SHAKE THAT STICK!: A word on magic(k) wands (Arthur, 2008)

Shake that Stick! (A Word on Magic(k) Wands)

Applied Magic(k) column by the Center for Tactical Magic

Illustration by M. Wartella

Originally published in Arthur No. 28 (March 2008)


Shorty don’t believe me? 

Then come with me tonight

And I’ll show you magic

(What? What?) Magic (uh huh uh huh)

I got the magic stick

– 50 Cent

It doesn’t matter whether you survey stage magicians, witches, or a screaming horde of pre-pubescent Harry Potter fans, the magic wand is perhaps the most encompassing symbol of magic. Equally at home in the white glove of a dapper, tuxedo-wrapped conjuror or in the clenched fist of a cackling old crone, the magic wand immediately summons a magical mood. While such depictions are still commonplace in pop culture, most folks are of the opinion that magic wands are vestiges of a bygone era.

It’s certainly true that magic wands have been around for a long, long time. Some of the earliest known examples belong to Egyptian magicians and priests from the 2nd Century B.C.—more than four thousand years ago.But for anyone who’s sat around a campfire and raised the glowing tip of a fire-kissed stick into the night sky, it’s not hard to imagine that our ancestors have been waving magic wands through the air for a good many millennia.

Over the years, wands have played a variety of roles: instruments for measurement, props for illusions, scepters for governance, and, as 50 Cent can attest, as phallic symbols noted for their procreative ability. As tools for healing we see their continued use in the hands of Reiki practitioners; however, the connection to the healing arts goes way back. The ancient Greeks, for example, used the rod of Asclepius (featuring a snake coiled around a stick) to represent medicine; a tradition still carried on by today’s medical professionals.  Ironically, the rod of Asclepius is often substituted with Mercury’s wand (two snakes forming a double helix around a winged staff), which traditionally represented both commerce and thievery, two traits often associated with the contemporary medical establishment. 

Performing magicians have employed wands in their performances for at least the last few hundred years. Waved over top hats and ornamented boxes, wands have frequently added an air of mysterious theatrics while assisting the magician in feats of misdirection. Similarly, wands in the form of scepters have also appeared in the hands of governing leaders. In this case, they can be seen either as symbols of constituent power or as fancy, but ultimately useless baubles that will never yield the positive results one hopes for. And the same could be said of the scepters.

In most instances of ceremonial magick and witchcraft, the wand is seen as a conduit; a sort of lightning rod that connects the beholder to a greater power and channels the energy to bring about the desired results. Whether that “greater power” comes from within or without is often debated among those invested in such debates, as are the most appropriate materials for constructing such a tool. Should it be made from copper, silver or brass? From amethyst, bone or obsidian? From wood? Which kind? Willow, oak or ebony? Should it be dropped by the tree, or cut from it in the bloom of a full moon? And then what? Polished, carved, or left bare? Painted black with white ends? Wrapped in leather, beads, or feathers? Tipped with a crystal or studded with gems corresponding to the body’s chakras?  Indeed, the options seem infinite. But at least one old grimoire, the Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parasychology, seems to give some guidance:

A perfectly straight branch of almond or hazel was to be chosen. This was cut before the tree blossomed and cut with a golden sickle in the early dawn. Throughout its length must be run a long needle of magnetized iron; at one end there should be affixed a triangular prism, to the other, one of black resin, and rings of copper and zinc bound about it. At the new moon it must be consecrated by a magician who already possesses a consecrated rod. 

It’s unclear where the source for these instructions originated; however, it does make a few things perfectly clear. First of all, if you don’t know someone who owns a golden sickle and a consecrated rod, you’re shit outta luck. Secondly, it certainly takes a position in the debate on whether or not a magic wand can be just any old stick. While the encyclopedic entry doesn’t mention who is creating the above wand, or for what purpose, it does seem apparent that the original context was rather specific. One can reasonably assume then, that such a carefully crafted rod was not to be used willy-nilly for any old spell-casting. Yes, on the one hand, the aforementioned instructions seem more than a bit overblown.  But on the other hand, they’re completely in line with the evolution of specialized technologies.

Like so many useful technologies over the last few thousand years, wands have gone through changes, becoming more and more differentiated, designed, and specialized—for better and for worse. In many cases they are so removed from their origins that we easily choose to forget they are wands. But they are, and the clues remain.  

Remember that glowing stick pulled from the prehistoric campfire? The one our ancestors used as a dim light as they stumbled into the dark of their granite crib? The one used to fend off unseen threats lurking in the shadows? Today, the upgraded version of that magic light stick is called a Mag light. In fact, you can even obtain an enhanced security version that includes a high-decibel alarm, and a 600,000 volt taser. That’s right. For your convenience, your new high security wand can shoot a beam of light, a sound blast, and lightning bolts to fend off the creepies.

Unlike the burnt stick, however, this wand won’t turn into charcoal in the morning, allowing you to draw on your walls and thus explore one of the more creative aspects of early wands. Fortunately, pens, pencils, and “magic markers” are readily available at your local art supply store. You can even find shops selling magic markers that deftly double as secret stashes and one-hitters, so you can re-create shamanic rituals that start by smoking out and end by drawing your visions.

If face-painting is more your style, there are a number of cosmetics companies that will sell you on the magic of their products. Among the more obvious examples, are Maybelline’s “True Illusion – Undetectable Concealer” and Bare Escentual’s brushless mascara, suitably named the “Magic Wand.” Both will enable you to disguise your appearance; however, it’s questionable as to whether you can use the “undetectable concealer” to mask your nail-clippers when the airport screener frisks you with his metal detecting security wand. If this high-tech wand doesn’t divine the presence of your concealed clippers, you might be free to pass. That is, of course, if you didn’t accidentally pack your, ahem, “body massager” in your carry-on luggage. You know the one; the vibrating Hitachi “Magic Wand” that’s been bringing a bit of the mystical to erogenous zones worldwide since 1970.

Indeed, these wands may not meet all of your magical expectations; yet, they only begin to scratch the surface. From barcode scanners to UV purifying wands to remote controls and beyond, magic wands are consistently being re-envisioned, re-presented, and re-packaged. And while marketing mages will tell you to be sure to use the right wand for the right job, most witches, wizards, and magicians insist that it’s not the wand but the person holding it who contains the magic(k).

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