Magic History Tips

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Did You Know This About Playing Cards ?

It's possible a deck of playing cards contains a few 'mysteries' we don't totally understand. The actual history of playing cards is not completely understood, although it is generally assumed they originated as an offshoot of Tarot cards. Authorities are in disagreement as to the years, or centuries, certain characteristics came into being... Some websites seem positive about the 'facts' they publish, but if you do your research you'll see the disparity.

The number of 'spots' on a deck is widely reported to be 365, the number of days in a year. -But- if you actually sit down and count the spots yourself, instead of taking some strangers word for it, you'll find 348 spots... not 365. Remember, you heard it here first!

A couple of 'unusual' facts we do know, and that you can easily verify, are:

- A deck of playing cards contains 52 cards... the same number of weeks in a year.

- There are four suits in a deck... the number of seasons in a year.

- There are definitely 12 picture cards, the number of months in a year.

- There are 13 different denomination of cards, the number of lunar cycles in a year.

I'm sure there are many other similarities between a deck of cards and our little 'world'. Let us know at what you have found.

Are there any really old books about magic?



A Modern English Rendering of Those Portions of the 16th Century English Text Dealing With Legerdemain

(Modern English Text and Commentary Copyright 1994-98 by Neil Alexander)

Originally published in 1584 in London. Authored, by Reginald Scot a justice of the peace in Kent, England.

In the 1500s witch-hunts were sweeping continental Europe and Scotland, and would soon engulf England with the coronation of the anti-witch activist, King James I, in 1603. Scot's work was intended as an argument against the existence of witches, and a protest to the rising tide of persecution.

A very small portion, 22 pages out of 283 in the Dover Publications reprint, was devoted to performance magic, and became the basis for many of the books on magic tricks that appeared over the centuries following the printing of Discoverie.

“The Discoverie of Witchcraft “ was written in 16th century Elizabethan English, and is filled with archaic spelling and phrasing along with obsolete expressions common to those times. Shakespeare's first plays appeared six years after the publication of Scot's work and the English is similar, although the student of poetry will search Scot's writing in vain for any examples of iambic pentameter.

It is a meticulously well researched study on the practice of witchcraft; and also touches on astrology, alchemy, divination, and more. The text presents logical evidences of the witches self-delusions or outright fraud.

The complete work covering charms; the names of demons, angels and other words of power; spells; rituals; sabbats; biblical and Egyptian magic; and much more, was researched with such academic integrity that the Discoverie remains a much-quoted primary source for those interested in the occult sciences and magic history, whether believers or not.

Scot was guided in writing the sections of the book dealing with legerdemain by John Cautares, a 16th century French sleight-of-hand artist who made his living as a laborer and resided in London. The sections devoted to magic tricks contain valid explanations of many effects still performed today, but include very little instruction on the handling of the sleights.

The chapters were written with tremendous respect for the art of legerdemain, which it discusses using that very term. Scot emphasizes that he considers such entertainments to be to the betterment of society and its citizens, and not the work of the devil or his allies.

The text holds little back in exposing the use of misdirection, manipulation, confederacy, and many other tools of the magician in surprising detail considering the relatively small space allotted to the subject. Not only does he reveal much sleight of hand, but also larger effects that can be compared to what we have come to regard as full sized stage illusions.

Among the many techniques and gimmicks "discovered" are: magicians' wax, double-sided coins, various finger palms, classic palming, coin shells, the classic force, lapping, loading for cups and balls, threads, false shuffling, second dealing, confederacy, "bar bets" (as they would be called today), mentalism including a simple second sight-style code, false bottomed boxes, paddle tricks, the double-tape (grandmother's necklace) principle, a four hundred year old sophisticated version of the "magic coloring book", and much more.

Who is the patron saint of magicians?

St. John Don Bosco Catholic Patron Saint of Magicians

When most people, Catholics or not, find out that there actually is a Catholic saint whose sphere of influence includes stage magic, they generally ask if I'm sure. The answer is, I'm very sure. January 31 is the day set aside on the Catholic liturgical calendar to honor St. John Don Bosco. Don is simply the Italian honorific for a respected person, equivalent to our Sir. He was referred to as Don even during his life by both villagers and the children for whom he cared.

Many people would wonder how it is how it is that the Catholic Church and magic could get mixed up together. During the later half of the 19th century, as Europe's poor were suffering from the effects of Industrialization, Don Bosco saw how most of the children in his village remained uneducated and unchurched. After Mass on Sundays, he would round up his little friends and relate the Bible stories he learned in church to them. To keep their attention he would use magic tricks as he retold these stories.

As a young man, Don Bosco became a priest and directed his ministry solely to poor children. He needed a way to get kids interested in coming to church and to accept the aid he was offering. He used puzzles, riddles and juggling but it was the magic that most quickly caught the kids' attention. Stories that have come down to us from his contemporaries include some specific tricks he used. He was said to be especially good at tying three ropes together to form one seamless rope in order to explain the mystery of the Christian Trinity. He also would pull coins from ears and change pebbles into money delighting the children who were under his care. Don Bosco started a community of Catholic priests, nuns and brothers who still to this day help street kids and youth in gangs throughout the world including New York City.

Catholic magicians in Europe still celebrate this day by performing benefit shows for children. Some Catholic magicians here in America celebrate the day in their own creative ways. Though the day might easily go past us, as it has so many times previously, it's gratifying to sit and reflect, whether or not you are Catholic, on the "magical effect" that tricks have on people and especially children. The real magic occurs when, during performances, we can transport our audience to an alternative world and reality, even if for only a few seconds. Being able to show something fantastic, something "unbelievable" is our special province. Magic can allow us to bring gasps, smiles and open-mouth gapes to anyone we wish. We intentionally stupefy, stagger, mesmerize, enthrall and amaze for no other reason than to see the smiles on a thousand faces. It's not so strange that our most appreciative audiences are frequently kids; they are the most willing to temporarily suspend belief. When we look back to the first magic trick we can remember, it's not so hard to see why Don Bosco chose to help kids with the use of magic. Happy Don Bosco day everyone!

"They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic." - Acts of the Apostles 8:11

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