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, who suspended his business partner George Cooke horizontally during a short magical play called “Trapped by magic” . He then proceeded to pass a solid hoop over the floating mans body – and ingenious idea to prove the absence of any attachments. This amazing mystery is still just as amazing today as when it was first performed. The most famous modern levitations as performed by David Copperfield in his incredible Flying routine, and by David Blaine – who made a great impact by seemingly levitating himself off a sidewalk in New York.

Carl Hertz - Indian Rope Trick

Carl Hertz - Indian Rope Trick

The Indian Rope Trick: It is generally thought that this most famous of all Eastern magic tricks is in fact a myth. The effect was supposed to be thus: The fakir would throw a piece of rope into the air – it would travel so high that the top would be impossible to see. Then a small boy would climb the rope, pursued by the fakir who would clench a large dagger between his teeth. When out of sight up the rope the sound of hacking would be heard by the audience, and apparently pieces of the boys’ body would drop down from the sky a few moments later, the magician would descend from the sky, assemble the pieces of dismembered body and throw them into a basket. Within moments the boy would step out unharmed. According to Dr Peter Lamont in his book “The Rise and Fall of the Indian Rope trick” the illusion was a myth started by a reporter in a Chicago newspaper in the 1880’s. However this is there is no doubt that the idea of being able to climb into the clouds goes back to very ancient legend.


8. Beyond arts of illusion to the works of real magery –

This online course is meant as a basic introduction to the art of magic. Magic is a fascinating subject and is incredibly braod in all its areas. It has only been possible to give a breif overview of some of the vast amount of information, with just a short summary of the works of some of the world’s great magicians. I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed this course, and will be inspired to look further afield to expand your knowledge.
Some web sites links:


Further information, bibliography, a list of magic shops and magician’s clubs. Conclusion as to why magic is a great hobby and profession.

Further reading:

  • The Illustrated History of Magic – Milbourne Christopher
  • Mysterious Stranger – David Blaine
  • Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women – Ricky Jay
  • The Royal Road to Card Magic by Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue
  • Hiding The Elephant – Jim Steinmeyer
  • Masters of Deception : Escher, Dali, & the Artists of Optical Illusion by Al Seckel


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