The Origin of the Magic Wand

No, not that kind of Magic Wand. This kind of magic wand.

Basic black wand with white tips for stage magic.I ended up sitting with the Skeptics Guide to the Universe crew at lunch on the Saturday of CSICon. I’d only met Rebecca before, and it was a treat to meet the guys, along with various significant others and Italian skeptic Massimo Polidoro, whose “Paul’s dead” presentation literally rocked.

The best podcasts work because what you’re hearing is very similar to how the hosts interact in person. SGU is no exception. There was a lot of teasing at that table and a lot of interest in odd knowledge and behavior.

At one point, Evan pointed to the table beside him and suggested that the hotel had supplied Steve with cutlery to bend. Steve picked up a spoon and waggled it between his thumb and forefinger, invoking the illusion of bending.

Rebecca laughed and told us a story.

As pretty much everyone knows, she used to work in a shop that sold supplies for stage magic. The shop had a bin of magic wands that sold for one dollar each.

This being a trick shop, people used to ask Rebecca what the wands did. Her response was to wiggle the wand the way Steve had his spoon. People would laugh or look disgusted, and Rebecca would remind them the wands were only a dollar.

Except for one kid who…but I’ve told enough of Rebecca’s story.

Then Jay Novella wondered where magic wands came from–originally, not the ones in Rebecca’s bin. Nobody seemed to know.

I said that if I had to guess, I’d look at the idea that various types of tree have been considered to have various magical properties and significances more generally, and that maybe a magic wand was an attempt to bring these properties into the magic.

Jay and, I think, Bob started talking about tree magic and druids and such. It was entertaining, but I interrupted. “Of course, that’s only a guess.”

Jay sais something about a bunch of skeptics sitting at a skeptics’ convention, taking a completely unsubstantiated theory and running with it. We all laughed at ourselves, and the conversation turned to the upcoming storm and people who would be trying to get home from the convention.

I’m glad I spoke up the second time. It turns out that my theory has no basis in fact. While there is a history of people choosing materials with “magical” properties for their wands, that doesn’t seem to be what started people using them.

There isn’t much information out there on the origins of using wands in magic, so it’s not too surprising that none of us knew. A search on the internet gives you a lot of people trying to justify how and why the wands they use are real magic. That includes a lot of the background on why particular materials are used, some of which has probably seeped into popular culture far enough to feed my misapprehensions. It also includes some sites that will delight collectors of bad internet.

The small amount of non-occult scholarly information points to a different origin, one with at least as much plausibility as mine. The word “wand” is very much tied to magic, but the word “staff” is not. If we look at the history of staffs, we see a history of symbols of worldly power. He or she who holds the staff holds authority of some sort. Make all the jokes you like in the comments.

Modern stage magic invokes a tradition of raising otherworldly powers. Whether the people who tried to make demons and faeries do their bidding during the era in which stage magicianship started to become the consensual trickery it is today really used wands, I can’t say. I can say that the rest of the now-traditional costume of a magician–the tuxedo, the top cat, the cape–are also the costume of a man of the nobility of a particular period. They’re the costume of a man of power.

Now, of course, costumes have changed, but hats and wands remain. For that, there really is a very simple reason. They’re useful, both for misdirection and for hiding tricks. That we have plenty contemporary evidence for, and at that table, we had experts.

It was funny, though, to watch how easily even a table full of skeptics fell into storytelling in an absence of information. We fell out of it just as quickly, but it’s a nice demonstration that we never become immune.

Comments

  1. screechymonkey says

    I don’t really see anything wrong with “storytelling in an absence of information,” as long as you’re not passing it off as information. Speculation is fun, it’s creative, and it often motivates us to go out and get the information. It’s not something we should try to develop an immunity to.

  2. says

    It’s not something we should try to develop an immunity to.

    Maybe not an immunity, but we should definitely develop a kind of alert system so we’re aware we’re doing it. Too many times, folks forget an aspect of their model of reality started off as storytelling.

  3. numenaster says

    ” the now-traditional costume of a magician–the tuxedo, the top cat, the cape…”

    Of course you need the cape, it’s to conceal the cat. They don’t take well to attempts to stash them in a hat, after all. Look what The Cat In The Hat got up to if you don’t believe me.

  4. scenario says

    Story telling can be useful in the early stages of science, if it is used as a kind of brainstorming. The problem is that too many people stop there or remember the story as a fact rather than as a story.

  5. Brad says

    Everyone’s favorite libertarian said something (I think in a documentary, probably the egypt one, though maybe in god, no!) about the fancy pants being part of the act, making the illusions seem more amazing by dressing like their audience. Incidentally, that’s why he and Teller wear grey suits. The “man of power” idea is perhaps incidental to people dressing up in inconvenient clothing as a status symbol.

    Sweatpants4life!

  6. sheila says

    I just realised that Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver is about the same size as a magic wand, and gets used much like one, too.

    Of course, that’s only a guess.

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