Origins and Uses of the Crystal Ball

Hands hovering over a crystal ball

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Crystal balls are spheres of leaded glass or transparent stone, usually about the size of a grapefruit, used for "scrying," or seeing the unseen. Crystallomancy (the art of using crystal balls for scrying) allows the seer to uncover mysteries and secrets, peer into the future, communicate with spirits and angels, or, in some cases, communicate with the dead. There is no evidence that crystallomancy has any scientific validity, but it has nevertheless been popular for millennia in civilizations around the world.

Key Takeaways: Origins and Uses of Crystal Balls

  • Crystal balls are flawless, highly polished spheres made of glass, leaded glass, or stone.
  • Crystal balls and similar reflective surfaces have been used for fortune-telling and other occult purposes (scrying) for thousands of years.
  • Crystal gazers have advised monarchs, presidents, and other important leaders.
  • While there are many people who use crystal balls to seek visions or tell fortunes, there is no evidence to suggest that crystallomancy is a legitimate, proven science.

Definition of a Crystal Ball

Not all crystal balls are made of crystal, but all are spherical. They can be almost any size, from the very small "palm crystals" to large crystal balls which must be kept on a stand. Crystal balls can be made of a number of materials including leaded and unleaded glass, quartz, beryl, calcite, obsidian, and amethyst.

A properly made crystal ball is a perfect, highly-polished sphere; it is usually placed in a stand to make gazing easier. If made of glass or crystal, the sphere should be free of air bubbles (though colored glass is acceptable). If made of stone rather than glass, it is recommended that the stone be free of faults and very highly polished.

Origins and History of Crystal Balls

Crystal balls have been used for fortune-telling and clairvoyance since at least the first century. Their popularity has waxed and waned, but they continue to be popular tools for psychics, fortune-tellers, and mediums today.

Crystal Balls in Ancient Rome

One of the first known references to crystal balls comes from the work of the Roman Pliny the Elder, who described the use of crystal balls by "soothsayers." At the time, crystal balls were referred to as "crystallum orbis" and, later, as "orbuculum."

Crystal ball gazing became increasingly popular in Rome over the next several hundred years. While widely accepted by the Romans, the practice was condemned by the Catholic church, as it is specifically forbidden in the Bible. The Book of Deuteronomy 18:14, for example, says: "for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this."

Druidic Scrying

Around third to fifth century CE, the Druids of the British Isles were also using crystal balls (along with other reflective surfaces) to see into the future. The Druids, along with other pagan groups, were all but wiped out when the Romans annexed Great Britain; the practice of using crystal balls for divination disappeared for a period of time.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

Between the years 500 and 1500, crystal balls were more of a decorative accessory than a fortune-telling device in Europe. Some, however, continued to practice crystallomancy (though keeping it carefully hidden from the Church). It is suggested in some sources that the Arthurian sorcerer Merlin carried and used a crystal ball (though Merlin may or may not have been a real historical figure).

It was during the Renaissance and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, however, that crystal balls regained their importance and legitimacy as a fortune-telling tool. This was largely the doing of John Dee, an advisor to the queen, who became interested in using an obsidian crystal ball for scrying. Dee, who was also an alchemist and "natural philosopher," believed himself to be communicating with angels and demons through the sphere. He shared his readings with the queen, who began to make the practice more popular.

As crystal gazing became more acceptable, those who studied the occult began to explore the works of Indian and Arabic writers. One such work was The Picatrix, an ancient book of astrology and occult magic written around the 11th century. This work provided crystal ball gazers with support for the idea that crystal balls are legitimate tools for seeing into the future.

"Gypsy" Fortune Tellers

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Roma people (gypsies) migrated in greater numbers from India to Europe. With their tradition of fortune-telling, they were ostracized by the Church but welcomed by many who sought out their advice. While the crystal ball may not have been a traditional Roma tool for seeing the future, it was adopted as a result of increasing acceptance of the crystal by most Europeans. Crystal balls, too, are easily transported and set up by nomadic people. Over time, gypsies became strongly associated with fortune-telling and crystal balls.

Crystal Balls in the 19th Century and Beyond

The Victorian era saw a resurgence of interest in all things occult, including spiritualism and crystal gazing. Crystal gazing became fashionable; it was claimed that when the sun was at its northernmost declination one could gaze into the ball, see a rising mist, and then experience a vision of the future.

Performers and hucksters began to take advantage of the new interest in the occult. One of the most famous was the American Claude Conlin, who performed as "Alexander, the Man Who Knows." A stage "mentalist," Conlin used the crystal ball to magically answer sealed questions from audience members. Performing between 1915 and 1924, Conlin may have originated the image of the crystal ball gazer wearing flowing robes and a turban.

One of the best-known crystallomancers of the 20th century was Jeane Dixon, a psychic who used her crystal to make political predictions. In 1956 she correctly predicted Kennedy's assassination. She later advised Richard Nixon and Nancy Reagan. After her death, Dixon's crystal ball was auctioned off to the tune of $12,000.

Crystal balls continue to be popular in the 21st century and are part of New Age, Pagan, and other belief systems. They are also used by psychics, fortune tellers, and mediums.

The Art of Crystallomancy

Scrying is the process of looking into a medium such as glass, crystal, smoke, water, reflective stones, fire, or coals with the hope of seeing meaningful images, faces, or other visions. The word scry comes from the word descry, which means "to catch sight of," or "to see something unclear or distant." In many cases, scrying involves creating a trancelike state in which unexpected images can emerge. Scrying, in one form or another, has been popular for at least a few thousand years.

There is some disagreement about what actually happens when you look into a crystal ball. Some say that actual visions arise in the ball; these may show the scryer the future, offer glimpses into secrets, or allow the scryer to communicate with unseen realms. Some claim that the ball enhances clairvoyance: the ability to see what is going on elsewhere at the same time.

Others claim that the ball itself does nothing more than relax the mind of the scryer, allowing him or her to fall into a trance state. It is in the trance that the scryer might experience visions or insights.

To use a crystal ball effectively, most sources recommend:

  1. Using a ball at least the size of an orange or grapefruit
  2. Choosing a ball that is highly reflective
  3. Sitting in a dim, quiet place
  4. Allowing the mind and eyes to relax

Contemporary scryers say that the crystal ball may or may not provide direct information about the future or offer advice. Instead, it might communicate symbols, suggest directions, or otherwise help the user to make good decisions for the future.

Famous Crystal Balls

Crystal balls are not only fascinating; they are also beautiful. Many are works of art and quite a few can be found in museums.

  • The Smithsonian Institution owns the largest flawless quartz crystal in the world. The huge crystal ball was cut and polished in China during the 1800s; it measures 12.9 inches in diameter and weighs 106.75 pounds.
  • A flawless Japanese ball made of rock crystal can be seen at the Crow Collection in Dallas. This impressive sphere is more than 11 inches in diameter.
  • The University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology owns the third-largest crystal ball in the world. This rock crystal sphere was owned by the Dowager Empress of China, is 10 inches across, and weighs 49 pounds.

While no crystal ball can compare to the world's largest and most flawless orbs, many are important (and valuable) because of their associations. For example:

  • The enormous "crystal ball" used by the wicked witch of the west in the movie Wizard of Oz sold for $129,000 at an auction in 2001. The ball was made of handblown glass and was not perfectly round.
  • The official scepter of Scotland includes a crystal ball which is believed to have been owned by ancient druids.
  • One of the founders of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, carried a seer stone that he claimed to use in the process of translating ancient Egyptian writing into the Book of Mormon.

Sources

  • “Alexander: One of the World's Greatest Magicians.” Austin Magician, 30 Dec. 2016, www.austinmagician.com/worlds-greatest-magicians/.
  • Harris, Karen. “Crystal Balls: History Of Fortune Tellers' Use Of Magical Orbs.” History Daily, 21 May 2019, historydaily.org/crystal-balls-history-origin.
  • Haynes, Lauren, and Joachim Pissarro. Crystals in Art Ancient to Today. University of Arkansas Press, 2019.
  • Mrreese. “Picatrix: The Ancient Arabian Book of Astrology and Occult Magic.” Ancient Origins, Ancient Origins, 19 Nov. 2014, www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-ancient-writings/picatrix-ancient-arabian-book-astrology-and-occult-magic-002341.