By Kasun Kamaladasa –
One of the earliest memories of my childhood is from a magic show, performed by David Copperfield. In his show, he flies around like a ghost over the stage leaving the audience mesmerized! Ever since that day I have been fascinated by magic.
I put on my first magic show at the age of 7 which was my last public magic show. I think even as a child fake applause wasn’t what I was looking for. Later during school years, I started experimenting with magic to impress a girl which took a considerable amount of learning. After that, I slowly forgot about magic having found new interests and hobbies.
A few years ago however I found myself watching a magic show to support a friend with her school charity. Something I saw that day rekindled my curiosity and I started to watch “how-to” videos just to understand how people could do such unbelievable acts. Alas learning the secrets of the tricks meant that the “spark” of magic was dispelled for me. The biggest disappointment came one day, when I saw that sometimes acts involving disappearing animals, would mean that they are crushed into a pulp so to create that illusion of vanishing into thin air.
After that day I stuck with just watching the tricks and leaving the “how-to” part for the professionals. I didn’t want the awe to vanish from magic, Ignorance is bliss after all.
Magic of healers
In my travels to St. Petersburg I met a Mongolian travel guide who bunked with me in the same hostel. I spent a few days with him exploring parts of St. Petersburg I would never have seen in TripAdvisor or a tourist brochure. One such place was a Mongolian Buddhist temple, where he showed me a monk who had healed his hernia by using acupuncture. Being a medical student those days I was amazed to hear about the procedure. Thinking back, I realize that my medical knowledge was awful and that the hernia wasn’t cured by acupuncture, it was just not significant enough to cause complications. Thus a monk with no proper medical training had magically “cured” him and even though the hernia was still there, in my friend’s mind it had become less prominent.
Three years ago I met two parents who were seeking treatment for their child. They started to talk about their situation with their son who had suddenly stopped talking. As I was contemplating the situation and thinking whether I should refer them to a neurologist, psychiatrist or inform child services… one of my colleagues who was listening to the story suddenly said “this is a classic case of demonic possession”, we need to call a priest. Sure he wasn’t a doctor or nurse of any sort so I didn’t expect him to know the causes of selective mutism but his words caught me by surprise. After all, he wasn’t brought up in a village and he had been working in the healthcare industry for several years. Hypothetically the priest might solve the problem but it was very unlikely and mutism would not be cured by an exorcism.
One of the most popular forms of magic today is called mentalism. It portrays the artist as a mind reader or person with a highly developed mind that can solve impossible math questions in seconds. Various magicians use different methods to achieve this illusion but all of them admit it is a trick. They also teach people that these same tricks are used by so-called fortune-tellers, some of them even teach you how to become such a fortune teller yourself.
The most basic method of doing mentalism which I learned was cold reading. Once you have met enough people and asked the same questions, you can easily see patterns on how people react, how certain people from certain areas talk. Although discouraged professionally in medicine, to avoid biases, I have seen plenty of doctors apply the same tricks to understand and tackle patients. In societies that have less diversity, it seems to work quite well too, until it doesn’t.
Some of my friends who are true believers of traditional Sri Lankan medicine seem to easily fall into this trap because traditional doctors would diagnose you as you walk in the door. As legend has it, the knowledge of traditional medicine is so good that they can see the chakras and energies around people and diagnose them. I mean sure gaits, facial features, sweating, smell, and so many other things can all give away a patient’s illnesses but there is a reason we don’t rely entirely on subjective data. After all, unlike mentalists and fortune-tellers, doctors aren’t supposed to sell an illusion.
During my exploration of magic, I found a group of conspiracy theorists that were collecting “evidence” to prove that demons were helping some magicians perform their extraordinary tricks. David Blaine who has a sadistic style to his magic is often quoted and shown by these groups as a person who has performed a daemonic pact to receive “superhuman powers”. With all the how-to videos on YouTube these conspiracy theorists are dying out today but that wasn’t the case back then.
Even in traditional medicine, in some corners of the world, we can see so many such Beliefs that are sometimes even promoted by doctors who practice western medicine. Some do it to blend in and avoid confrontation others sadly are either true believers or opportunists who would sell grass as medicine if it gave a good profit. One might think that such practices are only done in dark corners but just a few days ago the vice president (Prime minister) of our country with the help of monks was preforming a ritual against daemons to fight the Coronavirus. The saddest part for me was that this ritual was happily promoted by fellow medical practitioners who either wanted to fool people or were fooled themselves.
The Witcher is a fantasy series of novels and short stories written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. In it he describes magic as a practice that organizes chaos. Having worked in well-organized hospitals and hospitals that each person fends for himself or his team I feel the lack of magic in these chaotic places. While patients who visit these well-organized hospitals go mesmerized as if been in a magical show, those who visit chaotic hospitals end up praying to God to save them. They would visit the village temple to give an offering instead of stepping a foot back in the hospital and for good reason.
Magic wasn’t really always about illusions but for centuries it has constantly been there to fool and trick people, that’s probably why Penn and Teller (Two of my favorite magicians) created the show; Fool Us. Watching their show has me convinced that the best illusions that “fool us” are the ones with mystical stories. Not that all stories need to be narrated by words, sometimes music and visuals can do that too.
Some of these narratives for centuries have fooled people to the extent that they were willing to prepare human sacrifices to ensure these illusions stand true. Hitobashira was one such practice in Japan, where people would bury a human alive near castles and bridges to prevent natural disasters. Such sacrifices were not rare throughout the world. Although argued by different historians, it is believed that Mayans, Aztecs, Greeks, Mongols, Scythians, early Egyptians, Indians, and many more cultures had such practices.
But the question remains and I will let the reader decide… “Climate change wasn’t a thing, when we were sacrificing virgins to the Sun God, right? did we anger the one true God, by foolishly stopping virgin sacrifices?”