From Shaman to Showman: The origins of the theatrical magician

From Shaman to Showman: The origins of the theatrical magicianEarlier this month, I attended the Centenary Convention of the Australian Society of Magicians. This convention has reignited my passion for performing magic, albeit in a different direction.

The amazing Jeff McBride used the phrase “from shaman to showman” several times during his performances and lecture. The shaman, or medicine man, used to perform a central function in prehistoric and primal cultures and incorporated the philosopher, healer and entertainer. In contemporary culture, these functions have, however, been separated and the philosopher, healer and entertainer are different people and the magician usually only functions as the entertainer, working for children, performing close-up in restaurants or more traditional stage acts.1

Performing magic can be a powerful experience for the spectator as well as the magician and is, in McBride’s words, a “mood altering device”. Experiencing well crafted magic releases positive chemicals in the brain and magic becomes, following Eugene Burger, a way of transcending the human condition, even if it is only for a fleeting moment. In this way the magician becomes a healer.

The magician becomes philosopher by providing meaningful context to the magical experience. The philosophy expressed by performing magic is not about providing a solution to the life’s problems. In magical thinking the world is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced. By providing the spectator with a sense of mystery, magicians can integrate the philosopher back into their performances.


  1. Kirby, E. T. (1974). The shamanistic origins of popular entertainments. The Drama Review: TDR, 18(1), 5–15. 

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