Abracadabra: The Story of Magic Through the Ages

Abracadabra: The Story of Magic Through the Ages


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Magic is the difference between the seen and unseen. Magic is performance. Magic is hard work and practice. But, sometimes, great magicians can make it into something truly mysterious.

The word "magic" has changed over time—first used for centuries to explain natural happenings like earthquakes and illnesses—but we still use it to describe things we see but don't understand. Now, H.P. Newquist explains how (nearly) all the famous tricks work in this nonfiction narrative of magic through the ages, from the legends and oracles of ancient Egypt, to the exploits of Houdini and David Blaine.

Illustrated with photographs and line drawings, this book will have middle-grade readers spellbound.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312593216
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publication date: 11/17/2015
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,103,230
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 9 - 13 Years

About the Author

H.P. Newquist is the author of more than a dozen books for both children and adults, including The Great Brain Book and For Boys Only. He has also written hundreds of magazine articles and several filmed documentaries, and spends a good amount of time traveling to conduct research for his projects. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt


The Story of Magic Through the Ages

By HP Newquist, Olga Ivanov, Aleksey Ivanov

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2015 HP Newquist
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-525-8



Magicians weren't born with the knowledge of how to perform magic. Someone had to teach them how to do their tricks. And before that, someone had to create the tricks. After all, magic tricks and illusions didn't just appear out of thin air. Someone had to figure out what they wanted a trick to be, then how to perform it, and then make it so amazing that it would fool everyone.

So who came up with these magic tricks?

For the answer to that, we have to go back through history. We have to go back a few thousand years, because it turns out that people have been doing magic for a very, very long time.

There is one magic trick that has been performed more than any other in history. This trick is performed by all kinds of magicians, whether they are on a big Las Vegas stage or sitting at a small table on a city sidewalk. Called Cups and Balls, it is a very simple sleight of hand trick. The magician hides balls under cups, then moves the cups around on a tabletop. When he lifts the cups, the balls have magically switched places or disappeared.

Some magicians believe that Cups and Balls is the oldest magic trick in the world. They claim there is evidence of it being performed in ancient Egypt. They point to a cemetery called Beni Hasan, located along the banks of the Nile River. The cemetery contains thirty-nine tombs — many of which are four thousand years old — carved out of the rock hills. The cemetery is historically important because the walls of the tombs were painted with scenes of ancient Egyptian life and contain numerous ancient picture symbols called hieroglyphs.

What makes the Beni Hasan cemetery important to our story is that there is one scene painted on a wall that shows two people facing each other. The people appear to be moving cups in the same way that modern magicians do with Cups and Balls. While no one knows for sure, many magicians believe that this painting shows Egyptians performing Cups and Balls — more than forty centuries ago.

Ancient Egypt is home to many mysteries and legends, from the Sphinx and the building of the pyramids to the stories of King Tut and Cleopatra. But some of its most incredible legends were about magic and about men who may have been the first magicians. These stories were depicted in hieroglyphs on an Egyptian document known as the Westcar Papyrus, which was written more than three thousand years ago. In one story, an advisor to the Egyptian pharaoh makes a crocodile out of wax. When he throws the wax crocodile into the water, it magically comes alive as a real crocodile.

In another story, the pharaoh's daughter is riding in a boat. During the ride, she accidentally loses a piece of turquoise jewelry when it falls into the water. Her guardians and assistants spend hours looking for it, but no one can find the precious stone. Then another of the pharaoh's advisors shows up to help. This man does something unheard of: he folds the water in half. The turquoise can be seen at the bottom of the river, and it is recovered. The advisor then folds the water back into place.

The most intriguing story of magic from the Westcar Papyrus is about Dedi, a man living quietly in a small Egyptian village. Dedi is said to be 110 years old. He has a huge appetite, eating five hundred loaves of bread and two hundred pounds of meat a day. What makes him even more unusual, though, is that he has the power to remove and reattach the heads of animals without killing them.

When the pharaoh, named Khufu, hears of this, he summons Dedi to his palace. On the day Dedi arrives, Khufu asks that a criminal be brought to the palace from a local jail. He wants Dedi to cut off the prisoner's head and then reattach it. But Dedi refuses Khufu's request, saying that such things should not be done to people.

The pharaoh agrees and comes up with a different idea. He orders that a duck be brought to the palace, then a goose, then an ox. Each of the animals is decapitated, one after another, and Dedi speaks magic words over them. Suddenly their heads are reattached to their necks ... and they come back to life and are perfectly normal. The duck and goose flutter out of the palace while the ox slowly walks away. Amazed by Dedi's powers, Khufu invites Dedi to come live in the palace. From then on, Dedi is fed a thousand loaves of bread and an entire ox every day.

Many other ancient cultures also had stories about men (and sometimes women) who did things that no one else could do. Ancient Greece had people called oracles — a sort of holy magician — who could predict the future. Priests in the Aztec and Incan civilizations of South America had powers that allowed them to talk to their gods. Many of these legendary magicians were believed to control the sun, the weather, and even life and death.

The most famous of these men was a magician named Merlin. His legend and popularity over the centuries has been so great that Merlin has served as the inspiration for every long-bearded wizard and trusted advisor you've ever heard of, from Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter's mentor, Albus Dumbledore.

Merlin was said to have lived in the sixth century, when he helped the young King Arthur rule over Britain (what is now England, Scotland, and Wales). Merlin served as Arthur's teacher and guided the king on his many adventures. Stories about the wizard said that his mother was human and his father was a spirit, which was why Merlin could perform magic and create illusions. He could change his shape, protect Arthur with spells, and see into the future. He is even credited with creating the famous Stonehenge rock formation in England by moving its monstrously huge stones all the way from Ireland — which is hundreds of miles away, over the waters of the Irish Sea.

The problem with these astounding stories is that no one is quite certain whether King Arthur, let alone his trusty aide Merlin, ever really existed. There are no documents from that time to prove they were actual people.

True or not, Merlin has been the model for many magicians in literature and in the movies for more than a thousand years. Like Merlin, these wizards and sorcerers were able to cast spells, create potions, and change people into animals and animals into people. They wore pointed hats and long robes decorated with stars and moons. And it was often their job to protect a young prince or a king or a youngster on a quest. Wizards like Merlin practiced only good magic, also known as white magic.

On the opposite side of the mystical world from good wizards were witches and warlocks, who practiced bad or black magic. These magicians were said to get their powers from evil spirits, and they used this magic to harm their enemies or make themselves more powerful. They preferred to do their work at night, when their evil deeds and meetings with demons would be hidden by darkness.

The fear of black magic was rampant during a period of history known as the Dark Ages. During the Dark Ages, from about the fifth century to the twelfth century, much of Europe was in ruins. Entire countries had been destroyed by wars, disease, plagues, and famine. Many regions of the continent had no laws or governments. Schools had all but vanished, and living conditions were awful. Because people had very little schooling and a poor understanding of the world around them, they put their faith in superstition. Belief in magic was widespread, in part because it was an easy explanation for every kind of mysterious occurrence. The occurrences could be anything from a natural event such as an earthquake to the ability of a man to make a coin disappear. Even simple juggling was considered a form of magic.

At this time, Europeans believed that good things came from God and bad things came from the devil. Many churches in Europe even claimed that magicians were friends of the devil. Surely, the churches stated, no one could make objects vanish by uttering a few words and waving their hands. Even priests, who were supposed to be able to communicate directly with God, could not do this. Since God didn't give men and women magical powers, there was only one explanation for magicians: they must have gotten their special powers from the devil. The thinking was that magicians probably had to sell their souls to the devil in return for being able to create magic.

Because fear and superstition were rampant in the Dark Ages, anyone who acted strangely or looked different was often suspected of practicing black magic. Witch hunts occurred regularly throughout Europe as villagers sought to destroy anyone they thought might be a witch. Many suspected witches were arrested and executed. No proof of their guilt was needed. If a man didn't like a woman in his neighborhood, he might accuse her of flying through the air or claim she had turned him into a newt. The accusation alone was enough to have the woman thrown in jail.

One of the first magicians to be accused of associating with the devil was a man named Triscalinus. While performing for King Charles IX of France in the mid-1500s, Triscalinus made rings disappear from the fingers of one of the king's attendants. The rings magically reappeared in Triscalinus's hands, even though he was on the other side of the room. In a fit of horror, the audience grabbed the magician. They threatened to kill him if he did not confess that the devil had helped him with the trick. To save his life, so the story goes, Triscalinus confessed.

On a smaller scale there were real crooks who used the simplest type of magic — Sleight of Hand — to rob unsuspecting townspeople. Not surprisingly, the Cups and Balls Trick showed up in the hands of these criminals. A painting by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch from around 1500 called The Conjurer depicts an event that involves both magic and stealing. In some translations this painting is called The Magician. A magician is shown at a table with cups and balls in front of him. He has just caused a small frog to appear from the mouth of a man in the audience, and another frog sits quietly on the table. He is obviously a magician who is good at what he does.

On closer examination, though, the painting is not about the magician's tricks. In the back of the audience is another man who looks like he is not very interested in what is going on. That is because he is taking the coin purse from an old man's belt. The pickpocket and the magician are likely working together, and the magic show is a way to distract people so their valuables can be stolen.

In addition to being called friends of the devil, now magicians were also called cheats, liars, and thieves. Their reputation had gotten so bad that magicians were regularly thrown in jail and, in some cases, even executed.


Abracadabra is a word with no meaning, but it has been used as a magic word for centuries. No one is sure where the word originated, but we know it was used as far back as the second century. That was when a man named Quintus Serenus Sammonicus wrote a medical book stating that the word abracadabra had magical powers and could cure diseases.

Abracadabra could not just be shouted out at random, though. For the word to work, it had to be written repeatedly in a triangular pattern on a piece of paper or cloth, with each line of the word having one fewer letter than the one above it. At the bottom, the only remaining letter would be an A. This writing had to be worn around the patient's neck for nine days, after which it was supposed to be tossed into a river. Only then would the sufferer be cured.

Part of the belief in abracadabra came from the fact that it diminished to nothing when written as prescribed ... which was also what was supposed to happen to the disease. This may have inspired early magicians to use the word when they made something disappear during a performance. Shouting a magical word just as a trick was revealed was a way to add flair to the moment. Abracadabra, being a nonsense word, worked perfectly. It had a long, albeit ineffective, history of being used as a magical cure, yet it wasn't a common word or phrase like Look! or See here! or Get ready for this! It was also a word that was pleasing to the ear — caused by all the short a sounds — and long enough that magicians could say it for several seconds to drag out the tension of a trick. It could also be made to sound either mysterious or playful — depending on what effect the magician wanted the trick to have on his audience.

Today abracadabra is used by magicians all over the world, but the word has also entered common use. People say it to reference doing something seemingly impossible. For example: So you're just going to — abracadabra — fly to Mars? or I can spend ten minutes online and — abracadabra — I'll be able to speak fluent Mandarin.

No matter how it's used, abracadabra has a magical quality. It will always be the most important word in a magician's bag of tricks.














The audience thinks the three balls pass through the three solid cups. The key to the trick is that there are actually four balls.


Start with three stackable cups, like plastic or paper cups. Make sure they're not clear, or the trick won't work. It also helps if they're white on the inside. Next, take four small squishy balls — or if you don't have them, take a napkin and tear it into four equal parts, and crumple each part into a tiny ball.

Line the three cups right side up on a table, with one ball sitting in front of each cup. While you're setting this up, slip the fourth ball into the middle cup. You can also do this earlier; just don't let anyone see the ball inside the cup. Also, try to keep some distance between you and the audience so it can't get too close or see over the top of the cups.

Now flip all the cups upside down. If you do it fast enough, the ball will stay in the middle cup and not drop out. It will be hidden under the middle cup and no one will know.

Place the ball that's sitting in front of the middle cup on top of it (on the bottom of the cup). Then stack the other cups, one after another, on top of the middle cup. The ball you placed on top of the cup is now sandwiched between the first and second cups.

Lift the whole stack up. The ball you hid in the middle cup will now be revealed, making it appear that the ball you just placed on top of the cup somehow passed right through it. (Remember, the audience didn't know that the ball was already underneath the middle cup.)

Now that you've done this, tilt the stack in your hand so it's facing upward (open side toward the ceiling), and pull them apart to place them back in a row upside down. Make sure the second cup goes over the ball that was just revealed. What happens is that the ball you placed on the top of the cup earlier is now in the second cup, and by tipping it over the first ball, you've now got two balls under the cup. Again, the audience doesn't know this.

Repeat this process, and add another ball on the middle cup. Stack the cups again, lift them up, and reveal two balls.

Do it again, and then all three balls end up under the cups. Pull the cups apart, but don't let anyone see that the fourth ball still sits inside the second cup.

AND ABRACADABRA — there you have it. You have just performed the oldest magic trick in history.



After suffering through hundreds of years of the Dark Ages, European nations began to reestablish themselves in the 1500s. People began to look to both science and religion instead of local superstition to help them understand their daily lives. Many felt that science could explain the mysteries of the natural world. They believed humans should study the sun and stars, the animal and plant world, and even the human body, to figure out how things really worked. These early scientists realized that what had been labeled as magic could be explained through reason and methodical observation. They started exploring chemistry, physics, anatomy, and astronomy.

Nonetheless, religion was still a more important part of people's lives than science. And many religious leaders of the time didn't like science, believing that scientists were trying to ruin religion and take away the role of priests in society. To stop scientists and others who didn't follow its teachings, the church began inquisitions. These inquisitions were periods of time when the pope and his priests ordered that anyone who did not practice religion the way that the role of priests in society. To stop scientists and others who didn't follow its teachings, the church began inquisitions. These inquisitions were periods of time when the pope and his priests ordered that anyone who did not practice religion the way that the church demanded should be imprisoned, tortured, or executed.


Excerpted from Abracadabra by HP Newquist, Olga Ivanov, Aleksey Ivanov. Copyright © 2015 HP Newquist. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Author's Note,
Research and Recommendations,
About the Author,

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