Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review: Secrets of Magic Ancient and Modern

Title: Secrets of Magic Ancient and Modern


Author: Walter Gibson

Date: 1967

Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap

ISBN: none

Length: 147 pages

Illustrations: drawings and diagrams by Kyuzo Tsugami

Quote: “Whether they really believed they had special powers or whether they dealt in deliberate deception, their purpose was to win profit or prestige through the admiration of the populace.”

Modern “magicians” are illusionists. Bound by a professional oath not to explain exactly how the more complicated illusions are performed, they entertain people by making objects seem to appear and disappear from hiding places. Everyone agrees that their “magic” consists of exploiting the natural properties of things to put on an amusing show.

Ancient “magicians” were, Gibson explains, illusionists just like those in practice today—but the things they exploited included people’s belief that the magicians really were working with supernatural beings or powers. History records many ways illusionists used this belief to gain “profit and prestige.”

According to the Bible, Moses and Aaron competed against the court magicians, Jannes and Jambres, to impress Pharaoh. Moses taught Aaron a simple trick, possibly to give his less educated brother confidence, that exploited the normal behavior of a species of snake found in Egypt. Grasped in the right way, the snake becomes paralyzed, stretched out stiff as a stick. Thrown down onto the ground the right way, the snake recovers the ability to move, and typically moves away from the person who has been manhandling it, but not very fast at first. The Hebrew prophets performed this trick. The Egyptian court magicians matched it, “but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.”  (The “reptilian brain” acts reflexively, without reason or emotion; many snakes are cannibalistic.)

Images of ancient Pagan gods were often designed in such a way that a wood, stone, or metal statue seemed to have some of the powers of a living thing. The Apocrypha credits Daniel with solving the mystery of how one idol seemed to consume enormous quantities of food and drink, even though its chamber was sealed, by finding the secret passage through which the priests of the idol got in and consumed the offerings. A Roman idol was built above a fireplace in such a way that hot air rising below the statue’s hands would cause wine to spill onto the fire, as if the statue were pouring a ceremonial libation of wine for other spirit beings. Air currents flowing through underground passages, between columns, etc., made some idols seem to “speak with a voice of thunder”…and so on.

A medieval “wizard,” setting his sights lower, might obtain food, lodging, and religious toleration by a more benign trick—stirring an empty pot with a magic stick until, to the delight of the observers, food appeared in the pot. The stick would, of course, be hollow, filled with eggs, and sealed with fat. Or the wizard might try to impress people with his tolerance for pain and torture…apparently stabbing sharp objects through his skin, while in fact, of course, the blades or spikes had retracted back into their handles.

Although such tricks are too simple to rank among the secrets of modern stage magic,  the principles they exploit were not always understood. King Xerxes, or Achashverosh or Ahasuerus, of Persia was said to have met his Waterloo when he stumbled upon the real explanation of a “magical” device he was not prepared to understand. Warned of “woe unto” anyone who failed to refill a container with oil, he poured oil into the container again and again, yet it would not remain full. An ingenious builder had constructed the container with a siphon. Not understanding how siphons work, Xerxes was distracted, perhaps discouraged…and he began to lose battles rather than win them.

These are only a few of the classic legends of how magic really worked that Gibson shares with readers. The story continues all the way up to the astounding feats of Harry Houdini and some of the “spiritualist mediums,” channellers, and shamans still practicing today. For anyone who enjoys history, mystery, and science, Secrets of Magic Ancient and Modern will be a delightful read. Because of its historical content, which appeals to grown-ups too, I enjoyed it more than any of the other books on stage magic I previewed and shared with The Nephews a few years ago.


The vocabulary level would be a challenge for most people who play with dolls, so I wouldn’t have dressed a doll to accompany this book if I hadn’t come across an off-brand doll that was built to lie in positions that suggested it might be participating in the illusion of being floated through hoops and sawn in half.  Oh well, some primary school students are likely to be interested enough to learn a few new words, and some older readers are likely to know little girls...

I didn't know much about Walter Gibson until I looked him up online. Although he was the author of many other, more juvenile books about stage magic, as well as this one, it seems his real interest in tricks and illusions was even more "adult" and lucrative. He wrote most of the adventures of "The Shadow," a popular radio detective series, under a different pen name. He also wrote several volumes of a popular children's adventure story series under a different name. He was quite a prolific writer in the early twentieth century.

In any case, he no longer has any use for a dollar, so Secrets of Magic is not a Fair Trade Book. If, however, you choose to send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address at the bottom of the screen, you'll be able to add to the package another book, by a living author, to whom we'll send 10% of the total price you pay for his or her book (usually $1 per book).