Unicorns: A True Story

Over the past five years or so, unicorns have gained sudden popularity in the Western world. It is almost impossible to go shopping without seeing one of the mythical creatures, whether it be on a t-shirt, a card, a toy, a cake or even chicken nuggets. In popular culture, unicorns are a pretty, make-believe character with which many children (and even adults) are fascinated. This commercial unicorn, however, has its roots in ancient mythology. For hundreds, if not thousands of years unicorns have been described in natural histories and folktales.

Unicorns are the stuff of legends and, as many people agree, probably never existed. Yet, who came up with the idea of the unicorn? How did a horse with a horn on its head become a thing? Ancient accounts of natural history include the unicorn, so perhaps they did exist, or at least something similar to our modern idea of the unicorn.

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The gentle and pensive maiden has the power to tame the unicorn, fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05

Whether real or not, unicorns are recognised from a single horn protruding from their forehead. The horn, known as an alicorn, is the source of their magical power, usually used for purification and healing. Typically, they resemble a white horse and have been used as a symbol of purity and grace. Despite their elegance, they are wild, woodland creatures and, according to some legends, only a virgin could tame them.

The earliest written description of a unicorn comes from a book written in the 5th century BC. Indica or Indika contains a mix of dubious stories and myths about the East, possibly India, compiled by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias the Cnidian. Ctesias was the physician to the king of the Achaemenid Empire, Artaxerxes II (c435-358 BC). As part of his role, Ctesias accompanied the king on various expeditions and battles and, therefore, became well acquainted with the neighbouring lands. This allowed the physician to pen treatises on rivers and lands, including Persia and India. Some of the information is based on first-hand experience, however, the rest was pieced together through various stories told by travellers.

Indica, which only remains in fragments, is generally considered to be pure fantasy. It contains many of the strange beliefs the Persians had about India, including that the country was full of riches and gold, artisans, philosophers, god-like people and, of course, unicorns.

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Unicorn IV (Ctesias)- Cecilia Caride

Ctesias’ unicorn is described as a white horse with a purple head and blue eyes. The horn projecting from the forehead was approximately 27 inches long and coloured white at the base, black in the middle and red at the point. As well as being the first person to describe a unicorn, Ctesias was the first to attribute magic to a unicorn’s horn.

“No creature, neither the horse or any other, could overtake it.”
– Ctesias

It is now thought Ctesias’ unicorn may have resulted from a mixture of animal descriptions, such as the Indian rhinoceros and an ass. Alternatively, there is the smallest of chances it may have been real, however, the other creatures described in Indica suggest otherwise, for example, people with one leg and feet so big they could be used as umbrellas, and manticores – red creatures with human faces, three rows of teeth, and scorpion tails. On the other hand, some of the information proved to be true, for instance, Indian elephants, monkeys, Indian customs, a large population and the Indus river.

Indica remained the main source of information about India for people in the Mediterranean until the 2nd century AD when the book was satirised by Lucian of Samosata (c125-c180). Lucian claimed Ctesias to be a liar and depicted him as being condemned to a special part of hell to pay for his sins.

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Although Ctesias may have provided the earliest written description of the unicorn, evidence that the creatures may have “existed” long before then has been discovered in South Asia. Several seals depicting what looks like a unicorn have been unearthed in the land once belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. They date back to the Bronze Age, which lasted from 3300 BC until 1200 BC.

These seals are thought to have belonged to people of high social rank, however, little else can be gleaned from them. There is also the argument the creature on the seal was not intended to be a unicorn but an auroch. Now extinct, aurochs were a species of large cattle that inhabited areas of Europe, Asia and Africa. Skeletons of the creatures reveal they had two horns, one on either side of their head. Always drawn in profile, the creatures on the seals could have been an auroch with one horn hidden from view by the other.

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Despite the theories that the seals were not unicorns and Ctesias was a fraud, many other ancient texts mention the unicorn. De natura animalium (On the Nature of Animals) was a collection of seventeen books about natural history compiled by Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, 175-235 AD). Aelian was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric (persuasion, grammar and logic) who was also fluent in the Greek language. The majority of the anecdotes in the collection were taken from other sources, including Ctesias. Aelian stated India produced one-horned horses known as the monoceros. Another name for the monoceros was cartazonos, however, this may be the Greek form of the Arabic word karkadann, which means “rhinoceros.”

Aelian also quotes Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who wrote the encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History). Pliny wrote about about “a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits [900 mm, 35 inches] in length.” He also claimed the oryx antelope and Indian ox were one-horned creatures, as did Aristotle (384-322 BC) centuries beforehand. The Greek philosopher Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) also mentioned one-horned horses with stag-like heads.

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In the 16th century, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-65) produced a Latin translation of Aelian’s work titled Historia Animalium. Although he attempted to sort fact from fiction, Gessner still included the unicorn, which he had only heard about from medieval bestiaries. Gessner made it clear that he doubted some of the information, however, included it anyway since he believed it could teach moral lessons and divine truths. He went into as much detail into mythological creatures as he did about real animals. Mythological creatures that featured in the book included unicorns, mermaids, sea bishops and ichthyocentaur – creatures with the upper body of a human, the front legs of a horse and the tail of a fish.

As early as the 6th century, theories were expressed as to why unicorns were rarely seen. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th-century Greek merchant from Alexandria of Egypt reported, “it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.” Cosmos also wrote a series of books about scientific geography known collectively as Christian Topography. Cosmas aimed to convince people of his theory that the earth was modelled on the tabernacle described to Moses by God in the Book of Exodus. His view was the earth was flat and the heavens formed the shape of a box with a curved lid.

Cosmas was not the only Christian writer to describe the legendary unicorn. Many authors of bestiaries (books about beasts), including the aforementioned Conrad Gessner, relied on the Christian text Physiologus, which was compiled in Greece during the 2nd Century AD. Although the unknown author introduces each creature by saying “the naturalist says” or something similar, each chapter is told more like a story than a statement of fact. Many of these stories relate in some way to the Bible, particularly the resurrection of Christ, for example, the phoenix, which burns itself to death but rises from the ashes three days later.

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Physiologus devotes entire chapters to individual creatures, some real and some mythological, beginning with the lion and ending with the eel. Other creatures include hedgehogs, ostriches, panthers, elephants, doves, serpents, pelicans, phoenixes and, rather strangely, Amos the Prophet. The unicorn is found in chapter 36 and is the source of the legend that only a maiden can tame the unicorn. This allegory refers to the Virgin Mary upon whose lap the unicorn laid its head and slept.

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Virgin Mary holding the unicorn (c. 1480), detail of the Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych

Many religious artworks concerning the Inception of the Virgin Mary are inspired by the story in Physiologus. In some interpretations, the unicorn represents Christ and his relationship with the Virgin, his mother. Secular writers have developed this story into myths about chaste love and faithful marriage. Even the polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) explored the tale of the unicorn, stating in one of his notebooks, “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”

The Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) also alluded to the myths about unicorns, however, he also called them ugly, brutes, and reported they “spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime.” It appears he may have mistaken a rhinoceros for a unicorn.

The secular take on the myth of the unicorn and the virgin, as noted by Da Vinci, led to the story The Hunt of the Unicorn. The tale involves a group of hunters who are struggling to capture a unicorn until a young maiden offers her assistance. Since virgins can tame unicorns, the creature came and rested its head upon her lap, allowing the hunters to capture it.

The Hunt of the Unicorn was first recorded on a series of tapestries in Paris at the turn of the 16th century. It is speculated they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1541) to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII (1462-1515). Each tapestry, seven in total, tells a different part of the story:

  1. The Start of the Hunt
  2. The Unicorn at the Fountain
  3. The Unicorn Attacked
  4. The Unicorn Defending Himself
  5. The Unicorn Is Captured by the Virgin
  6. The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle
  7. The Unicorn in Captivity

Despite being based on a pagan story, scholars have identified Christian symbolism in the tapestries. The unicorn is Christ and its death is the crucifixion. As you will notice from the order of the seven tapestries, the unicorn’s death is not the final stage. In scene seven, despite remaining in captivity, the unicorn has returned to life, similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Another tapestry involving a unicorn is La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), which was produced in Flanders in the 16th century. Five of the six tapestries depict one of the five senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch; with À mon seul désir being the title of the sixth. The latter translates as “my only desire” and has left many wondering its true meaning. A possible interpretation is the desire for love or understanding.

La Dame à la licorne does not tell a sequential story like The Hunt of the Unicorn, instead, it presents a meditation on earthly pleasures demonstrated through the five senses. Touch is demonstrated by the lady holding a banner in one hand and touching the unicorn’s horn with the other. Sweets represent taste, flowers for smell, a portative organ for hearing, and a mirror for sight.

The sixth tapestry shows the woman placing her pendant in a box. Some suggest this is an acknowledgement of the passions aroused by the other senses and free will. Others have put forward the idea that it represents a sixth sense: understanding. There is also the argument that there is no way of telling if the woman is putting the pendant in the box or retrieving it. It has been noticed, however, that this is the only tapestry in which the woman smiles.

La Dame à la licorne does not only feature a unicorn but also a lion. Both these creatures are used in heraldry to symbolise a country. The most famous use of these animals are for Scotland (unicorn) and England (lion). One legend claimed the unicorn was the natural enemy of the lion and would rather die than be captured. This represented Scotland’s desire to remain sovereign and unconquered. Of course, this all changed with the 1707 union of Scotland and England.

It is not certain where the idea that lions and unicorns were enemies originated, however, the legend is recorded in a nursery rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

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This rhyme featured in Lewis Carroll‘s (1832-98) 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A unicorn and a lion are seen fighting over the crown belonging to the White King. For comedic effect, Carroll alters the traditional characteristics of the animals, making the lion slow and stupid and the unicorn monstrous. When producing illustrations for the book, Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) made caricatures of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88) as the unicorn and William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) as the lion in reference to their frequent parliamentary battles.

There are two common jokes about why unicorns may no longer exist. The first is the unicorns did not get on Noah’s ark in time (see video at the end of this article) and the second that they did get on the ark, but they were both males. Incidentally, unicorns are traditionally believed to be male and none of the myths, legends or bestiaries shed light on how they reproduce. The only claim about their nature is they are solitary creatures and can live for hundreds of years.

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Unicorn mosaic on a 1213 church floor in Ravenna, Italy

So, unicorns may not have been on Noah’s Ark, however, they are mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible mentions an animal called the re’em, an untamable animal of great strength and agility, with a horn. Unfortunately, it is generally believed the description was based upon the seals belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which are now thought to be aurochs. Nonetheless, the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611, translates the word re’em as “unicorn”.

There are eight references to unicorns in the Old Testament. They are as follows:

  • “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 23:22
  • “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 24:8
  • “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 33:17
  • “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?” – Job 39:9–12
  • “Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.” – Psalms 22:21
  • “He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalms 29:6
  • “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalms 92:10
  • “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7

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Real or not, what makes a unicorn so interesting is the horn protruding from its forehead. The existence of unicorns was supposedly disproved in 1825 by Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a French naturalist and zoologist, the father of palaeontology. Cuvier declared it was impossible for any animal with a split hoof, such as a horse, to have a horn on top of its head. Before this claim, unicorn horns were a much sought but rare commodity.

Ancient writers such as Ctesias and Aelian recorded that a unicorn’s horn, made from a substance called alicorn, could be made into a vessel that when drunk from would protect against diseases and poisons. Other parts of the body of a unicorn were also considered to have medicinal properties. The 12th century Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote a recipe for an ointment to cure leprosy. The ingredients included egg yolk and foie de licorne, also known as unicorn liver.

In Physiologus, the unicorn is said to be able to purify water with its horn. The book tells the story of a lake poisoned by a snake. None of the animals dared to go near the water to drink, however, when the unicorn appeared, it went straight to the water. With its horn, it made the sign of the cross in the water (remember Physiologus was a Christian text) and the poison was rendered harmless.

Over time, the horn of the unicorn was assigned many medicinal properties. These included cures for rubella, measles, fever, pain and plague (perhaps it could cure COVID-19). Apothecaries across Europe boasted they could sell unicorn horns and elixirs made from ground alicorn. Also for sale were belts made from unicorn leather to protect the wearer from harm.

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Royalty was often given alicorns as gifts. Elizabeth I was said to own a unicorn horn and the Throne Chair of Denmark was said to be made from many horns. Commissioned by King Frederick III (1609-70) in 1662, the throne was made by Bendix Grodtschilling (1620-90) to resemble the Biblical Throne of King Solomon described in 1 Kings 10. The throne was used at coronations until 1849 when the Danish monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy. The unicorn horns, however, have since been proved to be narwhal tusks.

As early as 1638, alleged alicorns were being identified as narwhal tusks. Danish physician Ole Worm (1588-1654) was the first to start making this connection with the medium-sized toothed whales that live in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia.

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Ole Worm’s beliefs were studied at length by Sir Thomas Brown (1605-1682) in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, more commonly known as Vulgar Truths. Brown was a polymath and author of a variety of subjects, including science, religion, medicine and the natural world. Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, to give its full name, challenges the common errors and superstitions of the 17th century. Although Brown tried to be scientifically accurate, he included subtle elements of humour. Of the alleged alicorns, Brown said:

“False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to detect poisons, and many physicians would make “cures” and sell them. Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory. Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages and were often really the tusks of narwhals.”

Despite, arguments against the existence of unicorns, they have “existed” throughout many cultures and periods. The European unicorn is traditionally believed to have the body of a horse with a pearly white coat and a long, white spiralled horn. In Asia, on the other hand, unicorns are depicted as a scaly, colourful deer-like creature with a flesh coloured horn.

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An Asian legend claims the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan (AD 1162- 1227) was prevented from invading India by a unicorn. The creature is said to have gazed into the leader’s eyes, which Genghis Khan took to be a sign from heaven and ordered his army to retreat.

The Chinese unicorn, also known as the qilin looks less like traditional descriptions of the magical creatures and more like a chimaera. Although it had a single horn, some sources say it had the body of a deer, the head of a lion, and green scales. Other sources claim it had the head of a dragon. According to legend, the qilin first appeared in 2697 BC during the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor. The Chinese unicorn’s rare appearances were believed to foretell the birth or death of a wise ruler. Rumour says the qilin appeared to the pregnant mother of Confucius (551- 479 BC) in the 6th century BC and once more shortly before his death. Confucius is also said to be the last person to have seen the unicorn.

“A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.”
– Tibetan proverb

Most of the original myths about unicorns have been forgotten and yet, unicorns have never been more popular than they are today. Social media has spread the unicorn fad across the world, with tips about throwing unicorn parties, making unicorn art and so much more.

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Every July, the Festa dell’Unicorno (Unicorn Festival) is held in the Italian town of Vinci (where Leonardo was born). Dressed as fairies, elves or characters from fantasy films, visitors can attend three days of magical shows, concerts, competitions and a medieval market.

The unicorn has been rising in popularity since 2015, helped along with companies, such as Starbucks with their unicorn frappuccino, Kellogg’s Unicorn Fruitloops and Unicorn Snot glitter gel. They also feature in recent films, TV shows and books. It has become a symbol of benevolence and happiness, shunning the harsh realities of today.

Although the unicorn craze belongs to the 21st century, unicorns have featured in famous literature of the past. Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned unicorns in his plays Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Timon of Athens. The most famous work of fiction involving the magical creatures is, of course, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (b.1939). First published in 1968, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been translated into 20 languages. The story follows a unicorn, who believes she is the last of her kind, on a quest to discover what happened to the rest of her species.

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Detail from James Thurber’s original illustration

Another story is The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber (1894-1961). The short, humorous tale is about a man who sees a unicorn in the garden but when he tells his wife, she does not believe him. The more the man insists, the more adamant his wife becomes that unicorns do not exist. In the end, the wife has become so obsessed with proving her husband wrong that she is mistaken for the “loony” one.

This, of course, was only a humorous story but would anyone believe you today if you saw a unicorn in your garden? Are unicorns real? Whilst science puts forward evidence to suggest they are not, mystery still abounds, making the answer inconclusive. The stories and legends told throughout time suggest that it is highly unlikely to spot or capture a unicorn, therefore, if they do exist, we may never know.

Whether or not you believe in unicorns, they are fascinating creatures to research. There are so many different beliefs, myths and legends that it is impossible to fully comprehend the legendary creature. Nonetheless, their presence in popular culture is adding a bit of sparkle to the world. So, to paraphrase the Festa dell’Unicorno, enjoy your life, have fun, anything goes, so long as you do not betray the “spirit of the unicorn.”

“The unicorn is noble,
He knows his gentle birth,
He knows that God has chosen him
Above all beasts of earth.”
– German Folk Song

Smoke and Mirrors

The Psychology of Magic

“Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.”
– Karl Garmain (1878-1959)

The psychology of the human mind, sleight of hand, misdirection and (occasionally) a gullible audience, are key parts of a magician or conjurer’s act. Knowing how the mind works is an important skill for those in the magic business – a vital element for all astonishing feats of trickery. This year, the Wellcome Collection explores the worlds of psychology and entertainment to discover the truth about deception. In a free exhibition, Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, visitors are given the opportunity to see magic props up close, including spirit photographs, Derren Brown’s gorilla suit, Tommy Cooper’s fez and Paul Daniels’ sawing-in-half box.

For centuries, magicians have stunned audiences with extraordinary acts that leave people believing in magic. In recent years, scientists have begun to understand how they utilise the gap between what spectators think they perceive and what they actually see. The exhibition is split into three parts: The Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism, which have all been or are undergoing examination by psychologists and neuropsychologists.

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Witchcraft – Arthur Boyd Houghton, 1871

The wars of the 18th and 19th centuries led to a rise in the belief in spiritualism. Thousands of people lost loved ones through warfare or disease and the practices of the Occult, mystics, mediums, theosophers and magicians became appealing as a result. In the hopes that they could connect with the dead, people flocked to séances and latched on to anyone who claimed to be able to speak to spirits.

Often, people created or bought their own ouija board made up of numbers, letters and a variety of other symbols, through which they hoped to receive messages directly from spirits without the help of a medium. Participants would place their fingers upon a planchette on top of a board and let the spirit guide them to the correct letters or numbers to spell out the answers to questions they asked. Inevitably, someone would be deliberately pushing the planchette to make it appear as though a spirit was present.

Séances were particularly popular during the Victorian era. Due to people’s desperation to contact the spirits of loved ones, it was easy for mediums to make them believe they had been successful with clever tricks involving moving objects and levitating furniture. Usually occurring in the dark, magicians and mediums used a number of tricks to convince vulnerable minds that someone was trying to contact them.

In the early 1900s, William S. Marriott, also known by the stage name Dr Wilmar, was a British magician who became well known for exposing fraudulent spiritualist mediums. Pearson’s magazine, which specialised in speculative literature, politics and the arts, commissioned Marriott to write a series of illustrated articles investigating mediums so that readers could “judge for themselves the pros and cons of this tremendously important subject.”

Alongside Marriott’s articles, he posted photographs of himself demonstrating several effects commonly produced during séances. Levitating tables were often raised by the medium’s foot to make it appear as though they were floating. Marriott also discovered the methods used to create ghostly shapes and movements in the dark. Often, mediums were tied to their chairs to convince participants that they could have no possible involvement with the paranormal activity. In the dark, however, the restrained medium still had access to poles attached to objects, which he or she could move surreptitiously. An example of this is “spirit hands” that appear to surround the medium, however, with the lights on, it is possible to see the dummy arms attached to sticks and poles, which are being controlled by the medium’s hands, almost like puppets.

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Spirit Photography

In his exposé, Marriott also debunked spirit photographs. Some photographers claimed to have captured evidence of a ghost on film, which materialised during the development processes. Sitters claimed no one else was present and yet a ghostly figure could clearly be seen in the background of portraits, family photos and so forth. Whilst many believed these were the result of a psychic force, sceptics suggested there may have been fluid on the plate of the camera, which produced the ghostly appearance. Marriott, however, discovered the truth about this fraudulent trickery.

At the same time that society was lapping up paranormal activities and psychic experiments, others set up the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge to investigate and try to understand these events and abilities. In 1893, the world-renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) joined their ranks and paid witness to William Marriott’s demonstration and explanation about spirit photography.

Marriott produced his own spirit photographs, all the while explaining to Doyle how he had manipulated the images to make it appear as though a spirit was present. Publically, Doyle stated, “Mr Marriott has clearly proved one point, which is that a trained conjurer can, under the close inspection of three pairs of critical eyes, put a false image upon a plate. We must unreservedly admit it.”

Unlike today where smartphones and digital cameras take a photo instantly, the oldest cameras involved using plates, special papers, development fluid and many more elements. If, for example, a plate was to be used more than once, it would pick up two different images, creating a double exposure. This way, photographers could take a photo of a “ghost” and combine it with another (ghost-free) photograph.

During the 19th century, Ira Erastus Davenport (1839-1911) and William Henry Davenport (1841-1877), known as the Davenport Brothers, were famous for presenting illusions and other supposedly supernatural acts. Time and again, the brothers were proved to be frauds, and yet they continued to be a popular act in both the United States and England. Their most famous act was the cabinet box illusion during which the brothers were tied up and placed in a box full of musical instruments. The members of the audience, who believed neither brother was able to move, were amazed when they heard the musical instruments being played. On opening the box, the brothers remained tied up in the positions in which they had been left.

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Maskelyne and Cook Poster

In 1865, John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917), an English stage magician and, interestingly, the inventor of the pay toilet, attended a performance of the Davenport Brothers’ Public Cabinet Séance in Cheltenham Town Hall. During the show, a faulty piece of equipment meant Maskelyne was witness to Ira Davenport throwing musical instruments by hand inside the cabinet, despite being tied up.

After exposing the Davenport Brothers, Maskelyne and his friend George Alfred Cooke (1825-1905) put on a magic show at the Egyptian Hall in Picadilly where they not only performed impressive illusions but revealed how public séances were conducted. Video clips of similar exposés are played on screen throughout the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition.

Maskelyne and Cook inspired other magicians to publically investigate mediums who were suspected frauds. These “anti-spiritualist” shows were extremely successful and proved as popular as the original séances and magic shows. Magicians such as Harry Price (1881-1947) and Harry Houdini (1874-1926) exposed many mediums including Margery Crandon (1888-1941) and Leonora Piper (1857-1950).

Through watching and debunking mediums, magicians and conjurors, psychical researchers laid the foundations for important discoveries about the human mind, perception and belief. Today, psychologists at the Mind Attention & General Illusory Cognition (MAGIC) Lab at Goldsmiths University of London, are examining the act of misdirection in performances of magic tricks. Dr Gustav Kuhn, the director of the MAGIC Lab and president of the Science of Magic Association explains during the exhibition via a series of videos the misdirection of perpetual reasoning using footage from his 2006 study There’s more to magic than meets the eye.

With the aid of eye-tracking technology, Kuhn and his contemporaries have shown that magicians are very good at distracting their audience and making them look elsewhere, thus missing the moment the trick takes place. Kuhn also reveals that people often fail to see what is in front of their very eyes. The Vanishing Ball Illusion, shown in one of Kuhn’s short films, demonstrates this phenomenon. The magician repeatedly throws a ball up into the air and catches it, however, on the final throw he pretends to throw it, making it look like the ball has vanished into thin air. Many spectators claim to have seen the ball leave the magicians hand, whereas, in reality, the ball remains concealed in the magician’s fist.

By repeatedly throwing the ball, the magician convinces the spectator’s brain that it knows what will happen next. The movement of the hand on the final throw makes the brain believe that it will see the ball go up in the air. The brain registers something a tenth of a second after the eyes have seen it, therefore, by the time the brain has caught up, it appears as though the ball has disappeared.

The art of misdirection is a skill that all conjurors must learn. It involves making the audience relax their focus at a key moment and being able to guide them to look in the wrong (or right) place at the right time. Magic shows remain popular today and involve all sorts of simple tricks that when executed perfectly appear to be pure magic. With the invention of television, conjurors have been able to broadcast their stage shows to the nation (and further afield), resulting in an increasing number of people wanting to perform tricks too.

The Wellcome Collection displays seven examples of “do-it-yourself” magic sets through the ages, beginning as far back as 1843 with Box of Tricks. Magicians have earnt money by producing their own boxes of magic tricks to sell to consumers. Ernest Sewell (1889-1965), who was often in great demand to perform in front of the Royal Family, was one of the first entertainers to introduce conjuring to British children in the late 1920s. In the 1950s, boxes were produced under the title Maskelyne’s Mysteries, hoping the reference to the long-dead magician would garner sales. The magician and mentalist David Berglas (b.1926), David Nixon (1919-1978) and the late Paul Daniels (1938-2016) also jumped on the bandwagon, selling magic box sets at various points in their career. Most recently (2015) Steven Frayne (b.1982), better known by his stage name Dynamo, has released his own Magic Kit. Most of these boxes include a pack of cards, rope, plastic objects and a magic wand.

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Fez belonging to Tommy Cooper

Performing in front of a large crowd is a much harder feat than doing a few tricks in the living room at family parties. Thomas Frederick “Tommy” Cooper (1921-84), the fez-wearing British prop comedian and member of the Magic Circle, knew the importance of engaging the entire audience’s attention in order to make a trick work. Tommy Cooper’s acts relied on non-stop chatter and comedy to relax the audience; whilst the audience was concentrating on what he was saying or laughing at his jokes, he would make his sleight-of-hand move. Tommy was also known for deliberately botching tricks and whilst the audience was laughing perform the real trick, much to their amazement. This is known as a “sucker trick”, where the audience is led to believe they know how the trick is done, only to be proved wrong.

Unfortunately, Tommy Cooper’s reputation meant that when he collapsed on stage during Live from Her Majesty’s variety show, the audience and backstage assistants thought it was part of his act. Tommy Cooper had suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at Westminster Hospital. It is unlikely Tommy could have been saved if his collapse had been realised sooner – the heart defibrillator that would have saved his life arrived thirty years too late.

The final part of the exhibition moves on to mentalism. A mentalist is a magician who performs mind reading and mind control amongst other psychological stunts. Similarly to the Victorian mystics, some mentalists claim to have real powers, however, others rely on being able to read other people’s body language, understanding the human mind and performing illusions. Often, these sorts of acts create the impression that members of the audience also have psychic potential and, even though this cannot possibly be true, it is very easy to be seduced by this deception.

Recent psychological studies suggest that the human mind can be tricked into believing false explanations even though it is clear that the performer is a conjurer. Mentalist performances are less flamboyant than the typical magic shows of the 20th century. It requires concentration, often silent, to allow the mentalist to read the behaviour of their audience, which enables them to create powerful illusions.

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Derren Brown Mind Reader, 2007

Whilst researchers were keen to expose the ruses of Victorian mystics, psychologists are less concerned about how the mentalist performs the act but rather the ethical boundaries of such a deception. Derren Brown (b.1971), the English mentalist and illusionist who has produced several award-winning shows, openly admits that he has no supernatural abilities. He connects his success to the ability to exploit his audience’s psychological traits.

In 2016, Derren Brown’s television series The Push demonstrated how easy it can be to manipulate another person. The show explored whether it was possible to psychologically coerce someone into justifying the killing of another human being. It explored human desire to please and obey, even when faced with actions that are morally wrong.

The exhibition explores the performance techniques of other mentalists, including The Amazing Dunninger, Raymond the Enchantress and Alexander “The Man Who Knows All”.

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Telepatha Cards

Generally, the claims that some performers have psychic powers has been rejected by audiences and science alike. Nonetheless, it continues to be the basis of a lot of contemporary magic shows. In the 1930s, the founder of parapsychology Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980) coined the term Extrasensory perception (ESP) to describe psychic abilities such as clairvoyance and telepathy. Initially a serious form of research with the potential for military use, the tools used in laboratories became popular with the general public after they were released in the form of board games. These games claimed to reveal hidden ESP powers in its players.

One of these so-called games was called Telepatha Cards, designed by the well-known Harry Price. One participant would select a card from a shuffled pack and attempt to transmit the symbol shown through the power of thought to a second participant who would then guess the card.

The final method of “magic” explored in the exhibition is the power of suggestion. Whilst this may sound like harmless fun, an experiment at McGill University in Canada revealed the dangers of misleading participants. In 2016, psychologists tricked a handful of people into believing a brain scanner could both read and influence their thoughts. The results showed that participants felt they had less control over their decisions when the scanner was supposedly influencing their thoughts than when the machine was only reading their mind. In reality, however, the brain scanner was doing neither.

This experiment also revealed the potential dangers of using misinformation to make people compliant, suggestible and vulnerable. Psychologists are continuing to explore how this knowledge could potentially help to challenge negative thoughts and behaviour patterns.

What began as an exhibition about a form of entertainment, Smoke and Mirrors leaves visitors contemplating the unethical practices of contemporary magic. How far can magic go before it becomes a cruel scientific experiment and stops being an enjoyable, awe-inspiring performance? This leads to a deeper question, is the idea of free will – the ability to choose our own actions – merely an illusion?

Free admission to Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic is available at The Wellcome Collection until 15th September 2019. Live performances in the gallery take place throughout the week. Performance times are listed on the website.

Staging Magic

Magic, or the art of appearing to perform supernatural feats, has been popular throughout the world since the 16th century. People have been and continue to be fascinated by illusions, entertained by rabbits appearing out of hats and mystified by seemingly impossible acts. This year (2019), the Senate House Library in London has staged an exhibition containing over 60 magical stories that focus on legerdemain (sleight-of-hand) and stage illusions from the past four centuries. Staging Magic: The Story Behind the Illusion, uses books, manuscripts and other items once belonging to the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature to piece together the history of one of the oldest performing arts in the world.

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Studio Portrait of Harry Price

Although not all made it into the exhibition, the Harry Price Library contains over 13,000 items dating from the 15th century until the present related to magic, witchcraft, parapsychology, the occult and other similar subjects. This huge collection was bequeathed to the University of London after the death of its owner, Harry Price (1881-1948), which has been useful for research into “rare, old and curious works on magic, witchcraft, legerdemain, charlatanism, and the occult sciences.”

Harry Price, born in London, was only a young boy when he first became fascinated with magic. At a travelling magic show, Price came across the Great Sequah, a man who he later claimed was “entirely responsible for shaping much of my life’s work”. As a young boy with a toothache, Price was fascinated when the Great Sequah “extracted” his tooth and proceeded to perform a series of other magical wonders. Naturally, Price demanded to know how the tricks were accomplished, for instance, how could an empty hat suddenly contain two doves?

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Modern Magic

Due to his obsessive need to know how the Great Sequah performed such feats, Price was eventually given a copy of Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic (1874) in an attempt to satisfy his curiosity. Instead, this book was the small spark that fueled his passion for magic, psychical phenomena and the occult, culminating in an enormous collection of books, some of which can be seen on display today.

Angelo John Lewis (1839-1919) was an English lawyer and professor who went on to become the leading writer about magic of his time under the moniker Professor Louis Hoffmann. Modern Magic, published in 1874, was the first ever encyclopedia of performance magic. The first edition of 2000 copies sold out in seven weeks due to its popularity. Eventually, 15 editions of the book were published by the end of the 19th century and, being the first in a tetralogy, was soon followed by the titles More Magic (1890), Later Magic (1903) and Latest Magic (1918).

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As well as reporting on past and present magicians, Modern Magic became a favourite amongst aspiring conjurors, including Price who became an expert in sleight-of-hand and joined the Magic Circle in 1922. The British organisation was founded in 1905 after 23 amateur magicians met at Pinoli’s Restaurant in Soho, and was dedicated to promoting and advancing the art of magic.

In order to join the Circle, applicants had to qualify through either a performance exam or a written thesis about a branch of magic. Only then could they be designated a Member of the Magic Circle (M.M.C.). Further distinctions were later formed, for instance, Member of The Inner Magic Circle (M.I.M.C), which was limited to a select 300 members.

Although the Magic Circle aimed to promote magic, members had to give their word that they would not disclose any of their magic secrets to the public. The society’s motto indocilis privata loqui, meaning “not apt to disclose secrets” (lit. “incapable [of] speaking [of] private [things]”) emphasises this rule.

Being a magician, however, was not Harry Price’s aim in life. Instead, he would become famous for investigating mediums, hauntings and other supernatural phenomena, exposing numerous fakeries. His most famous investigation took place at Borley Rectory, which was purportedly haunted, its first paranormal event taking place in 1863. Price and a team of 48 “official observers” spent long periods of time at the rectory reporting on any paranormal activity. During this time, a planchette séance took place and two spirits, one who claimed to have been murdered on the site, were supposedly contacted. Six years later, Price discovered the bones of a woman buried in the cellar of the old house. Unfortunately, after his death, Price was accused of faking the phenomena.

As well as collecting books, Harry Price was a keen cinematographer and often filmed his experiments in phenomena. In 1935, the National Film Library compiled a few of these demonstrations and investigations to create a short film. The Senate House Library plays three examples on a loop as part of the exhibition. The first, known as the Indian Rope trick, was a cause célèbre at the time, involving a boy climbing a rigid rope that had once been limp. The performer Karachi, real name Arthur Claude Darby, was filmed proving the rope’s flexibility before making it stand upright, allowing his son to climb it several feet into the air.

Another experiment involved walking on fire, which Kuda Bux (born Khudah Bukhsh, 1905-81) was filmed doing twice without burning his feet. The twelve-foot long pit of burning hot coals measured a temperature of 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius), which is hot enough to burn steel. Price thought the trick was performed by stepping on “safe spots”, however, a later suggestion claimed that because coal cools rapidly, it would be possible to walk over them quickly without being burnt. Regardless as to the veracity of this statement, when a spectator tried to walk across the coals shortly after Kuda Bux, he severely burnt his feet.

Also in the film, Price debunked a ritual found in a 15th century “High German Black Book.” The ritual claimed that by carefully following the instructions, a goat would be transformed into a man. In front of a crowd, Price performed this ritual but, of course, the goat remained a goat.

Despite the Magic Circle endeavouring to keep their secrets, magical revelations had already been shared with the world. The earliest book in Price’s collection is The Discoverie of Magic by Reginald Scot (1538-99), which was published in 1584. Scot, a member of the English Parliament, wrote the book in order to dismiss the myths about witchcraft. At the time, the majority of the population held beliefs about the supernatural, however, Scot wished to propose a more rational approach. In order to convince his readers, he included highly detailed sections on legerdemain and “the art of iuggling”, which he explained made things appear to be magic but were rather very clever illusions.

At the time, The Discoverie of Magic was a risky book to publish. England was still struggling with the effects of the Reformation, and there was a strong divide between Catholics and Protestants. Scot was a Reformed Protestant, also called Calvinism, and stated in his book that “it is neither a witch, nor devil, but glorious God that maketh the thunder…God maketh the blustering tempests and whirlwinds…”. Catholics held strong beliefs in the power of witches, and later, King James I (1566-1625) condemned the book out of fear that it would stop people from staging witch hunts – a purge that had once caused mass hysteria.

Nonetheless, Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft went on to inspire many people and countless new books were published over the coming centuries. The Whole Art of Legerdemain or Hocus Pocus in Perfection published in 1727, borrowed a lot of its content from Scot. The author, Henry Dean, described a number of different tricks, including magic lanterns, producing eggs and hens from an empty bag and turning water into wine. These were accompanied by woodcut illustrations that helped to further explain the tricks.

Broadsheet newspapers, which could be produced much more cheaply than books, began to appear as forms of mass entertainment. Topics, such as legerdemain, were suddenly available to a much wider audience. One example shown in the exhibition promised to give concise instructions on how to perform acts involving cups and balls, fire-eating and walking on hot iron bars.

Although Harry Price’s books imply that the popularity of magic and illusion began in England, the craze quickly spread across the continent. Price owned copies of books in German (Hocus Pocus: Die Taschenspielerkunst Leicht zu Lernen, 1730), Spanish (Engaños a Ojos Vistas y Diversion de Trabajos Mundanos Fundala en Lícitos Juegos de Manos, 1733), and French (Aracana Mirabilia, ou, Magie Blanche et Tours de Physique & d’Excamotage, 1824).

In the 19th century, magicians and conjurors began adopting Chinese, Japanese and Indian styles of dress and sets in order to make their performances look more mystical. Later, towards the end of the century, Western performance magic spread to Asia, was adapted slightly, and published in books such as Mo Shu Ta Kuan (The Devils Art From Top to Bottom) in 1916.

The fascination with magic tricks was still strong in the 20th century. During the First World War, Charles Folkard (1878-1963), a children’s book illustrator who had a brief career as a professional magician, published a couple of pamphlets under the pseudonym Draklof. Tricks for the Trenches and Wards (1915) was one of the titles, which Draklof wrote with the intention of providing some entertainment to British soldiers. The tricks involved objects that could be found while sitting in trenches, such as matches and coins, and could be easily mastered by those convalescing in hospitals.

As with any increasingly prevalent topic in popular culture, magic was not immune to satire. In 1722, the Anglo-Irish author who went on to write Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) mocked the illusions and language of magic by writing about impossible feats in his pamphlet The Wonder of all the Wonders that Ever the World Wonder’d at (1722). He warned his subscribers to not be taken in by the claims from magicians that would most probably end in disappointment.

By the mid-19th century, magic acts had become successful forms of theatrical entertainment. The period was considered to be magic’s golden age and one performer stood out amongst them all. Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-71) was a French magician who combined sleight-of-hand with technical innovations and is now regarded as the father of the modern style of conjuring.

Robert-Houdin became a magician almost by accident. Intending on becoming a watchmaker, he had ordered a couple of books on the topic, however, they got mixed up during delivery and Robert-Houdin – then Jean-Eugène Robert – ended up with a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Rather than returning them, Robert-Houdin curiously began reading and was soon hooked, practising the rudiments of magic at all hours of the day.

Most of what is known about Robert-Houdin’s life comes from his memoirs published in 1859, of which Harry Price owned a copy. Originally published in French as Confidences d’un Prestigitateur (1858), Robert-Houdin describes the many events in his life that led him to become one of the greatest magicians to date. He writes about his introduction to magic and illusion and some of his greatest achievements, for instance, convincing people in Algeria that French magic was superior to their local mystics. There is some suspicion, however, that many of his stories have been embellished or, perhaps, made up in parts.

Another of Robert-Houdin’s books that Price owned was his posthumously published Magie et Physique Amusante (1877), a sequel to Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie. Both books explain and offer explanations to some of the most famous stage illusions of the time. Not only did he include his own Magic Portfolio, but Robert-Houdin also revealed the secrets of other magicians, illusionists and spiritualists.

One of Robert-Houdin’s famous illusions was named The Ethereal Suspension in which he convinced his audience that the pungent liquid ether could cause a person to become as light as a balloon.

Robert-Houdin inspired many people, none more greatly than Erik Weisz (1874-1926), more commonly known as Harry Houdini. With a stage name inspired by his idol, the Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer quickly became known for his incredible escape acts. He first became noticed after challenging police officers to keep him locked up, yet no matter how hard they tried, he always managed to escape. Eventually, his repertoire included being tied up with heavy chains, hanging from skyscrapers, placed in a straitjacket underwater and being buried alive – from all of which he escaped.

Like Harry Price, Houdini was a keen collector of books about magic. Many titles feature and were discussed in their letters of correspondence. In 1921, Houdini sent a portrait of himself to Price signed “To my friend Harry Price, best wishes, Houdini”.

In 1908, Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin after discovering that there was not enough evidence about the stories his idol had written about in his autobiography. Initially, Houdini was writing a book about the history of magic, however, it evolved into an exposé of his former hero’s potential dishonesty.

At the age of 52, Harry Houdini unexpectedly died from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured appendix. Despite being unwell, Houdini had continued performing, thus making his condition worse. As a result of his early death, many of his secrets about magic and escapology were taken to the grave. Nevertheless, the magician and author Walter B. Gibson (1897-1985) managed to, with the help of Houdini’s wife Wilhelmina “Bess” (1876-1943), decipher some of Houdini’s notebooks in order to put together a biography: Houdini’s Magic (1932).

Amongst Harry Price’s impressive collection are a number of books aimed at teaching the art of conjuring. The subject of magic was as popular for amateurs and hobbyists as it was professionals. Manuals for beginners were in great demand, hence the number of instruction books Price owned. These types of publications began as far back as 1722 with Henry Dean’s Hocus Pocus that offered to teach “any person that is desirous to learn any part of this art.” Ever since then, books of this genre have continued to flourish.

Aimed at children, The Art of Conjuring from the late 18th century, taught simple tricks involving eggs, cards and coins, whereas, Harlan Tarbell’s (1890-1960) System of Magic provided over 60 lessons for those who were more serious about learning the elements of magic. Lessons in Conjuring (1922) by David Devant (1868-1941) emphasised the importance of knowing how to perform a trick well. Although knowing how to do the trick was, of course, necessary, the success lay in how it was presented.

Ellis Stanyon’s (1870-1951) Conjuring for Amateurs (1897) and Alexander the Magician (Claude Alexander Conlin, 1880-1954)’s The Magic Show Book were written for true beginners, the latter being aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds. With books such as these, anyone could learn a trick or two to impress their friends and family. Stanyon maintained that practising magic as a hobby was “a wholesome and moral one”, but more importantly, these books aimed to amuse the public.

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With so many books on display, it is hard to take everything in at the Senate House Library’s exhibition. Fortunately, visitors are provided with a written guide that contains all the information about Harry Price’s collection, the history of magic and each individual item.

Seeing the books and items in display cabinets does not fully explain the story behind magic and illusions, however, there is so much history hidden within them.

The art of illusion has come on a long journey and, through one man’s book collecting hobby, its development is there for all to see.

Staging Magic is free and open to the public. Tickets are available on-site at the Library membership desk on the 4th floor of Senate House.

Previous exhibitions include Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

“There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words” – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

On 26th June 1997, J. K. Rowling published her first book in what turned out to be a highly successful, worldwide phenomenon. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was only the beginning of an extraordinary journey that has affected the hearts of millions of people and changed children’s literature forever. With seven books in the original series, it has become a multimedia marvel.

In honour of the 20th anniversary, a magical exhibition has been put together, combining a vast amount of detail from the Harry Potter series, with examples of “magic” from the real world.

What better place to host the exhibition than the British Library with its enormous collection of rare and ancient books. Being located a stone’s throw away from King’s Cross Station, which fans will know is where the famous Hogwarts Express sets off from, is an added bonus.

Centred around the Hogwarts curriculum, the exhibition takes a look at the various forms of magic that have been experimented with throughout history, evidenced with examples of literature and ancient objects.

Expertly designed to look like settings from the Harry Potter world, references to scenes from the books are interspersed with the collection, creating a magical and exciting atmosphere. Even before entering, the dangling winged keys above the heads of those queuing for their timed entry, hint of the adventure inside.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic also contains a history of the franchise with details provided by J. K. Rowling to explain the development of her ideas. From a shaky beginning to the most popular fantasy fiction, Harry Potter has been on a remarkable journey.

It is hard to imagine a world without Harry Potter, particularly for people, like myself, who were only six years old in 1997, however, J. K. Rowling initially struggled to find a publisher. Several had already rejected the manuscript before Rowling sent it to Bloomsbury, yet, even at this stage, it was not certain whether the staff would agree to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It took the strong opinion of one young person to convince the team to approve the proposal.

The founder of Bloomsbury, Nigel Newton, took the manuscript home and gave it to his daughter Alice. Who better to judge the merits of a children’s book than an eight-year-old reader? Her response set the publication in progress:

“The excitement in this book made me feel warm inside. I think it is possibly one of the best books an 8/9 year old could read!” – Alice Newton, aged eight.

The original print run was small – 500 copies – suggesting the publishers had little hope that Harry Potter would be a success. However, the interest of a film director helped to seal its fate. Steve Kloves came across the title within a dozen synopses for potential films. Intrigued by the logline, “A young boy goes to wizard’s school,” he sought out the book and was hooked immediately.

The film introduced many more people to the Harry Potter books and they were soon flying off the shelves. Today, over 450 million copies have been sold and the story has been translated into 80 different languages. It has been the most successful venture in children’s publishing.

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The two parts are designed to be watched in one day or on two consecutive nights

Success continued with the publication of companion books, such as The Tales of Beedle the Bard in 2008, and Fantastic Beasts in 2001. The latter inspired the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), and there has also been a stage production titled Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016).

 

Displayed throughout the exhibition are examples of J. K. Rowling’s preliminary thoughts and work. These include typewritten first drafts, handwritten notes, sketches of Hogwarts and characters, and detailed plans.

More recently, the first three books in the Harry Potter series have been republished in a large, hardback, illustrated format. Jim Kay, the illustrator, has produced amazing drawings of the characters and settings. These are not influenced by the films starring Daniel Radcliffe, making them unique and original. Many of these are also featured in the exhibition.

Potions

The first subject in the Hogwarts curriculum to appear on the journey around the exhibition is Potions, taught for the majority of Harry’s time at the school by the nefarious Professor Snape. People have been making potions for hundreds of years, believing they can cure illnesses and other impossible things. This is evidenced by Jacob Meydenbach’s book Ortus Sanitatis, owned by the British Library, which contains information and recipes for hundreds of potions.

Visitors have the opportunity to try their hand at creating a couple of the potions that feature in the Harry Potter books. An interactive screen instructs the player to insert various ingredients into a digital cauldron. Get it right and a bottled potion appears, however, making a mistake may result in an explosion!

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Ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn’s head

In the 18th century, apothecaries sold potions or medicines made from natural ingredients for a variety of ailments. These establishments were recognised by wooden and ivory signs in the shape of a unicorn. The horn, however, was the tusk of a narwhal rather than a real unicorn horn, which was, obviously, harder to come by!

Although the Harry Potter series is a fictional creation, J. K. Rowling based a lot on truth and history. It is impressive to note the extent to which she researched, even some of the things she invented are based on existing ideas. The philosopher’s stone referenced in the title of the first book was believed to make its owner immortal. In the 15th century, George Ripley (1415-90), an alchemist, produced an illustrated scroll with instructions about how to make a philosopher’s stone. The manuscript, which has rarely been unrolled due to its size, sits in an extremely long display case for everyone to see.

The characters in Harry Potter are invented by the author, however, one name that features on a required book for the potions class is Nicolas Flamel, who did exist. A replica of his 15th-century tombstone sits to one side of the Ripley Scroll.

Herbology

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Culpeper’s English physician and complete herbal…1789

A double archway leads from the Potions section to the Herbology area. This was a core subject at Hogwarts but was also taught in the real world. Herbology is essentially the study of plants and their uses. For years, people relied on this knowledge to create ointments and medicines, even potions. The British Library has a copy of a book called Culpeper’s English Physician; and Complete Herbal which was first published in 1652. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) was an unlicensed apothecary who wanted herbal knowledge available to everyone, hence why it was written in English rather than the traditional Latin. J.K. Rowling often consulted this book when researching for Harry Potter.

Jim Kay’s illustrations demonstrate the fictional plants that feature in the novels, but, as always, these are also based on real life. One plant is the mandrake, which does exist in real life, however, the Harry Potter ones have magical qualities; for example, they scream. There are also illustrations to compare the traditional idea of gnomes (red hat, rosy cheeks) with J. K. Rowling’s version (ugly and looks like a potato).

Charms

The curators of the Harry Potter exhibition have gone to great lengths to bring the magic of Hogwarts to life, utilising lighting effects and digital technology. To exemplify the power of charms, a flying snitch (a golden ball with wings) is seen flying across the walls. A disembodied voice chants magic spells such as “Wingardium Leviosa” and “Alohomora” which young wizards are taught at school.

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Liber Medicinalis

Magic words have also been used in real life, although not in quite the same way. Magicians and children’s entertainers still shout “Open Sesame” or “Abracadabra” when reaching the pinnacle of their act, however, “Abracadabra” dates back to the 13th century. The word was believed to have healing powers and patients were instructed to write out the word on eleven lines, leaving out one character each time, to create a triangular shape, which would then be cut out and worn around the neck like an amulet.

In the Harry Potter books, charms are more than waving a magic wand and saying a strange word. Objects can be charmed to move (e.g. the golden snitch and broomsticks), disappear, turn into something else, and so forth. In an empty glass cabinet supposedly hangs Harry’s invisibility cloak, a cloak that has been charmed to make the wearer disappear from sight. However, being an invisibility cloak, no one can see it!

Astronomy

Entering the Astronomy section is like stepping into a pretend observatory. Tiny white lights decorate the dark ceiling making it look like the night sky. Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences in existence, and although it does not involve magic, it is still an important subject in the wizarding world. Scientists have studied the night sky, determining the position of planets and stars, and discovering the secrets of the universe.

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A section of the Dunhuang Star Chart

Evidence of astronomy dates back thousands of years, however, the oldest tangible evidence to be discovered so far is a manuscript produced in China around 700AD. The Dunhuang star chart is two metres long and contains a record of the movements of the stars visible in the Northern Hemisphere. Civilisations used to base important decisions on the position of stars, however, this crosses over into astrology.

When writing Harry Potter, Rowling looked to the starry skies for names for many of her characters. An interactive screen allows visitors to locate certain stars in the sky that have been utilised in the series. Examples are Andromeda Tonks, Bellatrix Lestrange and Remus Lupin.

Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, is another character named after the night sky. Sirius is the brightest star that can be seen from Earth and lies within the constellation Canis Major. The star is also known as the Dog Star, which makes it an apt name for the Animagus; Sirius Black can turn himself into a large black dog.

Divination

Divination is the art of predicting the future and is often ridiculed by those who do not believe in this elusive craft; it is no different with the staff and students at Hogwarts. The teacher, Professor Sybill Trelawney, is often mocked and believed to be a fake, however, some of her prophecies prove to not only be true but are vital to the storyline.

Similarly to the methods taught at Hogwarts, predicting the future can be attempted in many different ways. The books and items displayed by the British Library give examples of techniques used across the world. Usually, when picturing a fortune teller, they are seated at a round table with a crystal ball on top. A couple of these are exhibited, along with a fake, digitally powered version that everyone is welcome to play with.

Another common technique of fortune tellers is tarot card reading or cartomancy. The exhibition contains the oldest version of the pack of 52 cards that were produced by a so-called specialist, John Lenthall (1683-1762), in the 18th century. Each card has a different meaning and can predict events in an individual’s future. An interactive table allows people to place their hands in position and receive their own fortune telling.

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John Lenthall’s Fortune-Telling Cards, English

Defence Against the Dark Arts

A compulsory subject at Hogwarts, Defence Against the Dark Arts teaches students how to defend themselves against dark creatures and curses. This plays a vital role in Harry’s story as he fights the Dark Lord as well as other evil characters. However, there is a rumour that the position as teacher of Defence Against the Dark Arts is cursed, especially as they never last longer than a year.

Throughout history, societies have believed in and attempted to protect themselves from evil beings. Sometimes talismans or amulets are worn to protect individuals from harm. Interestingly, the symbol of a snake has also been used for defence purposes, but, on the other hand, some cultures view them as evil.

In the Harry Potter series, snakes are mostly associated with evil. Voldemort, the Dark Lord, has a pet snake who measures at least twelve foot long. For Voldemort, his pet is a form of protection, but for Harry, it represents evil.

Care of Magical Creatures

The final subject is Care of Magical Creatures that is initially taught by the half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. Students are taught about a whole range of creatures: what they eat, their natural habitats, which are safe and which are dangerous, and so on. Rowling has used pre-existing creatures from mythology and folklore but adapted them to fit in with the storyline. Some of these include unicorns, dragons, phoenixes and hippogriffs.

Although, nowadays, magical creatures are believed to be a myth, plenty of books have been published on the topic. These books are known as bestiaries and contain detailed information about each curious beast.

Other magical creatures that heavily feature in Harry Potter are ghosts. The Hogwarts castle is full of them and they often interact with the students. Another are owls, which may not register as magical creatures in the real world. In J. K. Rowling’s fictional world, the witches and wizards do not use postmen, instead, they entrust their letters and parcels to an owl to deliver them straight to the recipient.

Jim Kay has produced some wonderful illustrations of the many creatures in the books, some of which can be seen in this section of the exhibition.

Here the exhibition comes to an end. Not only does everyone know more about the famous Wizarding World, they have a greater knowledge about magic in general. Combining Harry Potter and real-life examples of witchcraft and wizardry make the journey through the exhibition extra interesting and inciteful. It is truly eye-opening to discover the connections between the fictional books and “real” world.

J. K. Rowling is a truly admirable author who deserves all the recognition she has received. Harry Potter will never be forgotten and has a promising future with spin-offs, illustrated versions of books, and new forms of merchandise constantly in production.

It is hard to fault Harry Potter: A History of Magic, the British Library has done an exceptional job at sourcing and curating the exhibition. It is set out in a logical format and is easy to navigate. The only downside, if it can be called one, is that it is so popular! Tickets sell out in advance every day, meaning the exhibition gets very crowded. In an attempt to control the crowds, the Library issues timed tickets with a half hour window in which to enter. However, the eager Harry Potter fans turn up at the beginning of their slot resulting in a multitude of people entering at once. The first few sections are particularly difficult to manoeuvre around as everyone fights to see the artworks, books and information.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open until 28th February, so there is still time to go and see the sensational exhibition – if there are any tickets left! Tickets can only be purchased online and cost £16 (£8 for under 17s). There is also an exhibition shop full of Harry Potter merchandise. Unfortunately, this is a bit pricey, but serious fans will be willing to pay the price.

Displays inspired by the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition are open in 20 public libraries across the UK as part of the Living Knowledge Network.