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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

conjuring/conjuror The art of seeming to perform genuine magic is known as conjuring, and the artist is known as a conjuror. The art has a written history dating back to a manuscript known as the Westcar Papyrus, after its 1823 discoverer, Henry Westcar. That document is currently in the Berlin State Museum. Written 3,800 to 4,000 years ago, it relates events that are said to have occurred 500 years earlier in the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, more popularly known as Cheops, probably the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, near Cairo.
      The Westcar Papyrus recounts a series of tales told at the court of Cheops to the pharaoh by his sons. One story tells of Webaoner, a court magician/scholar faced with the problem of an adulterous wife who was sending expensive gifts to a townsman who had attracted her. Webaoner, it says, sculpted a small wax crocodile which then became seven cubits (twelve feet) long, dutifully swallowed the erring wife, and was once again a harmless wax model. Next is a story about a magician named Djadjaemonkh, who found a lost amulet by folding a lake! He

      placed one side of the water of the lake upon the other, and lying upon a potsherd he found the fish-shaped charm.

      The papyrus then relates that a magician known as Dedi was able to reattach the head of a goose that had been cut off. To demonstrate his skills for the pharaoh, a goose was brought and decapitated. The papyrus says:

      The goose was placed on the western side of the pillared court, and its head on the eastern side. Dedi said his magic words. The goose arose and waddled and so did its head. The one reached the other and the goose stood up and cackled. Next he caused a waterfowl to be brought, and the like was done with it. Then His Majesty caused that there be brought to him an ox, and its head was felled to the ground. Dedi said his magic words, and the ox stood up behind him with its tether fallen to the ground.

      The lake-folding and wax crocodile stories are certainly not accounts of conjuring but tales of sorcery. However, the bird's-head-off-and-back-on-again trick and the method for doing it are well known to conjurors, though not done quite as described here. Where the papyrus relates that the same feat was performed with an ox, it may be simply a bit of hyperbole——not entirely unheard of in descriptions of conjuring——and quite likely to creep into the story. It must be pointed out that this document was written by a scribe from secondhand reports nearly five hundred years after the events are supposed to have taken place.
      There is a continuous history of the conjuring art from the Westcar Papyrus down to the present day. Such superstars as Harry Houdini, John Nevil Maskelyne, Blackstone (père et fils), Joaquin Ayala, David Copperfield, and Siegfried & Roy have kept audiences enthralled with their skills. But conjuring is not magic and should not be mistaken for a supernatural performance, even when the conjuror chooses to misrepresent his abilities, as occasionally happens.
      The art of conjuring uses sleight of hand, special equipment, secret technology, carefully learned psychological methods, and various illusionary techniques to present to the spectator——for purposes of entertainment——the same effect that would be experienced if magic were actually possible.
      In the United States, the word “conjuring” is interchangeable with “magic,” and conjurors are referred to as “magicians.”

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