The Sphere of Magical Thinking: The Enchanting History of Crystal Balls

John Dee’s crystal ball. Science Museum, London (CC BY-NC-SA).

In 1582 John Dee (1527–1609), mathematician, astrologer, magician, and antiquary, claimed that he had been given a magic crystal by an angel called Uriel. Eventually this slightly purple rock crystal, secured in a crude silver mount, passed to Dee’s son Arthur (1597-1651), who in turn gave it to Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654). A physician and alchemist, Culpepper used it as a cure until 1651, when a fiendish spirit burst out of the stone and nearly frightened him to death. The same rock crystal is now in the Science Museum but, according to the curatorial staff, the demon seems to have moved on forever. Dee’s crystal was only part of his collection of magical stones; another, properly identified as an Aztec obsidian mirror, is in the British Museum.

The belief in the prophetic and talismanic power of ‘magical’ stones, a medium which (like a magic circle or a dream or vision) broke down the barriers between the physical and spirit worlds, was ancient and held at every level of society. Queen Elizabeth I was persuaded by Dee to see herself in one of them, whilst her various subjects used ‘cristalline receptacles’ (in Dee’s phrase) as panaceas for all manner of ills, both human and animal. Some stones were used for divination, especially for the discovery of lost money, treasure, and even people. Good spirits were understood to willingly enter into crystals in order to communicate with humans; on one occasion during Elizabeth’s reign, for example, the ‘sprite Oryance’ was invoked in the hope of finding some lost coins and manifested itself in a crystal ball.

Two crystal balls magnify the sun’s rays to fiery effect in an early sixteenth-century Italian illustration of the Martyrdom of Blaise. British Library, London (Public Domain).

The occult power of rock crystal is first recorded in the ancient world. The Roman natural historian Pliny suggested that quartz crystals were the result of the supernatural and irreversible freezing of water, and their origins, in the snow-capped mountains of the world, seemed to endorse the myth. Pliny, believing in the magical power of rock crystal, recommended the stone as a cautery but only to concentrate the rays of the sun. Under these circumstances heat was mysteriously generated from something that appeared to be very cold.

Crystal balls are found in the grave goods of the Iron Age in England and throughout Europe in the Viking period. Some were mounted in copper and some in silver but a rare example in a gold sling setting survives in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; it is Hunnish and dates from the fourth or fifth century. Another was found in the grave of Merovingian Queen Wisigard who died c.540. Earlier, pre-Christian examples were often buried with female magical practitioners or healers; from the eleventh century onwards, they were more usually interred with children, protecting them on their journey into purgatory. Some magical crystals have large pendant rings suggesting that they were worn on the body at the waist and neck. It seems likely that ownership of crystal balls in precious metal mounts was for an elite and in common with jewellery of all kinds, and that they were a powerful status symbol, even a mark of sovereignty. The sceptre of the Scottish Regalia, for example, is set with a fine specimen at its head.

A rock crystal ball talisman mounted as a pendant in silver and decorated with stylised roses at each end. The sling mount is early seventeenth century and is decorated with punching in the form lozenges and pellets. Abrasions to the ball suggest that it might be considerably earlier then the silver work. It is contained within a fitted wooden case lined with velvet and covered in shagreen. English?, c.1620. Photographs: Author.

Although some crystal balls are likely to be pre-Christian, there was a belief that others were brought from the Holy Land following the crusades of the early medieval period. If this provenance is reliable then it may be that crystal balls were not only pagan objects but were also seen as a microcosm of the Biblical creation. The concept is famously represented in Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi painted in about 1500. There, Christ carries a large crystal orb in his left hand; surely an emblem of the world he came to save.

Crystalline detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (c.1500). Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Certainly one of the continuing fascinations of water-white quartz crystal is its ability to remain very cold to the touch. Even the most grounded of observers will occasionally admit that rock crystal seems to draw something out of them, while others have reported feeling an after-burn if the stone is held against the skin. These peculiar attributes may explain the aura of such crystals, but whatever the precise source of their magic they are very often polished into orbs. This may be to facilitate the telling of fortunes known as crystallomancy or scrying, or simply to reveal the intrinsic beauty of the stone and its mysterious properties and inclusions. There is very little literature to endorse these proposals, but nonetheless belief in the magic of crystal balls is very enduring. Even recently they were part of the paraphernalia of clairvoyants on Brighton Pier, and they are widely used in the practise of New Age rituals and crystal healing.

A crystal-gazing fortune teller in the penny arcade on Brighton Pier. Flickr/garryknight (CC BY 2.0).

For technical reasons the precious metal fittings of surviving crystals are very similar. They take the form of a sling of metal strips joined to decorative mounts at the north and south ‘poles’ of the stones (see the three illustrations above). These mounts must be closed mechanically as the use of hot solder would almost certainly damage the crystal. Of those that retain their original slings, some are decorated with zigzags and chevrons that, in an abstract form, are suggestive of water and waves. It is said that the occult properties of the crystal ball are absorbed by water, which was then sprinkled over the sick or imbibed by those in need of a cure. The chances of success were multiplied if the water was hand-carried from a ‘fairy well’.

Understandably, magic stones in general and crystal balls in particular were much coveted and valuable. Ancient heirlooms with curative energies were lent, often against substantial sureties, and some believers travelled ‘more than 100 miles’ for the touch of a famous stone. Evidently faith in the various magical powers of crystal balls was widespread but there are particularly strong links with Scottish magical beliefs. The Scots believed in all of the above but took magic crystals into battle in the hope that victory would follow in their wake.

Like so many objects imbued with mystical powers crystal balls derive theirs from a variety of persuasions and beliefs. However, even in these disenchanted times, faith in their magic is not entirely lost.

Further Reading

  • G. F. Black, Scottish Charms and Amulets (Edinburgh, 1894).
  • T. Blaen, Medical Jewels, Magical Gems: Precious Stones in Early Modern Britain (Crediton, 2012).
  • S. Page, ‘Love in a Time of Demons’, in exhibition catalogue for Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Forthcoming 2018).

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