What is the Magician's Oath and why is it important?

Poster for Frederick Bancroft - Prince of Magicians, 1895

Magicians have relied on quick fingers and slight of hand to entertain audiences around the world for thousands of years. Magic is enjoyable because "a magic trick properly performed is a puzzle with a solution, a riddle without an answer, a mystery without the last revealing chapter." The simple cup and ball trick is even depicted on the walls of an ancient Egyptian tomb.[1] Magic as a performance art had stood the test of time.

In addition to relying on skills, magicians have fostered a informal code of secrecy. The secrecy is intended to protect their tricks from being exposed to the public. Magicians understandably believe that if their tricks are revealed they will not longer be "a puzzle without solution" and prevent the audience from enjoying their show. These tricks often also require hours of long and difficult practice to master. In addition to time, magicians spend money on their illusions. After the Fox television show Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed aired in the 1990s, other magicians sued the Val Valentino (the Masked Magician) because he revealed the magical tricks that they used in their shows. Two magicians, Kevin and Cindy Spencer, argued that Valentino had forced them to shutter acts that had them $100,000 to create. The Spencers also stated that they were "just disappointed that someone who made his living performing the art of magic for over 25 years would be so quick to betray their community."[2]

In essence, science and magic are polar opposites. Scientists publish all of their findings for the colleagues to see and evaluate. It is an open system. Science only works if people share with each other and verify each other findings. If magicians shared all of their secrets, they could potentially destroy the mystery of magic that makes it special and entertaining for audiences. Not understanding how a trick is done is what makes it special.[3]

Magician's Oath

Poster for The Houdinis from approximately 1895 (State of Victoria Library)

Magicians do not have a Hogwarts. Instead, historically magic was passed from magician to another. Typically the pupil would have to promise not to tell anyone the secret to their tricks.[4] This level of secrecy has often made it quite difficult for magicians to learn the skills necessary to be a good amateur or professional magician. It has not prevented the passage of magic skills, but it certainly slowed it. Magicians such as Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss) had to pick up magic tricks from friends or develop his own tricks. Unlike today, Houdini could not look for books on magic tricks on Amazon.

Even though things have changed, if a magician agrees to teach you a course on magic they may require you swear an oath of secrecy. Today, this oath takes the form of the Magician's Oath. This oath has changed over time, but the essence has remained the same. Here is the most current version of this oath.

"As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless that one swears to uphold the Oath in turn. I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magic."

The Joint IBM and SAM joint ethics statement

The two of the largest American magicians organizations, The International Brotherhood of Magicians (founded 1922, based in St. Charles, Missouri) and The Society of American Magicians (founded in 1902), in 1993 issued a joint ethics statement that essentially codified the magicians oath into their organizations. If someone wants to be a member of these organizations, they have to adhere to this code of ethics. In addition to maintaining secrecy, the ethics statement also addresses intellectual property rights, false statements, commercial rights and the humane treatment of animals.

Here is the current code of ethics:

  • Oppose the willful exposure to the public of any principles of the Art of Magic or the method employed in any magic effect or illusion.
  • ƒDisplay ethical behavior in the presentation of magic to the public and in our conduct as magicians, including not interfering with or jeopardizing the performance of another magician, either through personal intervention or the unauthorized use of another’s creation.
  • ƒRecognize and respect for rights of the creators, inventors, authors and owners of magic concepts, presentations, effect and literature, and their rights to have exclusive use of, or to grant permission for the use of by others of such creations.
  • ƒDiscourage false and misleading statements in the advertising of effects and literature merchandise or actions pertaining to the magical arts.
  • ƒDiscourage advertisement in magical publication for any magical apparatus, effect, literature of other materials for which the advertiser does not have commercial rights.
  • ƒPromote the humane treatment and care of livestock used in magical performances.

Conclusion

Interestingly, even with the proliferation of books and courses on magic, magic still thrives. Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Criss Angel, and other magicians and illusionists perform daily in Las Vegas. Penn & Teller even have a television show, Penn & Teller: Fool Us, where magicians try to perform tricks that Penn & Teller can not figure out. If the magicians can trick Penn & Teller they get to open for their Las Vegas Show. Still, magicians try to preserve the secrecy and magic of their livelihoods or hobbies. The Magician's Oath still underpins the code of conduct for modern magicians.

References

  1. Paul Curry, Martin Gardner, Julio Granda, Magician's Magic, (Dover, 1965), p. 14-15.
  2. "Fox Isn't Disillusioned as Masked Magician Series Ends", Los Angeles Times, Oct. 31, 1998.
  3. Ornelas, Christoper, "The Magician’s Oath: A Conversation with Pat Hammond on Magic, Science, and the Wind" The Drachen Foundation, May 2012
  4. Ornelas, Christoper, "The Magician’s Oath: A Conversation with Pat Hammond on Magic, Science, and the Wind" The Drachen Foundation, May 2012