Friday, May 19, 2006

Eastern Magic

Heard from Mr. Wilkinson the other day a curious account of the juggler, fortune-teller, or more properly, seer (Qy. is this the origin of the name ?) who has long been established at Cairo. I heard the same report from Mr. Davidson of this trial; and that given by Mr. Yorke (now Lord Hardwicke) of another to Miss Walpole coincides in every material particular. A boy under ten years of age is taken out of the street, selected by the enquirers; he is placed in a circle, magic characters described, magic words repeated, a drop of ink is put into the palm of his hand; he is asked what he sees there, and after a short time he says that he sees a monarch on his throne, attendants, &c., and seven standard-bearers, with flags of different colours. He is then, by permission obtained from the monarch (supposed to be the Devil), empowered to see any person who may be required.

When this English party went, they got an English boy, speaking Arabic; he was kept many days in their house, to prevent communication; all the forms were gone through ; the boy was excessively frightened : Lord Prudhoe was called for by his English name, quite unknown by any person at Cairo; the boy, puzzled, said, ' I see a Frank, but he is in a Turkish dress,' describing that always worn by Lord Prudhoe — his sandy whiskers and beard, a dagger or sword, with a silver scabbard; known to all the party, &c. &c.

They tried experiments, too, with Cairo boys; all began with exactly the same rigmarole about the sultan, the standard-bearers (Mr. Davidson lamented that he had not observed whether the seven colours named were the primitive), and proceeded in the same way. One person evoked was Shakespeare, whose name, they say, could not have been known; the boy described the pointed beard and ruff: in six trials, four descriptions were exact, the others absurdly the reverse.

Mr. Wilkinson spoke very coolly ; said, ' Nobody could be more incredulous than I was; indeed, I regret that I expressed so much incredulity, because they were more cautious, and I had no opportunity of investigating the matter; but I could not discover any trick.' Lord Prudhoe has certainly received some disagreeable impression, and desires his friends not to question him on this subject: he said this to Miss "Walpole. Lord H—— told her he feared that the English boy had never been in his right mind since the scene.

Charlotte * writes (Dec. 1835): 'The only thing in which we have been disappointed is in the Cairo magician. After some trouble we got the right man (Lord Prudhoe's), and picked out our own boy, who was to see the figures in his hand. We had three, who all at first saw the same things in their hands on the ink; it enlarged; figures with different coloured flags appeared, and then a man with a crown; but to none of the boys did the figures we called for come up.

How the first part was contrived, we cannot make out; we had the man in our own room, and the boys certainly did not know anything about the matter; one of them, an Italian, was so frightened by the sight of the flag-bearers, that he burst into tears and would not go on. The magician really seemed astonished at his failure, and of course said that it was the first time,' &c. &c.

Scott, in his ' Egypt and Candia,' gives a more particular and more satisfactory account. He begins by providing his boy. The magician commenced his operations by writing some characters on a long slip of paper, &c. &c.; then, after wiping the boy's forehead (from -which fear already made the perspiration start), he stuck another piece of paper, covered like the former with hieroglyphics, under his skull-cap, so as to throw a shadow upon his eyes, and prevent his looking up.

Taking the boy's hand in his, the magician then described with ink a square figure in the palm, drawing divers figures in a very mysterious manner. Finally pouring a quantity of ink (quite a pool) into the boy's hand, he was desired to keep his eyes steadfastly fixed upon it, and his head was forced down to within a few inches of his hand. The magician began muttering some unintelligible jargon with great rapidity till he was nearly breathless. He sprinkled incense, coriander seeds, &c. into a charcoal fire, then consumed one of the sentences written on the long slip of paper, then asked the boy repeatedly if he saw anything; upon receiving a negative, observed, he feared the lad was very stupid. The boy, half frightened, was spurred into intelligence; with some more efforts he saw a little boy. ' Has he not something in his hand ?' ' Is it not a flag ?'

' Yes, yes; he has a flag.' In this way the boy was persuaded that he saw seven flags, seven tents, the Sultan, and a large army—then comes the jugglery of the naming a person who is to appear to the boy, who is to describe him; he failed most completely in every instance but one.

'A lady of the party afterwards took the lad's part, and though fully convinced of the absurdity of the juggle, fancied she saw a flag and two stars. We tried to persuade her that it was the reflection of her own eyes, and of the slip of paper dangling from her forehead; but she became so much excited, that her friends would not allow her to remain longer under the magic influence. The conjuror refused to try his art upon grown-up males. The delusion is evidently produced by gradually working upon feelings already predisposed by superstition or other causes to the necessary state of excitement; as the diseased system of a dreamer makes the victim believe that he sees anything brought to his imagination. The fumes of the incense, the unearthly sounds, were enough to cause a wandering in the boy's ideas, and the constrained posture of the head, and the fixedness of his eyes upon the shining pool of ink which reflected ad infinitum his own black face and bright eyes, may easily be supposed to have completed his mystification.'**

Editor's notes
* Mrs. Rowley, then travelling in the East with her husband.
and brother.
** Eothen's trial of the Chief of the Magicians at Cairo is one of the most characteristic passages in the book.


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