You've seen the image a thousand times – the psychic waving their hands above a glowing crystal ball, peering into its depths to predict the future.
But do you know the history behind the crystal ball?
Its origins can be dated back to around 2000 B.C., in the age of the Celtic Druids. Reflective materials had been used by many other cultures beforehand, notably water. A clear pool of still water was often used as a focal point for divinations in ancient Greece and other long-ago societies and cultures.
The Druids, however, were the first to use a mineral called beryl. Beryl comes in many colors, but most commonly in a beautiful sea green shade. The beryl was polished into spheres in order to enhance its reflective properties, resulting in a beautiful sphere with an otherworldly appearance.
The practice of staring into a crystal ball to see the future is known as scrying or divination. Contrary to popular belief, a scryer does not see the future in the reflection of the ball itself. What they do is utilize the ball as a focal point for their concentration.
A typical session with the crystal ball would go thusly: the scryer would sit quietly in a place with few distractions, empty their minds of stray thoughts and gaze in the crystal's direction, not into it. Slowly, they would fall into a trance state, similar to meditation or hypnosis.
This dreamlike state would open the scryer's mind to the unconscious realm, where they would be more receptive to visions and images. Sometimes hallucinatory herbs would be used to help the process along.
Of course, by about 600 A.D., the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar had conquered all of Gaul, and the Druids were no more. All that's left to us of their mysticism are the accounts of Caesar and the Roman historian Pliny the Elder.
Ironically, scrying became quite popular in the Roman Empire due to its fascination with Celtic magic and rituals. Eventually, however, it was condemned as a heretical practice by the early Christian Church around the 5th century A.D.
The Middle Ages
The next resurgence of the crystal ball appeared around the time of the Middle Ages, which was the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, between the 5th and 15th centuries A.D. Beryl continued to be the most popular mineral utilized in the construction of crystal balls, although it would later fall out of favor and be replaced by simple rock crystal, which has more translucent and reflective qualities than beryl.
During this time, the ball was not only used in magical works, but also as a fashionable knick-knack. It became a symbol of wealth, power and status for one to have a crystal ball, usually set in a wire fastening, in one's home or set in an amulet.
Supposedly, they were thought to ward off sickness, curses and other evils of the time. In Arthurian lore, Merlin, the most famous wizard of all time, was said to have carried around a beryl crystal ball whenever King Arthur requested Merlin's magical assistance for a reading.
The Elizabethan Era
In the 1500s, crystal balls again came into favor, this time due to a British gentleman by the name of John Dee. Dee was one of the royal advisors to Queen Elizabeth I and was renowned for his education in astrology, astronomy, geography and mathematics, while also maintaining a lifelong interest in alchemy, divination and the occult.
For all his studying, Dee had few successful results with his crystal ball scrying. This changed when he met a scryer by the name of Edward Kelley, who used a crystal ball fashioned out of blackest obsidian. Dee and Kelley together claimed to have seen visions of angels and Heaven, and Dee believed that he and Kelley were able to speak directly to God and thus create Enochian, the supposed native language of the Heavenly Father and His angels.
Dee and Kelley's relationship eventually soured – understandably – when Kelley informed Dee of a vision he had seen in his crystal ball wherein God had commanded that the two men share everything in their lives, including their wives. One might suppose that perhaps this crystal ball was less of an influence in this divination than Kelley claimed.
The Twentieth Century
In the 1950s, a psychic by the name of Jeane Dixon brought crystal balls and divination into the public eye of America. In May of 1956, Dixon predicted in Parade Magazine that the 1960 presidential election would not only be won by a Democrat (it was – President John F. Kennedy), but said Democrat would go on to be assassinated (which came true on November 22, 1963).
Dixon became a high-profile political psychic and scryer, advising President Richard Nixon on several occasions. Supposedly a vision of terrorist attacks in her crystal ball prompted President Nixon to create a counterterrorism committee in his Cabinet. Dixon also went on to provide horoscopes and other astrological advice to Nancy Reagan in the 1980s.
Nowadays, the most popular iteration of the crystal ball is known as the gazing ball, and is a typical ornamentation in many well-maintained gardens across America and Europe. They first came into favor in the thirteenth century in Europe, handcrafted by glass-blowers in Italy.
The Europeans believed that these gazing balls, also known as garden globes, held mystical properties. Typically, they were not used for psychic scrying or divination, but rather as talismans meant to ward off diseases, wicked spirits, curses and witchcraft.
The Victorian era saw a massive rise in the popularity of gazing balls due to the influence of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who had many crystal balls placed throughout his palace. They quickly became a status symbol throughout Europe, and nowadays are associated with English gardens with a Victorian aesthetic.
The garden globe also had a very practical purposes beyond its magic and aesthetic. The bourgeoisie would place them around the home where their servants would be able to discreetly monitor guests by using the ball as a mirror, allowing them to render assistance when needed without staring out in the open. This practice was so widespread that the crystals earned the nickname “butler balls.”
Gazing balls became a focal point for many gardens during the 1930s, likely due to the influence of a modernist garden which was exhibited at a decorative arts show in Paris in the mid-1920s.
The garden's pièce de résistance was a beautiful stained-glass orb lit from within and turning slowly to emit and reflect a magnificent play of light. Plain glass and metal both became common materials for the construction of garden balls, allowing them to be within reach for the middle class. The garden ball became more a symbol of beauty rather than a display of ostentatious wealth and status, and it remains so today.
Nowadays, one can purchase crystal balls in a variety of beautiful colors and sizes, from simple clear crystal to ornately-wrought multicolored hues. They can be found in catalogues in airplanes, home and garden stores and even hardware stores.
They are usually water- and weather-proofed to provide long-lasting beauty to one's garden. Shades of blue, yellow and green remain popular in most gardens, suggesting lush plant life and abundant fresh water and sunshine. Whatever your personal aesthetic preference, there is certain to be a beautiful gazing ball to suit your desires.
The Legacy Of The Crystal Ball
The crystal ball has had a long and storied history throughout the ages, from a divination tool dating back to ancient Greek civilization to a staple on a fortune-teller's table, from a mystical Druidic artifact to a tool used by psychics to predict the future of politics.
The crystal ball is embedded firmly in our collective unconsciousness as a way to connect with spirits, the heavens, and even the future. Pop culture has embraced the crystal ball as a potent magical source, portrayed in movies ranging from “The Wizard Of Oz” to “The Craft,” and in fantasy fiction such as the “Orb Of Aldur in David Eddings' Belgariad” and “Malloreon” series.
Whether the crystal ball is used for scrying, entering a trance, watching your house guests, bringing forth enlightenment, entering a trance, predicting one's future or simply as a lovely decoration for one's home or garden, it is a symbol of humanity's love for the mysteries of the unknown, and will likely continue to weave its magic for centuries to come.