MAGIC, PART ∞: Illusions

Magic can be hard to write. Done well it seems weird, enigmatic and powerful. Done poorly it seems like a cheap plot device used to move the story forward with no explanation or buildup. That’s why this running series will be all about how cultures of the past viewed magic, wizards, and superstitions. I find that when your magic seems too mechanical, turning to the past can help you nail down the right tone, as well as figure out the logic a little easier.

This week I’m going to talk about magical illusions.

Illusions are a mainstay both of magical lore and also of modern fiction, but modern fiction often borrows modern ideas. For example, one popular way of explaining magical illusions in modern fiction is with telepathy, where one character manipulates the mind of another, altering what they see, hear, and feel. However, the concepts of telepathy, telekinesis, and other such ideas about psychic phenomena were born in the 1800s. It doesn’t quite reflect beliefs about magic as much as it does a burgeoning (and often inaccurate) scientific understanding of the human mind.

It’s also common for illusions to be explained as spells that warp or bend light. This is sound in a modern understanding of how light works, but ancient peoples had different views on such matters. Some ancient scholars, like Euclid, theorized that human eyes emitted light, illuminating the world for us to see, as opposed to the reality of light bouncing off things and then being received by our eyes and converted to visual data. Euclid and other ancient peoples wouldn’t have really understood the concept of bending light around things to create invisibility or other optical illusions.

So how did ancient or medieval peoples actually understand magical illusions to work? Well, this is a bit of a tricky issue. To start with, it’s not always clear when the explanation for a spell is magical illusions, and when it’s shapeshifting. The wizard Merlin once cast a spell that made King Uther Pendragon appear as the Duke of Cornwall for one night. Did Merlin create an illusion, or did he physically change the king’s body? The story isn’t really definite on this point. Still, we can organize magical illusions into two general categories, both in legends and in terms of what historical magicians thought they could do.

First, the idea that the brain linked all our senses and could be manipulated didn’t generally occur to our ancestors. If they wanted to bewitch a man’s senses, they thought you had to do something to the organs that sensed. For example, a magician could cast a spell on your eyes, causing them to see things that aren’t there. Likewise your nose, ears, tongue, etc. One classic example is that of the fairy ointment.  Fairy “glamour,” or illusionary magic, could affect a person’s senses. However, it was believed that witches could create an ointment out of oil and rose or marigold water that, when applied to the eyes, could allow you to see through these fairy illusions. The spells revolve around the eyes and what they can see, not the mind that interprets that information.

The second category has a somewhat more universal effect. In these cases illusions seem to have been crafted from something. That is, the form of the true thing remained, but something was cast over it to obscure it. You’ve probably heard of the invisibility cloak, which recurs in myriad folktales. When worn, the cloak renders anything beneath it invisible. Indeed, illusions in folklore are sometimes described as clothes, shrouds, or other such things that can be cast off or put on even when there is no physical cloak to speak of

In these cases it seems as if the illusory false form is somehow sculpted out of some magical substance. Sometimes this was used to create things from thin air, like gold coins, or food. These are physical objects that people can pass around and touch, and in the case of food, even eat. But by the next day the gold has disappeared, or turned into something else, like toadstools or rocks, and the food doesn’t fill you up or provide any sustenance. Such stories seem to indicate that the objects were physically there, yet somehow were also not real.  Just what such illusions are supposed to be made out of is unknown, and most stories gloss over it, leaving it a mystery.

And this is where a modern writer can step in, if he wants to use these old ideas. Because the exact nature of illusions is mysterious, they can be just about whatever you like them to be. Perhaps the substance illusions are woven from is some mystic ether, or maybe it is the result of a magician manipulating amorphous things like mist or water.  You could also do  something entirely different, like having invisibility involve simply turning yourself transparent, which has as many drawbacks as it does advantages since you can’t actually see yourself either. In circumstances like Merlin’s spell over Uther, perhaps you maintain the ambiguity, to keep the reader guessing and make magic seem more mysterious and otherworldly. Or you could blend these ideas with more modern ones, if you so desire, because as I said earlier, it’s ultimately not about staying exactly true to history or tradition: it’s about making things actually seem magical, which is the biggest illusion of all.


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