WORDS: Magic

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WEDNESDAY'S ECLIPSE gave rise to some very fine writing from the colour-piece merchants. James Dalrymple of the Independent outshone most of his rivals with a front-page splash in which he wrote that Nature had put on a show "with the speed and virtuosity of a master magician." The Guardian's Matthew Engel was cooler, but its leader still called it "the magic moment".

The Times's front-page headline was rather inept: "The Twilight of Wonder" it said, an ambiguous phrase suggesting that people weren't as wonderstruck as they used to be, whereas Mr Dalrymple was pointing out that we wondered as much as we ever had, like children at a conjuror's party.

But to talk of mere conjurors is to demean the word magic, which began as a medieval borrowing from the Greek magos. A magus was a priestly follower of the great Zoroaster, aka Zarathustra, founder of the Persian religion that lasted from about 800BC until the Muslim invasion 1,400 years later. Zoroaster was on speaking terms with angels and was therefore privy to the secrets of the universe, which, unrepentant duellist that he was, he believed to be equally composed of good and evil; his message, put crudely, was that we should steer clear of the black magic and go for the white.

The Magi that Christians said took gifts to the infant Jesus were Zoroastrians. Milton in his Nativity Ode called them "the star-led wizards", which made every sense, because wizard came from wise (it may well have been pronounced "wise-ard" then), and this was a good poet's way of describing the Three Wise Men from the East. And since they were wise, it was naturally expected of them that they should also be acquainted with the occult, and with things concealed from the rest of us; occultare was the Latin for "to hide." Astronomers, incidentally, used the verb occult (perhaps they still do?) to define what happens when one heavenly body passes in front of another, thus "occulting" it. Eclipsing it, as we say nowadays.

All this is a long way from the clever business with top-hats and rabbits practised by members of the Magic Circle, though their name, too, suggests spiritual goings-on, a conjuror being someone who conjures up mysterious forces.

Magic has now come down to earth as a polite way of giving thanks for quite small favours ("I'll pick you up for lunch" - "Magic"). Here it replaces wizard, as used by schoolboys before the Second World War, and by RAF pilots during it. Yet despite this demotion, it can still rise again to become a word of evocative power when we need it. Mr Dalrymple compared the eclipse to "great acts of illusion", though everyone knew how the trick was done. The Daily Mail treated it as a supernatural event. "God turned down the dimmer switch soon after 11am yesterday," said its reporter Barbara Davies, while her colleague Ray Connolly wrote that it was "as if some celestial hand had turned a dimmer switch on the world." Whichever way you looked at it, the eclipse had got to be a magical happening. Twilight of wonder? Not yet, not even in this day and age.

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