What’s the Oldest Trick in the Book?

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Magicians have been practicing their craft for ages, but what’s the first magic trick that was recorded for posterity?

According to some historians, the oldest trick in the book is more like the oldest trick on the wall. A painting on the interior walls of an Egyptian burial chamber, created as early as 2500 BCE, appears to show two men performing what’s known as “the cups and balls” and may be the earliest record of a magic performance.

The cups and balls usually involves making three balls pass through the sides and bottoms of three cups and having them jump from cup to cup, disappear and reappear. The routine involves some of magic’s most fundamental effects and skills—like vanishes and transpositions, and misdirection and dexterity—and mastering it is often considered a good education in magic or a rite of passage for a performer.

It is indeed a very old trick, says magic historian Bill Palmer, but he doesn’t think that’s what the tomb paintings depict.

For one thing, Palmer says, the image shows cups, but no balls. It also depicts a pair of people handling the cups, but the trick has almost always been done by a solo performer, even in its very early history. Cups and balls doesn’t make sense in the context of the other nearby drawings from the tomb, either. The rest of the images in the series show people preparing food—a butcher with his knife, animals being led to slaughter, etc. The men in the painting, the evidence suggests to Palmer, aren’t magicians and they’re not handling cups; they’re bakers making bread for a feast.

The next recorded reference to the cups and balls comes from the writings of a Roman author around 45 CE, which still probably makes it the oldest sleight of hand trick. The lota bowl trick—which involves a vessel that can seemingly refill itself after being emptied—is the oldest known prop trick, and dates to around 3000 BCE, according to magician/historian Bill Spooner.

(The GEICO folks have another theory.)