U of Sask. conference on history of magic is also about 'trying to understand ourselves': historian

Historian Frank Klaassen says magic is alive and well in Saskatchewan. The University of Saskatchewan professor will be speaking Wednesday at a public conference on medieval and Elizabethan magic.

Plenty of magic still around us, 'depending on how you define it,' says historian Frank Klaassen

Frank Klaassen is an associate professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan. His talk at Wednesday's conference is titled "Making Magic: How Magicians Assembled their Magic Books." (Rosalie Woloski/CBC)

Magic is alive and well in Saskatchewan, says historian Frank Klaassen.

The University of Saskatchewan professor, who will be speaking Wednesday at a public conference on medieval and Elizabethan magic, says while he's interested in the history of magic, it persists today.

"We're not only trying to understand medieval people, but we're trying to understand ourselves," he told CBC's Saskatoon Morning.

He said that although we tend to think of ourselves as living in an enlightened and scientific age, there is plenty of practise of magic still going on around us, "depending on how you define it."

"As far as scientists are concerned... we have problems with all kinds of alternative healing, and what is that? If we say there's no scientific evidence for it, is that magic?"

Wednesday night's conference, which invites the public to "explore the world of pre-modern magic," will include five short talks about magic. There will also be a "hands-on" element, with reproductions of medieval magic equipment on display — some of which attendees will be able to try.

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One of the items is what's called a holy almandal — a scrying table which has its roots in India and travelled to Europe through the Muslim world.

"It's supposed to be a device with which you can communicate with angels," Klaassen said.

Another magical technique on display is the use of a key and psalter, which he described as "a standard method for figuring out who stole your stuff."

In the technique, you put the name of the person you think is a thief in the end of the key, then close the psalter — a book containing the biblical psalms — on a particular psalm that mentions a thief, Klaassen explained. After performing a ritual, you hang it between your fingers and if the psalter turns, the person named is guilty.

"If you don't have a key and psalter, then you can use a set of garden shears and a sieve," Klaassen said.

The key and psalter on the right were used to determine if someone had stolen from you, says historian Frank Klaassen. (Rosalie Woloski/CBC)

While some of those magic techniques date back centuries, some have continued to see use in the modern age, he said. For example, Klaassen said his great uncle used to dowse for water in Saskatchewan.

"He used a crowbar and he was really good at it."

There are stories, he said, about people drilling in all the wrong places until his uncle told them exactly where to find the water.

Magic has even entered the digital age. You can go to websites like, for example, for weather predictions. A spleen, in some traditions, was used to predict the coming winter weather for about a 200-kilometre radius from where the pig lived.

Klaassen said there are many reasons people might practise magic.

"We're curious about the supernatural, about things that we can't see — sometimes because we're scared of the unknown and we want to control it."

Klaassen will speak as part of the "Medieval and Elizabethan Magic: Techniques and Communities" presentation at the University of Saskatchewan's St. Thomas More College.

The presentation runs from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is free and the public is welcome to attend.


Ashleigh Mattern is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan.

With files from Saskatoon Morning