History of Mentalism

Some magicians specialize in mentalism. Their object is to convince an audience, at least briefly, that they can read minds, know the future, even communicate across space and time. Mentalism is an act designed to fascinate, to impose if possible, but always to entertain.

A mentalist is similar to a psychic. The crucial difference is that a psychic claims to have paranormal abilities, while a modern mentalist is purely a performer who creates astonishing effects with style and skill.

The history of mentalism extends to biblical times. Egyptian pharaohs used hidden mechanisms and psychological tricks to impress the populace. Some Greek oracles practiced mentalism to further political goals, though others seem to have believed they spoke messages from the gods.

A book that explained some of the mechanics of mentalism and other forms of magic appeared in 1584 in Great Britain. "The Discouverie of Witchcraft" by Reginald Scot explains conjurers' tricks as performances rather than supernatural manifestations. By order of King James I, every copy of the book that could be found was burned.

Once the witch-hunts passed though, the magic arts regained their popularity. Magicians traveled with acrobats, musicians and dancers, and put on a great show. They were the focus of country fairs. The ringmaster was a mentalist, and is still. He controlled his audience with the force of his personality. Though joining a crowd was risky then, citizens braved pickpockets and cutpurses to experience magic.

Magicians gradually gained status. By the middle of the 19th century, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin made himself rich with magic, performing in his own theater in Paris. Around the beginning of the 20th century, Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, would name himself after Robert-Houdin.

Houdini, like the modern magician James Randi, made a point of devaluing those who pretended to otherworldly influences they did not possess. Nowadays Chris Angel, David Copperfield and David Blaine fascinate huge adoring crowds. They claim to exhibit their practiced skill, not occult power.

Magic, after all, reawakens our sense of wonder, even as it stimulates analytical faculties and sharpens powers of observation. No form of stage magic makes us more aware of the genuine powers of the human mind than mentalism.

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