Magicians and Superstition
About 15 years ago my wife and I “crashed the party” at an annual meeting of the American Association of Professional Magicians. That was when Uri Geller was achieving prominence by “supernaturally” bending spoons. They mentioned that he had started out as a magician. Those magicians at the meeting were very emphatic that their members had to agree never to claim supernatural powers. Instead, they were to state “I am an entertainer and a conjurer and have no supernatural powers.” Many spoons were bent that evening by undisclosed but presumably natural means. The association of magicians must have had a budget for compensating the Hilton for spoons. There was an extra dimension to their performances for each other since they all knew how the tricks were done. I especially remember the young Canadian magician feigning frustration that his trick was not working. Then, while he paused to cuss out the audience for skepticism, which was spoiling his magic, it seemingly succeeded spontaneously. Houdini was mentioned for stating that if a very select committee was reporting on our unusual and seemingly supernatural event not to believe the report if a qualified professional magician was not on the committee. The next topic has to do with astrology.
Mithraism was an oriental cult competing with Christianity in Roman times. Many adherents were Roman officials. Mithra was the god powerful enough to remove Taurus from the vernal equinox. Taurus is now the sign of the Zodiac for May and June. This movement of the heavens is called the precession of the equinoxes and was discovered by a Greek in about 300 B.C. Not a great deal is known about Mithraism but several of their meeting sites survive. All have a mural showing Mithra fighting the bull. As a matter of fact this may be the origin of bull fighting. In Roman times, bull fighting was as prevalent in Italy as it was in Spain.
A few years ago, I received phone calls three weeks in a row from a nearby newspaper wondering if I wanted to subscribe. On the third call, I recognized the voice and said, “I have a message for you this time: You really should have a surgeon general's warning on the astrology column because it could be dangerous to health.” He was speechless giving me a moment to add “Suppose a superstitious mom is asked by her child 'Why does it say that on the astrology column? There's no way she could reply without the child ending up a little less superstitious than she was.” The newspaper caller replied, “Good idea. I will talk to the editor.” Within weeks “For entertainment only” appeared with the astrology column.
How does this relate to medicine? Let me tell you about my patient who was also an overweight priest. I told him that I had some lay-away plan penance for him, the only penance that you can still do in advance of sinning because Martin Luther had spoiled the other special deals. I could see that he was worried about where I was heading, but in the nick of time I told him to get more exercise. Priests, nuns and Protestants have all learned enough about the sale of indulgences to understand without further explanations. Other Catholics haven't learned so many details of the Martin Luther story and require some explanation of the sale of indulgences to important parishioners who were about to sin but hadn't sinned yet. The need to give this explanation permits me to identify Catholics without them being aware that I had done so. Later when I seem to have acquired this knowledge by some supernatural means, I explain that fortune tellers use similar methods differing only in detail. In this way, I am helping the public to be less superstitious, a worthy mental health motive.
As our Surgeon General, David Satcher, said (to paraphrase) the brain is just one more organ like heart or kidneys and also needs to be kept healthy.
John A. Frantz
Chairman, Monroe Board of Health
June 6, 2001