Cups and balls

The ‘cups and balls’ players, known today as conjurors or magicians, who entertain us with incredible sleights of hand, have been pulling the wool over our eyes for centuries.

The art of illusion is perhaps as old as the history of man. To convince people of their supernatural powers, even priests of old used to work so-called ‘miracles’ by clandestinely placing a series of pipes, water basins and concave mirrors in their temples and employing acoustic, hydraulic or optical methods to create effects. But the most universal and perhaps also the oldest trick in the art of ‘conjuring’ is that known in Turkish as ‘hokka (‘cups and balls’)’, which depends entirely on sleight-of-hand. Historians even suggest that a 25x50 cm wall painting found in the tomb of Beni Hasan, thought to have been built in ancient Egypt in 2500 B.C., depicts such a trick. But ‘hokka’ is not only the oldest trick in the book but also a generic name applied to all conjurors. In modern Turkish however the term ‘hokkabâz’ is rarely used in this sense. In magic shows in Turkey, the magician’s assistant, known as the ‘yardak’, was dressed in a clown suit and always represented a comic figure who was eager to sabotage the tricks performed on stage by the master. By distracting the audience in this way, the assistant drew all the attention to himself, and the illusionist’s performance degenerated into a form of slapstick. Today’s sleight-of-hand artists therefore prefer to call themselves illusionists or magicians instead. There remain however a few, albeit small in number, who still refer to themselves as ‘hokkabâz’. Cem Yılmaz, for example, the well-known star of stage and screen, named his new film, which he also directed, ‘Hokkabâz’, and plays the lead role of such a character in it.

All the demonstrations and amazing tricks that are done today under the name of conjuring, illusion, magic or sleight-of-hand have their origin in the game of ‘hokka’, which uses three hokka’s, or cups, made of wood or metal, and three tiny balls. Each ball is placed under one of the cups, which is then turned upside-down. Later the magician uncovers them and two of the three balls seem to have disappeared. At this point he uncovers the third cup and we remark with astonishment that all three balls are under it.
The demonstration continues with new and more amazing tricks. Finally large balls, or objects such as onions, lemons or eggs, emerge from under the cups, some of them paradoxically, are even bigger than the cup itself.

The Turkish word ‘hokkabâz’ comes from ‘hokka’ and ‘baz’, two Persian words meaning ‘cup’ or ‘pot’, and ‘one who plays’ respectively. There were also artists called ‘yuvarlakbaz’ (player with rounds), ‘yumurtabaz’ (player with eggs) and ‘mührebaz’ (player with seals) who performed similar tricks. Down the centuries ever since the ancient Greeks, such tricks have been so popular that painters like Bosch, Bruegel, Daumier and others have depicted them on canvas and in engravings. And cartoons on the subject have been used to convey a welter of political messages.
But Ottoman miniatures constitute the richest visual material for the art of magic. My book of black-and-white miniatures describing the magic tricks performed at Ottoman festivals was published in Turkish in 1959. Then in 1978 my book, ‘Magic in Istanbul’, chronicling the history of illusion in Turkey, was published in Canada, and black-and-white reproductions of these same miniatures were again included in the chapter on the Ottomans. I received an interesting letter from an English illusionist by the name of Bob Read in connection with this book of mine. It seems he had toured the world for years, collecting visual materials on the art of ‘cups and balls’ from museums, libraries and auctions. He asked me if I could supply him with pictures about the magic tricks described in my book. I sent him several color pictures, both from those included in the book and from those not. And he sent me a photograph showing Prince Charles, the heir to the English throne, performing a magic trick for an audience. The Prince performed this trick on 28 October 1975 at England’s oldest illusionist society, ‘The Magic Circle’, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding last year. I too while a graduate student at the University of London in 1951 was invited to join society, and at the moment am perhaps one of its oldest living members.

The most significant features of Turkish magic is the running banter between the magician and his assistant. Bearing a close resemblance to the dialogue of the Karagöz shadow puppet theater and the ‘ortaoyunu’ (Turkish-style Commedia dell’Arte), it lent Turkish magic the character of an outright theatrical performance. In books about the imperial festivals, the master magician is described as making the audience laugh during the performance by carrying a ‘şakşak’ or stick, just like the one carried by the ortaoyunu character Pişekâr, and beating his assistant with it. The real purpose here of course being to create an opportunity for doing the actual trick while the audience’s attention is distracted. The magician also blew on a sea shell during the performance and used a bag known as an ‘enbân’. The point of all this of course was to divert the audience’s attention away from the actual sleight-of-hand.
Again according to records of the time, magic, like shadow theater and ortaoyunu, was more widespread in Istanbul than in other parts of the empire. A number of coffeehouses in the city’s various quarters became important stages where magic shows were given on special occasions such as religious holidays, weddings and circumcision ceremonies. What was it they used to say? “Neither magic nor miracle, but sleight-of-hand.” The balls are being placed under the cups. Let’s see if you can figure out which ball is under which cup. Or is the wool going to be pulled over your eyes?