The newsletter to fuel — and thrill — your mind. Read for deep dives into the unmissable ideas and topics shaping our world.
Oct 06, 2022
It’s no illusion. Magic and magicians are appearing everywhere. “Until recently,” says John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA and, yes, an amateur magician, “the most frequent question a U.S. magician got was ‘Do you do birthday parties?’” Now, magic is increasingly being seen as a “legitimate art form,” he says, which is drawing new illusionists from an increasingly diverse set of backgrounds into the fold. In this OZY Classics newsletter, we take you further into the world of live magical entertainment, the history of illusion, sorcery, witches, and the like, and also uncover some real-life magic in the world around us.
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A growing number of female illusionists are changing the world of magic. For decades, women have largely been relegated to the role of perky assistants who are sawed in half. Now, more and more women are joining the profession as magicians themselves. Top magic schools are recording a dramatic surge in female students. And audiences are embracing them like never before.
After a decade on the college circuit, magician Nate Staniforth, the former host of the Discovery Channel’s Breaking Magic, had a reawakening. He decided to leave the U.S. — where magicians have creepy hairdos and dress badly — to meet magicians in different countries, finally setting down roots in India. Upon his return to the States, he’s been able to rediscover his craft, and find a comfortable onstage persona.
Like the rest of Italy, the deeply superstitious south has suffered hard economic times for years. As a result, tarot card readers, clairvoyants and fortune-tellers are flourishing — superstition has proven to be a lucrative business as despair over the socioeconomic outlook is pushing many Italians to seek quick answers in unproven quarters.
Each digital newsletter called “My Feminism Involves Witchcraft” by Haylin Belay, a modern-day witch in New York, revolves around a spell or ritual, all made fuss-free with ingredients you can find in your home, including mint, salt, oils and spices. Belay, who works with healing crystals and frequents apothecaries, calls her brand of magic “a place to reclaim your personal power” when things are falling apart, times are tough or you’re in a rut.
As onboard entertainment goes, the westward-bound German liner SS Imperator had a group of talent lined up for the evening of June 23, 1914, that would be the envy of any cruise ship today. Along with other notable acts like the Ritz-Carlton Orchestra was perhaps the most famous entertainer on the planet: Harry Houdini. The 40-year-old magician dazzled his audience with some standard sleight of hand before moving on to a more daring misdirection, one he had been planning for weeks, and one whose target he had already chosen. That mark was none other than former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt.
World War II was raging and resources were scarce, so a dashing stage magician maximized what he had by using mirrors to divide each search light into 24 spinning beams, shining them at passing enemy aircraft to blind and distract the pilots. Jasper Maskelyne’s invention for making the bad guys see things that weren’t really there was something else. With a bit of razzle-dazzle, he claimed to make the Suez Canal vanish and hid the city of Alexandria from German planes, fighting the war in North Africa with a sleight of hand so powerful that it seemed like magic.
Almost 17 years before the iPhone, General Magic’s aim was nothing less than a pocket-size communications device that could send messages, perform computing and make calls. Named after Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim that “the best new technology is indistinguishable from magic,” General Magic, an Apple Inc. spinoff, was Silicon Valley’s hottest startup, at least for a spell. But even magic and partnerships with Sony, Motorola and other big players failed to conjure a market for its innovative but unsettled technology.
Maybe they really were witches. Or maybe New Englanders started pointing fingers at their neighbors for a more convenient reason … money. Many of the women accused of being witches were impoverished, but there was another, surprisingly large group of suspects: property owners. Women who had inherited land from their fathers or husbands, and who didn’t have to give it up, were often the targets of witch hunts. Conveniently, if the women were found guilty, other people could take their land.
If you’ve ever been on an African safari, chances are your ranger crafted a bush toothbrush for you at some point. Cutting a twig from a Magic guarri tree and fraying the ends into bristles is a common ranger’s ploy to keep excitement levels up when the Big Five aren’t playing ball. But it’s not all smoke and mirrors either. Folks don’t give names like Magic guarri to run-of-the-mill trees. The tree is used for divination in Zambia, sorcery in Angola and to remove spells in Uganda. Medicines made from its roots are used throughout Africa to “cure” everything from cancer and arthritis to miscarriage, snakebites and leprosy.
Cactus is becoming a more ubiquitous sight on Mexican restaurant menus. You can also make it at home: Buy several large nopales pads from your friendly neighborhood Latino market and remove the needles and spines. Batter them the same way you would fried chicken: Season some flour, dredge the cactus, then dip them into a beaten egg and coat with crumbs. Then fry them until golden brown.
Even if you haven’t paid much attention, you’ve probably heard of magic-wielder — “magick” was his preferred spelling — Aleister Crowley, who was once slapped with the less-than-flattering label “the wickedest man in the world.” The Beatles, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Marilyn Manson have all expressed their admiration for the English occultist. Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice (Part III of the larger Magick: Liber ABA, Book 4) is a must for any novice wishing to learn more about ceremonial magic.
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