Magic Month: Acetabula et Calculi - The Oldest Trick in the Book?

October 19, 2012

We’re about half way through our magic month, we’ve had plenty of magicians in, we’ve announced a Magic Showcase and we’re launching a competition and we’re not even close to finished yet.  But much like Lord Reith; we want not only to Inform (people about magic) and Entertain (people with Magic), we’d also like to educate (people about magic), hence posts about the history of the art and various magic facts. But today we’re looking at one of the oldest Magic Tricks in existence.

Acetabula et Calculi  or as it's more commonly known ‘Cups and Balls’ is still a favourite for busking street magicians the world over; Harry Houdini himself claimed that no one could be considered to be an accomplished magician until he had mastered the cups and balls, most probably due to the fact that to truly master the trick, a magician needs to employ pretty much all of the skills required in close-up magic.

The cup and balls is believed to have been a regular feature in markets and busy towns; one of the earliest descriptions of the trick can be found in the writings of Roman stoic Philosopher and dramatist Seneca the Younger who describes the trick in his forty-fifth Epistle to Lucilius (probably written around 65 AD). He writes “it is the very trickery that pleases me. But show me how the trick is done, and I have lost my interest therein.” Some believe an even earlier depiction of the trick appears on the walls of an Egyptian tomb, that of provincial governor Baqet III near the town of Beni Hassan.

One of the most famous depictions of the trick is in Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th Century painting ‘The Conjuror’ in which the titular magician distracts a punter whilst he is robbed by a pickpocket. The picture takes inspiration from the Flemish proverb "He who lets himself be fooled by conjuring tricks loses his money and becomes the laughing stock of children" and is about the best example of ‘misdirection’ you’re likely to find hanging in a gallery.  It also gives an insight into the public perception of magicians at the time, after all - many of the skills required in close-up magic are also vital in pickpocketry.

Many modern magicians perform their own variation on the trick with everyone from Paul Daniels to Penn and Teller putting their personal spin onto the age old illusion. In fact, Penn and Teller claim their performance of the cups and balls (in which they use clear plastic cups) got them thrown out of the Magic Castle for giving away too many of the trick’s secrets.   

If you’re interested in seeing the cups and balls trick at your next corporate event, or if you’d just like to book a magician, head over to our contact page and get in touch.