It’s one of the most stereotypical pictures of witches and fortune tellers, the woman gazing into the crystal ball. The crystal ball has been known for centuries as an object to predict the future. Where does this believe come from?
Last year I wrote a blog about the mineral quartz or rock crystal and the role it played in the history of the British Isles. It became clear that this mineral was regarded as special and sometimes even magical. In this blog I would like to take a closer look at one specific form of quartz, the crystal ball or sphere used by seers and magicians.
First, in short, a brief look at the technical data. If you prefer the longer explanation, please follow the link to my previous quartz blog mentioned above. Quartz is, in scientific terms, SiO2. Hardness is 7 on the Mohs scale, which is relatively hard compared to many other minerals.
A crystal ball is not the same thing as a glass ball. Most spheres that are for sale today are glass balls, just plain glass. Sometimes glass can be called crystal, but only whan it contains a certain percentage of lead. In that case it is lead glass. You probably know those once-a-year special occasion precious champagne glasses that give a beautiful sound when you bring a toast. Or those facetted, rainbow colour shiny and sparkling Swarovski figurines. That’s lead glass or ‘crystal’. Unfortunately, most ‘crystal’ balls in shops nowadays are just plain glass, nothing crystal about it. And they are certainly not made of natural rock crystal or quartz. How can you tell the difference between glass and quartz? A sphere made of natural quartz is seldom completely clear. They do exist, those flawless natural crystal balls, but you and I cannot afford such a ball. So, if you see one of those clear, flawless balls in a shop or for sale online, in 99.99% of the cases it’s just plain glass. Rock crystal balls are hardly ever perfectly clear. They contain natural ‘impurities’ like more cloudy parts, minor cracks causing rainbow refraction, etc.
When we take a look at the history of crystal balls in Western Europe, we have to travel back to the Iron Age. The oldest known quartz spheres have been found in Iron Age graves. When you consider the hardness of quartz, it is quite amazing that these people already had techniques to make these perfect round spheres. In 1820, a fourth century Iron Age grave was found near Årslev on the Danish island Funen. In Scandinavia the Iron Age did not end as early as in ‘our’ part of Europe, where it ended with the Roman occupation. In this grave of a rich woman they found a crystal ball insribed with the word ‘ablanaqanalba’ in Greek letters, a palindrome. A palindrome is a word or number that reads the same backwards and forwards. They were thought to have magical powers and were used often in spells and protective amulets. Spells with the word ablana in it are known from the Mediterranean. The word probably has it’s roots in early gnosticism.
Pliny the Elder, the well known Roman naturalist, wrote in the first century AD about sooth sayers who used crystal balls, crystallum orbis, to predict the future. Fortune telling became very popular in teh Roman Empire, until after the fall of the empire the church gained power and declared it a pagan custom and forbid it.
Anglo-Saxons and Merovingians
In the grave of the 5th century Salian-Frankish king Childeric in Tournai, father of Clovis I, a quartz ball was found. It had probably been mounted in silver in the days of Childeric. Historians think that his wife was also buried in this grave. Crystal balls have only been found in graves of women. It was considered a female object. Another ball was found in a grave in the Cologne Cathedral. This was also the grave of a rich woman from the Frankish/Merovingian era. It could be the grave of the Merovingian Queen Wisigard, but that’s not entirely sure.
In several Anglo-Saxon graves small quartz spheres have been found. Most of them were set in silver fittings, sometimes bronze or even gold. One of the best preserved and best known was found near Dover in the grave of a young woman from the 6th or 7th century, Anglo-Saxon. When we take a look are the concentration of spheres in the South of England we see that most of them were found in Kent, on the Isle of Thanet. Only a handfull were found further inland. Considering the gifts that were in the graves in which the balls were found, they were all graves of rich woman. Most crystal balls were found between the bones of the legs, which could indicate that they were carried on a cord or belt around the waist. In one grave in Mill Hill (Near Deal, Kent), the ball was not from rock crystal but smoky quartz.
What the exact function of these balls was is unknown. They have been found on several locations in Western Europe. From Roman writings we know that they used their crystal balls for divination. Pliny wrote about druids in Gaul and Brittannica who used crystal balls for scrying. What we also know is that rock crystal was considered a magical type of stone because it always stayed cool and it provided clarity to those who came near. These aspects and the later use of the balls for creating healing water could very well mean that the balls had a magical or healing role in Anglo-Saxon society. They were all relatively small balls, 2-5 centimeter, and they are or had once been set in a silver of bronze fitting so it could be carried on a cord or chain.
From the South of England we travel to Scotland. Here was the crystal ball important as well. And the best thing is, some explanation about how the used these balls this still exists. Many stories survived about magical properties of the crystal balls in possession of clans. Most known balls were treasured by clans who gave them important roles in protecting the family. Most of these are very similar to the Anglo-Saxon ones we saw in Kent, small quartz spheres in a silver fitting. Most of these balls have been with the clans for centuries, were given names and were valued for their magical properties. Most quartz spheres were owned by the Clan Campbell. Some of them were used for jewelry.
The Breadalbane stone or Glenorchy charmstone is an egg shaped quartz put in a silver fitting with tiny pieces of red coral. Legend has it that is has been brought back from the Holy Land by the first laird of the Glenorchy Campbells. The stone had protected him in a battle against the Turks. It was probably made during the 6th or 7th century in China. The clan kept this crystal ball as a protective amulet, which could also be used in case of illness. When dipped in a glass of water, this water would protect or heal you when you drank it. Unfortunately it didn’t always work. A young man who had to go to war during the First World War came to the laird before he went to Europe to pay his respect and ask for the laird’s blessing. Lord Breadalbane gave him a glass of water in which the ball had been dipped, but it didn’t work. The man never came home.
The Campbells of Glenlyon owned the Clach-Buadha, the Stone of Victory, but the Breadelbanes took this stone from them. Robert of Glenlyon was the commanding officer during the Massacre of Glencoe. According to his wife, their family was unlucky and lost everything they had because they had lost the Stone of Victory.
A number of crystal balls have been mounted in brooches so they could be worn as jewelry. Examples are the Lochbuie brooch, the Brooch of Lorn, the Ugadale (Lossit) brooch and the Ballochyle brooch. These brooches were made during the 16th-18th century, but the quartz sphere probably predate this. All of these brooches were regarded as amulets and were said to protect the person wearing it. The Brooch of Lorn (Braiste Lathuma) was said to have been owned by Robert the Bruce himself. It was taken from him after the Battle of Dalrigh in 1306. The current silver and metalwork in which the crystal sphere is set is dated post medieval. But the sphere itself could have been part of another brooch and could very well have been owned by The Bruce.
Clan Robertson (Clan Donnachaidh) owns the Clach na Bratach. When the clansmen were on their way the the Battle of Bannockburn they took a rest. The clan standerd was put in the ground. When they decided to move on and they took the standard from the ground a small crystal ball which had been hidden in the soil appeared. The ball was taken to the battlefield and proved to be a lucky charm. Since that day tha crystal ball was brought into each and every battle the clan fought. The name of the stone means ‘Stone of the Standard’. In the early days the stone was brought to battles in a pouch, but later it was mounted on the clan standard. This stone too had the ability to heal the sick when dipped in water three times by the clan chief. It could also predict the future, especially the outcome of battles in which the clan particpated. Before going to the Battle of Sheriffmuir during the Jacobite Rising of 1715, the clan chief consulted the sphere. He was very concerned when he saw a crack in the sphere that had not been there before. A clear message, because the battle was a lost one. When the stone becomes more cloudy that is considered a bad omen, it means the chief of the clan will die in the near future.
The Clach Dearg, the Stone of Ardvoirlich, was another crystal ball with healing powers. It could turn water from a well in healing water. The water had to be pulled from the well by the asker himself. When taken home, the bottle with the water was not allowed to be brought into another home on the way, because that would mean that it would lose it’s healing power. Where Clach Dearg originates from is not clear. Some say it came from the Middle East during the times of the Crusades. Others say it was once owned by a druid.
The MacDonnels of Keppoch were the owners of the Keppoch charm stone. This was an oval shaped rock crystal mounted in a silver bird claw. This ball too had to be dipped in water, but while doing so a prayer had to be said addressed to Sain Bridget, the angels and the Holy Ghost. Near Keppoch you find a well which is dedicated to Saint Bridget, water from this well had to be used in the blessing.
Besides crystal balls many other gemstones were considered sacred and protective accoring to the Highland men. They took these stones with them in battles. Outside the Highlands this custom is less known. The Gaelic word used for crystal balls and some other protective stones is leigheagan or leug.
The most important crystal sphere in Scotland is the one thet it mounted on top of the sceptre that is part of the Scottish Regalia, the Honours of Scotland. Legend tells us that this ball was once the scrying ball of a druid. But… the sceptre was a gift from the Pope to the King of Scotland. Which makes it more likely that the ball comes from the Middle East or even China.
This rises the question where all the other balls come from. From some we know that they were brought here during the Crusades, so these probably came from Asia. But the Anglo-Saxon grave finds do not have a clear origin. In England we do not know a site where quartz this large and clear can be found. Scotland does have some sites where larger quartz crystals can be found and so does mainlaind Europe. But it is not unlikely that these spheres also come from Asia.
Back to England… to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, late 16th century. Elizabeth was looking for a way to live and rule for a long time, preferably eternally. That is why she employed several alchemists who had to unravel the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, and therefore of eternal life. The most famous alchemist at her court was John Dee. We know that he owned a crystal ball which he used frequently. This sphere was made of a somewhat purple quartz and he claimed that it had been given to him by the archangel Uriel. Through this sphere he stood, according to his own writings, in direct contact with the angels who could give him advice on different topics and tell him about the Philosopher’s Stone. Dee had learned a great deal from his colleague, alchemist Edward Kelley, when learning the art of scrying. Kelley was very skilled and taught him a lot about the techniques he could use in scrying and about the secrets of the sphere. In the early years he used Kelley as a medium to communicate with the angels through the crystal ball, but later he developed his own skills. This way he claimed to have received a complete book in a special (Enochian) angelic language. Dee and Kelley both wrote a slightly different Enochian alphabet that was, so they said, based on the language of the angels. Both Dee and Kelley were not only employed by Elizabeth I. The Habsburg Rudolf II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was also interested in magic and occultism and, like Elizabeth, was looking for the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone. He asked Dee and Kelley to come to Prague to search for the Philosopher’s Stone.
After Dee’s death, his son inherited his crystal, who in turn gave it to Nicholas Culpeper, the naturalist known for his work on the medicinal effects of plants and herbs. Culpeper tried to master the art of scrying with the sphere. He also used it to heal patients. One day, he wrote in his diary, he was shocked to see a demonic ghost coming out of the ball. Reason enough for him to never touch it again. John Dee’s crystal ball, together with some very interesting other objects that belonged to him, including an obsidian mirror, can be seen in the British Museum in London.
Leonardo da Vinci, too, could not ignore the crystal ball. In his painting ‘Salvator Mundi’ (The Saviour of the World), Jesus is holding a crystal ball in his left hand. This is not the only ‘Salvator Mundi’ painting. Various masters and students also painted Jesus as the saviour of the world. What is the significance of the sphere in this context? The crystal ball in this painting probably symbolizes the earth, sun, stars and planets. The universe as known at that time depicted as a sphere. This is inspired by the idea of Ptolemy that heaven was a crystal clear sphere of aether in which the earth was in the centre. In the painting Jesus therefore holds the universe in his hand as a sphere.
Many art historians have studied this painting. The question is why Da Vinci, who had done extensive studies of light and refraction of light, painted the image straight while looking through the sphere and not upside down like the image that you see when normally you look through a lens or sphere. Oe explanation is that it could have a religious meaning, that Jesus is taking care of the world so that it remains as it is. But there are also people who believe that the palm of the hand is shown as a kind of birefringence, and therefore believe that the sphere is not made of rock crystal, but of Iceland spar, calcite. Not everyone fully agrees that this painting was painted by Leonardo da Vinci (alone), but it was attributed to him in 2011 after a great deal of research. It was sold for $ 450 million in 2017, making it the most expensive painting sold to date.
In Victorian times, people had great interest in everything to do with magic and occultism. Scrying with a crystal ball became a popular pastime fort he upperclass. In our time, the sphere is best known as an object that witches, gypsies and fortune tellers use to foresee the future.
When you want to buy a crystal ball yourself, first you have to decide whether you want one made of natural rock crystal or one made of glass. Completely clear and flawless spheres of rock crystal are very rare and expensive, especially if they are larger than a few centimeters. For comparison, the largest clear (so-called ‘flawless’) sphere of rock crystal is 37 centimeters and weighs 48.5 kilos. This one can be seen in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Such a ball is priceless of course. But even a completely clear sphere of 10 centimeters would already cost a small fortune. As I mentioned earlier, the balls that are for sale, when completely clear they are made of glass. Rock crystal balls will show natural imperfections, but that makes them recognizable as authentic.
Watch out, a sphere works like a lens. NEVER place a glass or crystal ball directly in the sunlight, because it can cause a fire or burn nasty marks on your wooden desk or cupboard
I tried to mention the copyright owners with all images. Photos from objects from the British Museum London are part of Wikimedia Commons and can be used freely under terms and conditions. ©Trustees of the British Museum, I thank you for that.
I would like to thank Jessica Steensma for lending me her glass sphere so I could take photos of it.
When you think you have a copyright claim to one of the images and I did not mention you correctly, please contact me.