Sisters of Magic and Mystery

Sisters of Magic & Mystery

Magic books are written for right-handed men. If you’re a left-handed woman, you’re in trouble.
–Eugene Burger

I’m a left-handed woman. Not only that, I’m not even a magician. So what am I doing in the McBride House of Mystery attending the first biannual Sisters of Magic and Mystery gathering in September 2009?

On the last day of our three-day gathering, Abbi Spinner McBride passes the Native American Talking Stick from one participant to another to ask about our final goals, dreams, hopes for the future. What are we taking from this sisterhood back into the outside world? When the stick reaches me, I stare at it in my hands, and realize that this is indeed the moment of truth.

What led me from the Moroccan sea-town where I was born … to Lehigh University where I teach Jewish literature and creative writing … to the writing of my first novel, The Road to Fez, a coming of age story about Moroccan Jews … to this desert gathering? The journey is a magic story in itself. For the past three years, to my own surprise, I’ve immersed myself in the study of magic. Under the guidance of my mentor, the philosopher and magician, Larry Hass, I’ve attended conferences and lectures, participated in workshops and classes, and watched performances by some of the world’s greatest magicians. And I recently completed The Zigzag Girl, the first novel in a series featuring Lucy Moon, a third-generation magician who performs with her family at Moon Magick Theatre in South Philadelphia. The question is: why? It’s been a mysterious and winding road that seems as inevitable as a dream, and like a dream, that cannot be rationally explained. I could tell the women I’m here because of research, and it would be true. I could say that I, in Teller’s inimitable phrase, “love wallowing in magic.” Also true. But these wonderfully gifted, beautiful women deserve more than partial truths: they deserve the truth. I listen to the Talking Stick rattle between my hands and open my mouth to speak.


The High Priestess

For three days we’ve gathered in Abbi and Jeff McBride’s house, which is a concrete homage to magic and mystery from the masks, artifacts and classic posters covering the walls to the countless books and the stage on which we watch performances. Under Abbi’s serene guidance, we’ve shared our high points and low points in magic, our experiences and hard-earned wisdom. The core group is: Luna Shimada, Erica Sodos, Linda Broda, Samina Oshun, Gerrie Timmerman, Erin Doleshall, Naphtalia Silverman, and me. Erica the Enchantress lives and works in Boulder, creating wonderful routines in which she transforms herself from old woman to sari-draped goddess. Linda—Merlinda—performs gentle healing magic for Red Hat Ladies and nursing home inhabitants. Slim, elegant Erin channels Carole Lombard, a 1930’s screwball comedy heroine. Samina, who worked with Johnny Thompson, performs as a singing gondolier at the Venetian and hopes to find ways to integrate her singing and magic. Naphtalia is a California-based hobbyist who is strongly connected to the Magic Castle. Gerrie is a Dutch filmmaker working on an autobiographical documentary, The Magician’s Daughter. Abbi, our gracious hostess and the wise guiding spirit behind the conference, has been performing magic with her husband, Jeff, for twenty years, and is also a recording artist and musician. If she is our High Priestess, then Luna is our Godmother—a Goth-edgy, sensual Earth Mother.

Luna Shemada

Between Works-in-Progress and discussions, guest visitors lecture, perform and lead workshops: Arian Black, Joan Du Kore, Blaire Baron Larson and Katlyn Breene. The visitors are infinitely generous, sharing their time and wisdom, tips on how to survive in what is primarily a man’s world, and offering “tricks for chicks.”

Joan DuKore

On the first night we attend a Sisters’ Soiree in Luna’s house, another desert dwelling that radiates magic—from the powerful presence of Luna’s mother, the legendary magician’s assistant, Deanna, to Luna’s children and their friends scampering inside and out. For a while we sit outside under the near-full moon, feeling the evening breeze caress our cheeks, and we talk about life and magic. I’ve always been a sea-person, but the desert is beginning to work its magic: the gold moon, dazzling sun and blinding heat, the fragrant winds that seem to sing through the skies. On the second night Erin graciously invites us to her performance as half of the Dymonds, a witty, exuberant magic revue. Afterwards I have the unusual experience of sitting at a café table, watching Erica and Naphtalia exchange riffs on card magic. I’ve seen many men magicians do this, but never a couple of women teaching each other new ways to do old tricks. And I’m delighted that Naphtalia’s purse is filled with ready magic for any occasion: cards, rubber bands, watch winder, puppet eyes. All in a day’s work.

During long, intense days we explore the nature, challenges and future of women in magic. We raise more questions than we provide answers, but it’s clear to all of us that we’re embarking on an adventure of discovery and that there is so much to learn. Blaire screens her emotionally rich documentary, Women in Boxes, which I believe—by letting us hear the women speak—does the great service of freeing the women from the boxes. Kaithlin performs gorgeous Tamasudare magic with sticks; Gerrie, the filmmaker, talks about her journey from hating magic to becoming reconciled with the world that accepted her father and brother but seemed to have no place for her.

Luna embarked on her own journey to free herself from the shadow of her famous magician-father. After she performs a rope trick with brilliant red rope, she dissects the steps to a powerful stage presence: Defining your persona, Designing your stage set and making it yours, and Directing your act from beginning to end. “I don’t like the deceptive art of magic,” says Luna. “I don’t like tricks. I like to empower the audience.” By empowering us, she empowers herself as well. “I wasn’t put on this earth to be a magician’s assistant,” she says, and no one who watches the vivid life-force that is Luna Shimada onstage can doubt that she is magic personified.

But what is woman’s role in magic? One of the most provocative discussions in our Talking Circle revolves around the paucity of archetypes of women in magic. There is the traditional Holy Trilogy, of course: Maiden, Mother, Seductress. The Maiden is young and innocent, the child or daughter, the eternally silent, smiling, graceful assistant. Then there is the Mother. She is the creator of life, Mother Nature, a rich, lush creature who can bring a tree into being, and produce leaves, flowers and singing birds. Finally, we see the Seductress, who is all spangles, sequins and seduction. The burlesque queen, the stripper, the whore. We know her: we’ve seen her so many times before. Her act is sexual, erotic, suggestive… and dare I say, a little tired? Once we’ve finished with these three, I am left wondering: where are the Women? Where is the Woman Warrior, shades of Xena or Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Where is the Seeker, she who searches for magic in the ancient mystic mysteries of alchemy? And the Crone? I’m not talking about the hunchbacked, terrifyingly ugly witch of fairy tales; I’m talking about the most frightening creature in the universe: the aging woman. The older woman who is wise in her experience and beautiful in her knowledge. Imagine the Menopausal Magician! She makes hot flashes disappear before your eyes …. How about the Homemaker Magician? Just like Samantha of Bewitched, she cleans a house, cooks a meal and does the dishes in one minute flat. All it takes is a twitch of her pert little nose. Wait a second: where’s the Female Intellectual? The Mentalist who doesn’t wear the enormous hoop earrings and paisley shawl of a Psychic, but a white lab coat a la Ricchiardi and who uses science and digital discoveries to create mind-blowing magic onstage? Why can the great women of magic be counted on two hands?

After watching Luna who is simultaneously Mother, Warrior and Seductress, and Abbi who conveys the spirits of Sphinx, High Priestess and Seeker, and all our brilliant performers, each with a persona far too complex to reduce to the basic traditional images of women on stage, and listening to our profound, far-ranging discussions, I can’t help but imagine a Crone with the shy gestures of a Maiden … and why not? the fire-breathing rage of a Huntress as well. Or a Seductive Mother-Alchemist. How exciting to envision a female persona that integrates the many elements of a woman’s identity rather than breaking her up into smaller, easier-to-manage pieces! I recall a statement I’ve heard many times throughout my studies in magic: “Woman is magic, man performs magic.” I believe that when a woman is permitted to unleash her true potential and share her magic, she is a truly awesome—in the most awe-inspiring sense of the word—performer.

So … what is women’s magic? How does it differ from men’s magic? Well, let’s see…. When’s the last time a magician covered your bruise with a Band-Aid, and then turned it into a metaphor of mother-love by magically inscribing it with a heart? Thank-you, Luna!… When’s the last time a magician transformed “The Card to Impossible Location” trick into a stunning display of feminine wit by locating the missing card—a tiny Ace—painstakingly painted onto her pinky fingernail? Watch Joan Du Kore…. How about the last time a magician performed silk magic under the guise of a jazzy shopping trip? Ah, Merlinda…. Or a magician blew bubbles that turned into a magic marble on which you made a wish? Abbi, of course…. Or a magician did a belly dance while swallowing flames? Samina, the Singing Gondolier!…  How about the last time you attended a magician’s workshop in which all the participants sat in a circle and passed that famous Native American Talking Stick from one to another to ensure that every voice is heard?

I’m still sitting here, in yoga position, waiting to speak.

That’s when it hits me. Women’s magic, like women’s writing, is about connecting. About relationships. Unless a woman is simply echoing the traditional male magician’s role on stage—a woman playing the role of an actor playing the role of a magician—she leans toward the audience and invites them into her home—the stage—and says, with her posture and gestures: I am one of you, a human being, and I want to have a magic conversation with you.

Like all the arts, magic is a conversation whose ultimate motive and power is to bestow gifts. As one who has often been the wide-eyed audience recipient of these gifts—from a marble to a Band-Aid to my name on a playing card—I can tell you that this is magic’s ultimate power. The pregnant moment when magic spills from the stage and illuminates the world and gives birth to true magic.

Abbi Spinner McBride as Isis


So where do I fit into this puzzle of female identity? I think I’ve finally figured it out. I am the Storyteller, the left-handed woman who scrambled through the house of literature to find my own secret Tower room, my own voice, my own magic. I want to weave magic with words and braid them into a rope I can climb to the sky. I want to create magic as powerful on the page as great magicians do on stage. And I want, in my Moon Magick series, to do justice to each magician who has shared wonders with me. And hey Goddesses, I’ll see you, and hopefully many more women, in the desert in two years. I’ll be there with my pen—I mean, my wand—in hand.

Ruth and Luna Shemada

BIO: Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Road to Fez. She is the recipient of numerous literary awards, and her poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies. The Writer in Residence for the Berman Center for Jewish Studies at Lehigh University, she is presently at work on the second book in the Moon Magick series, The Jigsaw Woman. She has also just learned her first magic trick. If you promise not to laugh, she just might perform it for you. Visit her at her website:

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