Do you believe in Magic?

There is no mystery about the origin of the word ‘magic’ – late 14c., from Old French magique, from Latin magicus “magic, magical,” from Greek magikos, from magike (see magic (n.)

The permutations of magic, however, clearly articulate the sensibilities of the periods in which they arose.

The expression ‘magic lantern’ first appeared in the 1690s, to describe instruments used to project images on walls – it has a long, much-disputed history (of greatest interest to art historians – my particular tribe – are David Hockney’s much-disputed experimental histories of the use of lenses and projection devices throughout the history of western art, thus demystifying the magic of the artist’s eye) but they were first popularly used as ‘phantasmagoria’ in the very earliest years of the nineteenth century, giving rise to the word itself invented, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, by the “Parisian showman Paul de Philipstal, the name an alteration of French phantasmagorie, said to have been coined 1801 by French dramatist Louis-Sébastien Mercier as though to mean “crowd of phantoms,” from Greek phantasma “image, phantom, apparition” (see phantasm) + second element probably a French form of Greek agora “assembly” (but this may have been chosen more for the dramatic sound than any literal sense).”  A medley of magic, moving images – the precursor to our filmic present.

The phantasmagoria had morphed into an adjective as early as 1822, to refer to a “shifting scene of many elements” – a richly delicious word describing the possibility of altered states, and thus, perhaps, a prelude to the later evolution of the Freudian multiplicity of human consciousness.


The expression ‘magic carpet’ evidently first arose in 1816 – before the development of technologies for human flight (despite the efforts of Leonardo to imagine such possibilities) and, rather speculatively, probably arose from English translations of the One Thousand and One NIghts (in English ‘The Arabian Nights’) that first appeared in the eighteenth century.  Early illustrated editions filtered the east through western eyes, so that the first illustrated edition to imaginatively picture  a magic carpet appeared in Edward William Lane’s 1839-1841 edition. (For a history of illustrated editions see

I like that these magics are evidences of the power of sight and the desire for flight – all ways of projecting the self into the world of the imagined and imaginary. 



About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist, Italophile
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One Response to Do you believe in Magic?

  1. Sometimes whimsically but still accurately used to describe unexpected behaviors…from people 🙂

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