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The History of the Crystal Ball

From the Druids' early days of divination to (sometimes) eerily accurate political consulting, the backstory of the crystal ball is as cloudy and roundabout as the divine orb itself.
Photo via Wikipedia Commons

The crystal ball is as pervasive as it is mysterious. It's displayed in the window of your local psychic; it makes an appearance in movies, books, and pop culture; for those moments when you need a touch of the clairvoyant in your texts, it's even on your smartphone screen. But how it earned its seductive presence is less clear than the pasts and futures it purports to predict.

Druids, Crystals, and What Exactly Is "Scrying"?

In her book Crystal Ball: Stones, Amulets, and Talismans for Power, Protection, and Prophecy, Sybil Ferguson writes, "Probably there are as many definitions of crystal balls as there are opinionated people." According to Northcote W. Thomas's 1905 book Crystal Gazing: Its History and Practice, with a Discussion of the Evidence for Telepathic Scrying, in pre-industrial times crystal gazing was commonly practiced by the Pawnee, the Iroquois, the Incas, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Chinese, and the people of Yucatan. It's most likely, though, that the earliest recorded use of crystals as divination tools dates back to the Celtic Druids of Gaul, Britain, and Ireland, who lived during the Iron Age and were pretty much wiped out by Christianity by 600 AD. Much of what is known about Druids—the class of educated professionals who hung out in the woods to perform sacrificial magic ceremonies—comes from the oral accounts of Julius Caesar and the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder. The early crystal gazers, or specularii, preferred a sea-green mineral called beryl, which was polished into spheres to enhance the reflective properties. (A ball is born!) Beryl is thought to be more magnetically charged than other minerals and, as a result, more apt to connect with the psychic energies of the moon.

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These first adopters of crystal-gazing would stare deeply into the stone, falling into a meditative trance that would allow the subconscious to open and reveal secrets of the past, present, or future. (Although popular opinion would have us believe psychics are only good for knowing what's going to happen, true crystal balls can see in any chronological direction, depending on the Seer's ability.) This act of gazing into a reflective or translucent surface to glean prophetic insight came to be known as scrying, and while it's a gross-sounding word to say out loud, the practice can be used on literally anything, including blood, water, mirrors, and even oily fingernails, though crystal balls are the most common mechanism for this type of divination.

"The Crystal Ball" (1902) by John William Waterhouse. Image via Wikipedia Commons

Medieval Ballers

Many cultures utilize(d) some form of ancient crystal healing or divination, but the most obvious association with the crystal ball comes from the Middle Ages, which lasted from around the time the Druids disappeared until the Renaissance in the 15th century. Though its path is murky, the crystal ball was thought to be used throughout the medieval period by Anglo–Saxons as both a means of magic and a flashy fashion accessory—a type of Middle-Age bling, so to speak. Ferguson even suggests that the mythical magician Merlin chose to tote around a beryl ball for those times King Arthur needed an emergency reading.

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During this time, crystal spheres, set in wire fastenings, were used as symbols of power, class status, and possibly as magic talismans that warded off sickness and evil. During excavations of medieval graves in Kent, these crystal ball amulets were found in several graves of wealthy women (and a few men), between their knees, along with other possessions that indicated their wealth. The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary of Medieval England guesses that the crystal balls could have pointed to associations with pagan cults.

John Dee's crystal ball, housed in the British Museum. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

The Crystal Ball Made Me Do It!

Following its reign of significance in the Middle Ages, the crystal ball gained notable recognition in the 16th century because of John Dee, a royal advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Dee was interested in the occult but had no luck as a medium himself. After meeting a traveling scryer named Edward Kelley, the two began to conduct "scrying sessions," during which they would claim to visualize and communicate with angels (and sometimes demons) through a dark, obsidian crystal ball. Dee kept fastidious notes on these ball-bound conversations, believing that angels were a direct line to God and eventually leading him to create the Enochian or "angelic" language. His partner in scrying, however, claimed that he had received a message from an angel that the two men must share everything, including their wives; shortly after that, their relationship dissolved for good (though there was one diary entry that somewhat confirms an actual wife-swap did occur).

Political Advising, Part II

As a more modern, high-profile crystal ball counselor, Jeane Dixon was gifted a crystal ball at an early age, developed seeing powers, and became something of a celebrity psychic for her sometimes-on-the-mark political predictions: Most notoriously, she correctly postulated in a 1956 issue of Parade magazine that a Democratic president would be elected and then assassinated (said president being John F. Kennedy). That's not to say that she was always correct in her guesses; a number were outrageously wrong. She was positive that Alec Baldwin would fall terribly ill in 1997, that Ellen DeGeneres would crash a presidential inauguration, and that 1958 would see the beginning of World World III. Dixon apparently carted around her trusty ball at parties, stopping to give the occasional reading for passerby. During Nixon's time in office, Dixon acted as an advisor after correctly predicting a terrorist attack, and she then joined Nancy Reagan's coterie of trusted astrologers. After her death, Dixon's primary crystal ball was auctioned off at almost $12,000.

Roma Fortune Tellers

Perhaps the most pervasive depiction of the crystal ball comes from the image of a woman, usually thought to be a "gypsy," swathed in vibrant scarves and cloaked in cascades of bangles, earrings, and rings, rattling off tales of the future and past over a velveteen table cloth.

In a sense, this picture isn't inaccurate. Coming to Europe from northern India, Roma were persecuted almost instantly because, among other things the Catholic Church wasn't too happy about, they practiced fortune telling. Being constantly on the move, the Roma adopted trades that could pick up and go at a moment's notice, which is how the crystal-ball-reader-at-a-roadside-carnival trope probably began. By the 1930s, Gypsy-Americans virtually controlled the fortune-telling industry, though not without a struggle that's cloaked in stigma; in a small Virginia town, fortune-telling was only deemed legal last year, and in New York, a law from 1967 can still affect those trading fortunes for cash.


The Crystal Ball in Stage Magic

Once the crystal ball became more visible as a result of traveling Roma, stage magicians of the early 20th century hopped on the fortune-telling train to perform acts of C.G., or crystal gazing, to awed audiences. The most well-known performer was perhaps Alexander, the Man Who Knows. At the height of his career, according to several biographers, Alexander was the highest-paid mentalist (a performer that claims to have heightened cognitive power) in the world. Armed with his crystal ball, Alexander would answer audience questions that were sealed in envelopes before the show. His actual crystal-gazing prowess is up for debate, as after his retirement, he published The Life and Mysteries of The Celebrated Dr. Q, where many of the mentalist and psychic tricks-of-the-trade were revealed, including how to deceive gullible clients and audiences. (Another fun fact: He also was married seven times, sometimes to more than one woman.)

A Fortune Worth a Dime

Ever been to that Classic American Institution they like to call Dave and Buster's and just really want some divine insight, sans human interaction? Fortune-telling machines, featuring mechanized characters usually in some sort of problematic getup, are probably what you've been searching for. These machines continued to perpetuate the gypsy-swathed-in-scarves image of the crystal ball scryer. Coin-operated fortune-telling machines were introduced in 1910, though after the 1988 film Big, which featured a fortune-telling machine called Zoltar Speaks during its most pivotal plot points, the machines' popularity surged. Nevertheless, between their introduction and their resurgence, you could find these eerie, prophecy-spouting mechanisms at many-a roadside fair, penny arcade (where you could in fact get a fortune for an entire cent), or carnival. A replica of Zoltar Speaks currently lives at Coney Island. The model featured in the movie didn't have a crystal ball, though the knock-off does.


The Crystal Ball in Pop Culture

Certainly the references to the crystal ball in pop culture are innumerable, so we'll stick with covering the big ones. One of the most iconic portrayals comes from The Wizard of Oz: A doe-faced Dorothy makes a visit to Professor Marvel, who replaces his wide-brimmed fedora with a snug turban and spouts babble about his crystal descending from the likes of Cleopatra and Osiris before being interrupted by the rumblings of an oncoming tornado. In other scenes, the chartreuse-tinged Wicked Witch of the West barks orders at her giant crystal orb and keeps watch on Dorothy and the Squad as they skip down a yellow brick road and get faded in a field of poppies. Later, Dorothy, being held captive by the Wicked Witch, desperately sobs to a fleeting image of Auntie Em in the crystal sphere. The ball from the film later sold for $110,000, with part of the proceeds going to a New Jersey teen arts program.

David Bowie's cult-classic performance as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth saw him constantly spinning, waving, and sliding crystal orbs through his hands the way some fancy mixologists toss together a cocktail. These balls weren't meant to be used a lens into the past or future—more as a vague symbol of dreams—and Bowie didn't actually manipulate the balls at all. Instead, juggler Michael Moschen stood behind him and reached through Bowie's armpits to perform all the crystal ball-related scenes.


A crystal ball is for empowerment and guidance, rather than for an all-seeing eye into the future.

The Modern Scryer

The analogy of "gazing into the crystal ball" is used in sports, technology, business, and politics, among other things, to refer to forecasting future events. This is another oversimplification of the modern practice of reading a crystal ball, which, like most all forms of divination, can be a healing device for the client—not a predictor of the future. One scryer, Gina Jean, says that the point of using a crystal ball is for empowerment and guidance, rather than for an all-seeing eye into the future.

Today you'll find most Seers don't read crystal balls exclusively; instead, the divination orb is used as a side dish to other types of augury, such as tarot cards, horoscopes, or palm readings. According to New York City astrologer Kim Allen, her crystal ball adds a dash of "hot sauce" to her consulting sessions. Allen uses two types of balls: one made of clear, bright crystal quartz, the other of dark, smoky obsidian. The former can amplify what someone is feeling and needs addressed, while the latter brings up people or things that need removed from one's life. Allen instructs her clients to choose the ball they're drawn to, and then she asks them to wave their hands over the ball to energetically charge it. As she reads, Allen will see symbols that reflect a bigger picture, rather than seeing distinct events that occurred in the past or that have yet to unfold. After a reading, Allen will cleanse the ball in Florida Water (a cologne that's a mixture of water, alcohol, and essential oils), bury it in sea salt for three to four days, and then keep it on her bedside table for about a week to regain a connection to the ball.

Throughout its enduring history, the crystal ball still remains one of the most powerful and ever-present cultural images when we think of spiritual mysticism. We think of it not only as a means of finding insight, but also as a firmly rooted image of the cultural lexicon, given that magic and witchcraft are seeing a surge in popularity. For good reason: These practices give voice to the marginalized and find community in the other. Plus, it's not so wrong to embrace the appeal of the psychic anymore—you can wear your clairvoyance, either sewn close to your heart on your denim jacket or pinned with pride on your collar, and still be on-trend. Regardless of whether or not they really do reflect anything about us, those shiny crystal orbs definitely aren't going anywhere—though they can, definitely, start a fire.