Magicians Are Sacred Clowns
© 2009 John Caris

Ten years ago I renewed my interest in the magical arts and joined the Society of American Magicians and the International Brotherhood of Magicians. A revitalized appreciation for magic and an opportunity to delve into several intriguing ideas that have, at least for me, a deep and existential meaning are the result. One concept that has special links to my studies in mental and occult activities is that magicians are sacred clowns, and I would like to inspect that thesis in this essay.

A funny thing happened during my magic act at a Society of American Magicians meeting. Using the major arcana of the tarot, I performed a ‘find the selected card’ routine. My assistant chose a card, showed it to the members, and returned it to the deck while my back was turned. Taking the deck, I looked through it to find the chosen card. Well, it was one of those nights and I couldn’t decided which was the card. Embarrassed, I announced my failure to my fellow magicians and then asked my assistant and the other members if I could try again. They agreed and I did, successfully this time. When I displayed the selected card, I noticed a peculiar expression on my assistant’s face and then on some of the other members’ faces. The same tarot card had been chosen twice. I remarked in a knowing manner, “ Isn’t this the same card?” I smiled, acting as if I had planned it, and bowed to the applause. But of course I had not planned it nor even thought of doing the routine that way. (Some day I might.) Was it chance or the force? Coincidence or psychic powers? How can we know? All we can say is that it happened this way.

Stage magicians, illusionists, and sleight of hand adepts are similar to sacred clowns and fools in several ways. Although we may picture clowns as circus fun-givers and delightful buffoons, clowns have had an important role in European culture at least since the ancient Greeks. They had dramatic roles in Greek theater, which continued into the Medieval period in mystery plays and traveling minstrels. They frequented Shakespearean drama and became a fixture in theater, including the Punch and Judy puppet shows. The Harlequin came from Italy, and France supplied the white-faced Pierrot. In the Middle Ages court jesters and fools, who offered sage advice that others were too frightened to propose, were earning their keep, though most of the time they provided amusement and entertainment.

In some societies, like the Native American, clowns perform in religious ceremonies and in doing so act as a sacred character. Further, they are more of the mythic trickster and behave in a fashion contrary to conventional norms. Medicine men and women often are viewed in this way, like shamans who become one with their spirit helper.

A few examples from Native American culture can clarify the idea.

The Hopi, a pueblo people living in northern Arizona, have several different sacred clowns. To outsiders the Koshari and the Koyemsi or Mudhead are the most well-known, and they have their counterparts in other pueblos.

Koshari will behave backwards: saying the opposite of what they mean, yes for no and no for yes; climbing down ladders head first; confusing parts of a ceremony or curing rite, often burlesquing or parodying it. Their comments on current events, both in the Hope village or in the world at large, are usually critical and ironic, poking fun at the target, confirming that the Emperor is naked.

If Koshari are more the fools and buffoons, Koyemsi are more involved in linking the sacred and profane and so possess more power and are far more dangerous than Koshari. Actually, the Hopi do not consider Koyemsi to be clowns. Healer and sage—Koyemsi carry messages from the Ancients Ones to the people. Magician and fool—they play games with the onlookers, impressing all with their sacred power. (Interested readers can consult Barton Wright’s Clowns of the Hopi for more information.)

Among the Lakota, living on the northern plains, men and women who have a vision of Thunderbird are touched by sacred power and must become a heyoka, a contrary; otherwise, they will get sick and perhaps die. Their behavior is contrary or reverse of the behavior normal in the community. Forwards is backwards: walking or riding backwards and speaking backwards are common practices. Dressed in bizarre clothing, acting silly and ludicrous, a heyoka is all things that a normal member of the community should not be. Although some of the behavior is similar to that of the Koshari, one important difference is that the person acting as a Koshari does so for a specific ceremonial occasion, but a heyoka acts in a strange manner daily, unless released by Thunderbird. Heyoka seems to have power similar to Koyemsi, drawing deeply from the spiritual realm.

The heyoka, Koshari, and Koyemsi partake of the sacred and can be considered holy or medicine people. Anthropologists often employ the term ‘shaman’ for medicine people and describe them as using the sacred power for healing and bringing other benefits to the community, like rain, fertility, and plentiful supply of game. Clowns in Native American culture are always members of a medicine society, that is, their duties and obligations to the community are to bring benefits.

Among the Algonquian who range from the Atlantic to the Great Plains, members of the Grand Medicine Society are mide (a mystic) and participate in the midewiwin (mystical activities). Such individuals, besides bringing benefits to the community, can perform wondrous feats that appear magical, like animating doll-like figures. The shaking tent event allows the mide to contact the spirit world for divining, healing, finding lost objects or even people. The mide, bound with rope, sitting or lying in a wigwam or tent, calls upon manitos or spirit beings. All sorts of awesome things can happen. Strange noises resound from the wigwam while objects fly about or are thrown out of the tent. Perhaps, the shaking tent is the inspiration for the spirit closet routine so popular in 19th and early twentieth century magic performances.

So how are stage magicians, illusionists, and sleight of hand adepts similar to sacred clowns and fools?

Back in the 18th century when European science was beginning to free itself from the restraints imposed by Christianity, magicians still worried whether they would be charged with witchcraft and other devilish activities. Science finally gained a balance with religion in the second half of the 19th century, and today it has the upper hand in debates about the structure, nature, and origin of the universe. Most Americans maintain a separation of science and religion attitude. Whether this is true in other countries today, I don’t know. Magicians performing in the U.S. or countries having such a dichotomy must walk the line and pay the consequences for promoting one side or the other.

Because today real magic—such as flying, talking, hearing, and seeing over distances, and instant fire— can only be accomplished with specific types of technology, magicians break a social taboo when they pretend they are performing real magic. Like clowns, magicians enter worlds or dimensions of reality that ordinary people do not. They can move through the portal of shadows and emerge into the sacred realm, which is the source of real magic. Yet modern magicians are caught in a bind, a paradox. The dominating social idea is that real magic done the ancient or Harry Potter way cannot happen and is only trickery, though believed by the superstitious. Pretending to perform magic, the mage must ‘tell’ the audience, or at least suggest to it, that the act was only trickery and pleasant entertainment.

When, however, performers of mentalism and other psychic routines allow the audience to believe that magic actually happened, letting the audience believe in those powers if they so desire—these mages are often criticized by their colleagues in the magical arts. Because of the modern taboo about believing in the sacred or spiritual realm, many mages try to enforce the belief on all their colleagues. This taboo is, of course, promoted by modern science, which today appears to be the judge and jury about cosmic existence. Here lies a social conflict, one that has been ongoing for several hundred years: antagonism between science and religion. The fundamentalists of each reject the knowledge and truth of the other—an ‘if you’re not for us, you’re against us’ attitude. Yet the clown moves between the two sides easily and quickly, without fear and trembling.

Clowns enact the cosmic drama, which is religious-spiritual and symbolic. Bringing this sacred enactment to their community, they affirm its existence and power, allowing the audience to participate in another reality, one that exists side by side with the ordinary world and for many is interwoven with it. In our modern times the audience is given an opportunity to throw off its pretense of the contemporary scientific view and again as a child experience the sacred, spiritual world, the realm of magic.

Today’s mage walks the line between the two sides. If modern science’s view is the correct and only true one, then a magic show should only be pleasing entertainment without any attempt at creating mystery, wonder, or awe. To allow the audience to experience these emotions would be deceitful and as harmful as any fortuneteller or other charlatan—taking money to make the audience feel good, playing upon their mistaken desire that these emotions refer to a part of reality, that such things actually exist. Perhaps at the conclusion of the performance the mage should reveal the method of the trick, giving away the secrets. Would not that be the honest thing to do? Up front, directly stating that yes my act was only a trick and you can see that and now do not be fooled! And please come back for another entertaining show. Since the universe is only the one described by science, these emotions, or can we say all emotions, are hallucinatory and illusionary, leading people to superstitious attitudes.

The basic question can now be stated: why bother pretending to perform magic? Why not present a show of the latest props and methods, demonstrating them as in a scientific experiment or laboratory? Or as a manufacturer of tricks and routines, as one might demonstrate new and novel products for clowns? The focus would be on problem-solving and finding marketable ways to sell products. The audience would therefore become consumers of magical equipment. This description is beginning to sound as if it refers to an audience of magicians at a magic conference, yet we all know that the lay audience does not have our interest in purchasing effects. What do they want, can we honestly answer that? Can we give them what they want without condescension or embarrassment?

The primary choice for magicians, then, is whether we should quest for the ideal or only provide pleasing entertainment. The magic ideal is to present the audience with the opportunity to experience awe and wonder, to create a disbelief in conventional thoughts about the universe so that they are pushed aside and mystery fills the performance.

No doubt by now, we are thinking of magicians who in some way are akin to sacred clowns. Cardini performs as a well-dressed and slightly tipsy gentleman who is continuously surprised when cigarettes spontaneously appear and disappear. Houdini displays psychic power with his impossible escapes from dangerous situations as many onlookers, like Arthur Conan Doyle, believe. Stepping outside of time, Jeff McBride with his masks enacts ancient ceremonies. Uri Geller affirms the mind’s power over matter by reshaping metal utensils. Overcoming gravity, Norm Nielsen frees musical instruments to float in the air. Once the portal is opened, many more magicians come to mind.

Can magicians like clowns bestow social benefits? Can they participate in a healing process? The way we answer the question will suggest our choice for the magician’s goal. Some will choose maintaining a sense of mystery and opposing the view that life and the universe are meaningless and devoid of spirit. For these mages life is the true cosmic mystery and so enhancing any mystery fortifies life. Ancient benefits were healing and using power for other social goods, although power could be utilized for selfish or cruel purposes. Modern science has co-opted magic, and contemporary religion either accepts science’s premise that only science-oriented technology provides magic or that any attempt at magic is wicked, against God.

For those who enhance the mystery of life as the purpose of their performance, the healing of mind and body, securing self-integrity, and encouraging self-responsibility are worthwhile social goals. Magic can serve the community.