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Magic has its origins in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The biblical account of Moses and Aaron in the Pharaoh's Court recounts how the Pharaoh's wise men and sorcerers cast down their rods and the rods became serpents. According to some explanations, this feat was performed with serpents that were hypnotized so as to be stiff and lifeless. When the serpents were thrown down, they awoke and crawled away.

The earliest practitioners of magic were religious priests, who used the illusion of supernatural events to maintain control over the population at large. In fact, the word magician derives from the word magus, an ancient Persian priest. Priests would perform elaborate rituals that included illusions such as burning doors and talking spirits to persuade people to do or believe certain things. Magical spells were also used to scare off evil spirits or to induce rain or other natural events.

Because magic conjured up images of the supernatural, practitioners of magic were long viewed with a combination of respect and fear. Often, people were mistrustful of magicians or those associated with the supernatural and came to view them as sorcerers. During the 1300s in Europe, magic was called a form of witchcraft and considered heresy. Those who practiced magic, or were simply accused of practicing magic, were shunned and in some cases killed. During the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s in North America, several people regarded as witches or sorcerers were burned at the stake.

In recent times, magic has lost some of its mystery and has become acknowledged and accepted as a performance art. Influential performers such as the Sicilian Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, the Frenchman Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, and the American Harry Houdini have captured the imaginations of audiences through a combination of skill, training, and imagination. Today, well-known magicians such as David Copperfield and David Blaine entertain people all over the world. More controversial are the popular and less traditional duo Penn & Teller, who often reveal the secrets of their illusions.

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