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EndersGame

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The Magician's Oath

What is the magician's oath?

You don't have to know much about magic to be aware that that there is a long tradition around maintaining secrecy, in order to preserve the secrets of magic.  There is even an ancient "Magician's Oath", which is a kind of magician's code that practitioners of magic are expected to uphold.  In its modern form this is often worded as follows:

"As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician,
unless that one swears to uphold the Magician's Oath in turn.

"I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect
until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magic.
"

[RWA4pPN]

What about the internet?

This oath is understandable in a context where the only way you could learn the secrets of magic was directly from another magician.  Magic was carefully passed on from one conjurer to another, and an oath of secrecy ensured that these secrets would be carefully protected.

In today's age of the internet and rapid communication, it is much harder to preserve the secrets of magic.  The infamous TV series by the Masked Magician (Val Valentino) entitled Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed put many inside secrets from the world of magic directly into the public eye.  Today anyone can purchase books on magic from Amazon, buy tricks from eBay or your favourite magic retailer, or watch video tutorials on youtube that teach you how to do card tricks.  Within hours of a magic performance on a popular show like America's Got Talent, videos will start appearing online with apparent "Reveals" of the method.

The internet hasn't been all bad for magic.  Improved technology and communication also means that magic can be promoted in a way like never before.  Streaming video means that there are new and wonderful ways for people to watch videos of their favourite TV magic, including popular shows like Penn and Teller and Masters of Illusion.  Serious students of magic can also easily exchange ideas, share videos, and access content that will teach some of the very best tricks of all time.  In many ways it is an exciting time for magic, because the magic student has access to the very best resources at the click of a mouse, and the latest downloadable video content instantly becomes yours with the help of "Add to Cart" and PayPal.  It's easier than ever for a new generation to discover magic, get excited about it, and find the tools to begin their own journey of learning this time-honoured craft.

But this exciting time does come with challenges, not the least of which is the danger of exposure, and of using these new tools to hurt magic as an art-form.  On balance, is the internet hurting magic more than it is helping it?  You don't need to take a position on either side of that debate to recognize that in this new territory it is important for everyone with an interest in magic to think carefully about the ethics of magic, and to work with the underlying principles of the age-old Magician's Oath in our modern day.

[BrEc8Ns]

What does this mean for you today?

Ultimately the solemn and ancient pledge of magicians aims to uphold the secrets of the art of magic, in order to help promote and defend it as a unique performing art.  If you enjoy doing card magic, even just as a hobby for family and friends, here are five things you can do to apply the underlying principles of the Magician's Oath today:

1. Guard your secrets

Regardless of whether or not you make a formal promise like this as a member of an official magic organization, the reality is that magic does have an informal code of secrecy and of ethics that is important to be familiar with and abide by.  The real issue is not first of all whether someone finds out the secret of how we've done a particular trick, but whether we are hurting the art of magic or helping it.  Exchanging ideas and secrets about magic with a fellow magician is very different from the kind of exposure that hurts magic.

2. Create magic, not puzzles

The real heart of the Magician's Oath is that it wants to uphold magic as an art-form that creates astonishment in our audiences. To cheaply reveal the method behind your magic robs them of that very sense of wonder and mystery that it's your job to create in the first place.  If we really want to give people the gift of magic, then we mustn't turn our performances into mere tricks or puzzles that must be figured out, but retain this sense of surprise and amazement, and do everything we can to create wonder, rather than take it away.

3. Be an entertainer, not a superhero

This is also the reason why magicians will typically shy away from suggesting that they have actual abilities to read minds or bend spoons.  We want to entertain our audiences by means of a performing art.  But that entertainment comes through creating a very believable and convincing illusion, not through making them think we have genuine super-powers.  Our job is to bring our audience into a world of imagination where they can suspend their sense of disbelief, rekindle their childlike sense of wonder, and so escape the trappings of normal life for the brief time they are watching our routines.

4. Give credit where credit is due

In addition, the Magician's Oath implies that we must respect those who have gone before us, by recognizing that many magicians have worked hard to come up with the effects and routines we are privileged to perform.  When we casually pass on the secret behind a commercial effect, we may even be hurting the livelihood of the creator.  This is also why magicians are often so fussy about attributing moves and tricks accurately and carefully, and are insistent on preserving intellectual property.

5. Practice before you perform

The commitment to practice sufficiently before performing an effect to a non-magician further confirms that the Magician's Oath is ultimately all about magic as an art.  If we are going to make magic entertaining and live up to the high standards of this art, then we cannot cheapen it by acting like trained monkeys, parading poorly practiced tricks that are full of sloppy handling and unrehearsed patter.

[pXxvDgj]

Astonish and entertain!

In the end, the reason we all love magic is precisely because of its ability to astonish and entertain.  So have another read of the Magician's Oath, and think about the ways that you can promote magic as an art-form, not just by working hard to create a real sense of wonder in your spectators, but also so that future generations can continue to enjoy magic just as we do today.

Where to learn? If you're interested in learning card magic, see my previous articles How to Get Started in Card Magic and Recommended Resources for Beginners in Card Magic.

Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks here.

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[nTzBCzo]

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GregB

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Reply with quote  #2 
What a great post! It's certainly a topic that has been discussed a lot, and the internet isn't going away. I was reading Shattering Illusions by Jamy Ian Swiss and he takes some time and talks about the Masked Magician in one essay and how the reason why people didn't like it was because it just wasn't entertaining. It was bad magic and the only solution for bad magic is more good magic. We are never going to get the bad magic on youtube to go away, but by doing more good magic, we will make people want to come see us instead. When we make the magic entertaining rather than a "Ha, fooled you!" moment, people will want more, and I think that's a good reminder on your points of the fact that we are to astonish and entertain people. I have two tricks that I teach to people and I keep them in my walk around set specifically to teach them because I've found that when I do teach them, people are really excited to learn it! One is a which hand effect  (that I learned from The Illusionist of all places haha) and a card trick, although the card trick I reserve for teaching to people who say they have a family member that loves magic and they'd be so jealous, etc. Both are pretty hard to screw up, so it gives the person a great chance to do some magic to their friends afterwards, and hey, you never know when you teach someone their first magic trick what they'll do with it. Maybe they never go on to perform it again, but maybe they fall in love with magic and make a career out of bringing that same joy to others. To me, that chance is worth taking.
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John Cowne

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Reply with quote  #3 
The last time I was asked to repeat ‘The Magician’s Oath’ was when my wife and I attended a behind-the-scenes tour of a Magic cabaret/restaurant, along with two other couples (strangers) in a suburb of Sydney called Wooloomooloo. The owner/magician took us ‘backstage’, showing us the levitation ‘apparatus’, a disappearing chamber, the girl to tiger cage and about half a dozen other main props used through a normal dinner show. The owner gave heaps of background stories to the history of magic in Australia that I had very little idea about. There was nothing revealed that some incarnation of ‘the masked magician’ hadn’t already ‘exposed’. Since our tour cost $80 each (no dinner, but were invited to make reservations for later), I’m thinking that most attenders to these tours had more than a passing interest in magic. And each were required to ‘take the oath’. Interestingly, the owner had been interviewed by major television and newspaper reporters, and had declined to show them any of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ stuff we were given. It takes a lot of wisdom to know who and how much you share with people, in order to see another generation of magicians emerge, while preserving the magical experience for ‘the crowd’.
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Mbreggar

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Reply with quote  #4 
Very thoughtful, Ender!
Thanks for taking the time to think through this and put your ideas on paper
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dschmunis

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Reply with quote  #5 
Great post!

I especially like point #3 (be an entertainer, not a superhero).

I'm brand new to magic (learning close up is my 2020 New Year resolution) and one of the things that scares me about starting to perform is running into the infamous heckler. So I've been thinking, what would happen if I preemptively addressed my audience with something along the lines "real magic can be found at the conflicting intersection of the logical mind and the emotional heart. Don't robe yourselves of a moment of illusion and astonishment. Let yourselves be present and enjoy the moment for real life awaits after this presentation." Or something like that. I think that one of they key things is to acknowledge that our audiences are, in many ways, our equals when it comes to intellect rather than trying to elevate ourselves above them just because we took the time to learn and perfect the "secret".

Pop Haydn has a great line in his color changing knives routine (The Intricate Web of Distraction: 
 1m:28s) that in a very playful way addresses this.

Stay safe and stay healthy!
D

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SamtheNotasBadasIWas

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Reply with quote  #6 
I would say the main problem is that the previous generation of magicians did not make the leap to the new form of communication and embrace it as a teaching medium. This is not a condemnation, the changes came really fast and offered up something no one had seen before. So, while there is no blame, there remains the fact that the internet is wide open and new magicians will start there and not have much understanding of what has come before. The magic community's culture is shifting, whether that is good, bad, or indifferent remains to be seen.
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John Cowne

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Reply with quote  #7 
Sam, I think you’ve hit a major diagnostic nail on the head. As far as the ‘treatment’ goes, I think it could start small, with enough magicians who can make the time to start ‘real-life’ friendships with next-gens who show interest. The reason why I think the ‘old style’ approach holds THE answer is that the essence of the Magicians Oath is ‘caught, not taught’. No matter what our philosophical/ethical background is, the essence of the variations of the oath is ethical, and that needs real-life role-models, not a footnote on the end of a bought trick (overline or bricks and mortar sources). Although it’ is, admittedly, another ‘virtual’-style, forums like this provide one of the nearest personal experiences that allow people to share why the ideas behind the oath are important, that goes beyond mere pragmatics.
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John Cowne

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Reply with quote  #8 
Sam, I think you’ve hit a major diagnostic nail on the head. As far as the ‘treatment’ goes, I think it could start small, with enough magicians who can make the time to start ‘real-life’ friendships with next-gens who show interest. The reason why I think the ‘old style’ approach holds THE answer is that the essence of the Magicians Oath is ‘caught, not taught’. No matter what our philosophical/ethical background is, the essence of the variations of the oath is ethical, and that needs real-life role-models, not a footnote on the end of a bought trick (overline or bricks and mortar sources). Although it is, admittedly, another ‘virtual’-style, forums like this provide one of the nearest personal experiences that allow people to share why the ideas behind the oath are important, that goes beyond mere pragmatics.
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SamtheNotasBadasIWas

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Reply with quote  #9 
Quote:
Originally Posted by John Cowne
Sam, I think you’ve hit a major diagnostic nail on the head. As far as the ‘treatment’ goes, I think it could start small, with enough magicians who can make the time to start ‘real-life’ friendships with next-gens who show interest. The reason why I think the ‘old style’ approach holds THE answer is that the essence of the Magicians Oath is ‘caught, not taught’. No matter what our philosophical/ethical background is, the essence of the variations of the oath is ethical, and that needs real-life role-models, not a footnote on the end of a bought trick (overline or bricks and mortar sources). Although it’ is, admittedly, another ‘virtual’-style, forums like this provide one of the nearest personal experiences that allow people to share why the ideas behind the oath are important, that goes beyond mere pragmatics.


I can't argue with that.

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O' what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive! - Sir Walter Scott
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Rob2100

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Reply with quote  #10 
Great post. Thank you. I started in magic before the internet. I began with books and learned the code and found it very easy to understand. In all of these years I only began teaching two other people . The first, I  thoughourly taught to practice before performing and not to perform before I saw he had mastered what I had taught him which was a very basic card trick. i walked into the convenience store where he worked and there he was performing the trick. And not very well at that. That was the end for him. The other, my nephew, listened well and did everything I ask him to and became quite good at it.
     The whole internet thing irks me but what am I going to do? Trying to convince the whole world protecting the secrets of magic is an impossible task. But again, thanks for the great post.
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