Spheres of Influence: The Magical History of the Witch Ball

A multicoloured nineteenth-century witch ball. © Horniman Museum and Gardens, London.

Witch balls are globes of glass, with a hole in the top, often suspended in doorways or windows. They were made in most glass factories across Europe as glassblowers’ ‘whimsies’ or showpieces and then later sold as decorative items. [1] They appeared in a variety of geographical contexts and had numerous uses, but the name itself refers to the belief that these balls were protective devices that could ward off evil spirits, especially the evil eye and the malevolent influence of the witch.

Beginnings

Garden ornament: Dodo Smith and her ‘Tyrolian’ witch ball in The Sketch (1934).

Initially, the witch ball was a decorative object. Its earliest antecedents were the ‘broad plates of round coloured glass’ placed around the gardens of early modern gentlemen and women ‘for the sun to play upon’. [2] This marks the beginning of the witch ball as a garden ornament – its main use in continental Europe. German and Austrian versions (sometimes simply called kugel) were commercially blown from the 1840s onwards and placed on wire poles, driven into flower-beds, or set atop walls and fences. In some parts of Britain these imports can still be seen. American ‘witch balls’, [3] which date to the mid nineteenth century, were placed upon flared-rimmed vessels such as pitchers and jars in order to keep insects out.

Witch balls became immensely popular in the 1930s. They were sold in well-to-do boutiques and were a common feature in women’s magazines. To many they were an antidote to modernity and evoked a ‘gentle Victorianism’. The Sphere magazine recommended ‘faded chintz chair-covers and a witch-ball’ to impart a degree of ‘charm’ to one’s cottage by the sea. [4] Some people planted their witch balls to make terrariums, others filled them with rocks, glass beads, and water to create shimmering light effects. This latter caprice was marketed as the ‘Wizard Bowl’ – in every respect the same as a witch ball but with a larger aperture at the top. [5]

Detail from M. C. Escher’s Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), one of several artworks in this period to feature witch balls. ArtStack.

They also started attracting the attention of artists around this time. H. D. Richter exhibited The Silver Witch Ball at the Royal Academy in 1929 to popular acclaim, while a few years later M. C. Escher’s experimentations with witch balls, perspective, and self-portraiture elevated the witch ball to the category of objet d’art.

A witch ball suspended in the house of actress Olive Nedell in Britannia (1 November 1935).

Tales were spun that authentic witch balls were only to be obtained from spiritualists and nomads. In 1924 Petronella O’Donnell was advised that ‘one could buy witch balls in a shop not far off, kept, I believe, by a spiritualist’. [6] Olive Nedell, an actress, and her husband were pictured in a magazine with ‘their only superstition – a dark green witch ball sent to Mr. Nedell by a gipsy youth whom he befriended’. [7] For a particular class of well-to-do consumer, then, these objects were a material expression of their thrilling transactions with those on the ‘occult’ margins of society (albeit in a form that was suitable to their style and taste).

Apotropaic Meanings

The idea that witch balls could offer magical protection appears to be an innovation of the early nineteenth century – but the ways in which they were used drew upon a much older tradition of apotropaic magic and its attendant fear of witchcraft. The name witch ball is probably a corruption of ‘watch ball’ [8] – an allusion to their use in reflecting an extended panorama beyond the usual line of sight – helping people, in essence, to look around corners. [9] This made them especially useful for shopkeepers to spot thieves, for householders to see who was coming up the garden path, or for parents who reportedly hung them in nurseries or above cradles. [10] These prosaic uses unlocked their potential ritual value – from objects of vigilance and observation, ‘watch balls’ became ‘witch balls’, and developed into objects of magical protection.

The oldest example of a witch ball that makes explicit reference to its magical protective properties is in the National Museum of Ireland: ‘[A] Fine old Sapphire-blue glass witch ball… to be suspended from ceilings, and… supposed to ward off evil spirits and witches. English c.1800’. [11] As mentioned, balls were usually placed at liminal points within the home such as windows or doorways, areas that in times past were guarded by witch bottles, daisy wheel marks, or other apotropaic devices. The hollow transparency of witch balls is important, as their evil-averting function was dependent, in some cases, upon their contents. One source from the 1930s records a belief that the ball should be filled with ‘tiny pieces of wool… since it was believed that no witch could cast an evil eye on the owner until she had counted every single bit of wool in the house’. [12] This custom extends to other types of glass containers – three ‘witch bottles’ in Charles Wade’s collection at Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire, for example, were stuffed full of silk threads, their suspension loops indicating that they were hung up as charms in the home. Interestingly, two of the Snowshill bottles are glass fire-extinguisher vessels; devices used as safeguards against fire and then requisitioned for protection against witchcraft. [13]

An early nineteenth-century witch ball. © National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.

An explanation of the threads inside the witch ball is offered by modern folklore: evil spirits, attracted to the shiny surface of the ball, become mesmerized by the reflection and upon touching it are caught and imprisoned by the strands inside. This notion of a spirit trap with an ‘enmeshing’ function may also explain why many witch balls, especially the Nailsea derivatives, have intricate sprawling line patterns on their surfaces.

The belief that witch balls could protect from ill-wishing is also found in an account from an unknown Dorset hamlet, where a middle-aged man was perplexed to find that he had been bewitched despite the fact that he had always ‘kept [a] witch’s ball in my window’. [14] This story gave currency to the idea that somewhere in rural England every household in the district would hang ‘golden witch ball[s]’ to repel witches. [15] There are many variations regarding the proper meaning and treatment of witch balls. In some accounts the witch, seeing the reflection of her intended victim in the witch ball – and being naturally attracted to the shiny surface – would curse the reflection rather than the intended victim, and so the ball defused the spell. [16] It was also thought that evil influences accumulated as dust on the ball and therefore regular cleaning was necessary. [17]

Edward Lovett, an early twentieth-century banker, collector, and folklorist, reported that witch balls were a common feature in Italy, France, and Constantinople, where they hung ‘as big as footballs’ outside druggists’ shops. [18] The romantic Eastern origins of witch balls were assumed in one newspaper column from 1939, which described how these reflective balls were brought to Europe by the Crusaders, ‘though how they ever got the fragile things home in safety history does not say’. [19]

A witch ball in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem during the first half of the twentieth century. Library of Congress, Washington DC (Public Domain).

Remarkably, a witch ball did indeed hang from a light fitting in front of the iconostasis of the Chapel of the Twelve Apostles in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, from c.1898–1946. The church of St. Hilary’s in south Cornwall also boasted a witch ball – six in fact. In 1932 W. Poynter-Adams visited the church (near St. Michael’s Mount) and to his surprise saw ‘six large silvered glass balls’ hanging between the arches in the chancel. We could interpret these ecclesiastical witch balls as mere decorative whimsies – but Poynter-Adams was told by a parishioner that these reflective objects were in fact ‘witch-watchers… intended to ward off witches from the Reserved Sacrament’.

Divination

Given the belief in their evil-averting properties, it is perhaps unsurprising that witch balls, alongside their spherical cousins crystal balls, were to be found hanging in clairvoyants’ parlours and fortune-tellers’ booths throughout the twentieth century. The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic recently acquired photographs from a visitor, Narelle Sharp, whose grandmother owned a witch ball together with a convex mirror. A family tradition accompanied the objects: ‘The ball should always be hung in sight of the mirror’. The items were used by Narelle’s grandmother in an Eltham china shop after World War II, where she read tea leaves. This modern use of witch balls is intriguing given the context of tasseomancy. Was there a propitious link between the mirror and ball? Did it help the practitioner attain a better reading? Did it disrupt evil influences?

The Eltham china shop in the late 1940s, with the convex mirror and witch ball apparently now displayed for sale. Photo supplied by Narelle Sharp.

Another witch ball was used by Madam Montague Lawrence, who was fined £10 for ‘professing to tell fortunes’, in 1943. Her premises in Sloane Square, Chelsea, were decked out with two crystal balls which she handled during consultations, and what witnesses described as a ‘silver bowl’ on a wooden stand. In an attempt to avoid a guilty verdict, Lawrence claimed that her crystals were only ‘paperweights’ and the large silver object only a ‘witch ball’ – probably a ‘garden globe’ or kugel brought inside to act as a witch ball. [20] According to another piece of folklore witch balls could be of use to the fortune-teller – if the witch ball dims, or becomes cloudy or opaque, it predicted a death. [21]

Bottles, shears, and candles are just some of the domestic items that have been creatively and boundlessly re-appropriated for magical means – it is clear from this brief analysis of witch balls that their meaning is very much in the eye of the beholder.

References

1. K. M. McClinton, American Glass (New York, 1950), p. 18.

2. F. Bacon, The Essayes or Counsels Civill and Morall of Francis Bacon (London, 1625), p. 271.

3. Not to be confused with the ‘witch balls’ comprised of hair and wax which were supposedly thrown or shot by witches at their victims in the United States. See O. Davies, America Bewitched:  The Story of Witchcraft After Salem (Oxford, 2013), pp. 32–7.

4. The Sphere (7 April 1934).

5. ‘Wizard Bowls’, Lancashire Evening Post (11 December 1933).

6. Western Daily Press (16 August 1924).

7. ‘Other Peoples Houses’, Britainnia (1 November 1935).

8. Not to be confused with ‘watch balls’, i.e. glass used by watchmakers. Sales of spherical ‘watch balls’ can be found in British newspapers from the 1840s onwards; see, for example, the Leeds Mercury, ‘Sales by Auction’ (27 March 1841): ‘All the stocks of glass, of nearly all descriptions… smoke shades, with Watch Balls, Stoppers, Glass Canes and Tubes, from 6 feet long’.

9. M. V. Berry, ‘The Squint Moon and the Witch Ball’, New Journal of Physics 17 (June 2015).

10. ‘Witch Balls’, Leeds Mercury (5 August 1933).

11. National Museum of Ireland, accession number 152. 1971. An early example in an English collection was in the Warrington Museum, accessioned in 1914; this was described as a ‘clear glass, hollow [ball], 3 in. diam’, with its purpose given as ‘a charm against witches’. See C. Madeley, Report of the Curator and Librarian to the Museum Committee (Warrington, 1914), p. 24.

12. ‘A Woman’s London Diary’, Aberdeen Press & Journal (November 17 1930).

13. The fire-extinguisher bottles are catalogued at SNO.G.54.1 and 2, the other is catalogued at NT 1333092.

14. ‘Queries’, Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser (7 February 1934).

15. ‘People Who Still Believe in Witches: Tales they Tell at the Folk-lore Society’, Hull Daily Mail (2 July 1936).

16. D. Bourbon, ‘The Virtue of Ornament’, The Sphere (March 1928).

17. B. Green, ‘Witch Balls, Watch Balls and Watch Bottles, Protecting Early America’ in The Tarpon Springs Writers Group (eds), The Spindrift Anthology (Florida, 2000), p. 81; and anonymous visitor to the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic, personal communication (May 2014).

18. ‘For Luck: Curious Superstitions’, Linlithgowshire Gazette (6 October 1916).

19. ‘Witch Balls are Lucky’, Dundee Courier (15 April 1939).

20. ‘Fortune Telling: Sloane Square Woman Fined’, West London Press (28 May 1943).

21. Green, ‘Witch Balls’, pp 77–85.

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