Where Did Crystal Balls Come From?
Crystal ball of a fortune teller. Source: (Photo by Wodicka/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
The crystal ball is a standard piece equipment for any modern "fortune teller," but where did crystal balls come from? Gazing into the orb is supposed to give the soothsayer a vision of the future, which will then be shared with the client for a fee. Today, we connect crystal balls with fortune tellers, often of Roma ("gypsy" culture), but that’s not where these mystical spheres originated. To learn the origin of crystal balls, and how they are often shrouded in mystery, and how all powerful psychics (most often women) we have to go back to the ancient Druids and a practice called scrying. The history of crystal balls starts with the ancient Druids, and their origins are a bit of a mystery to this day.
The Mysterious Druids
As early as the 3rd century BCE, the Druids were an elite class of healers, spiritual leaders, storytellers, advisors, and teachers in the ancient Celtic cultures of the British Isles. The name Druid is a Celtic term meaning “knowing the oak tree” which probably came about because the Druids were known to perform rituals in oak forests. They also believed that gazing into a reflective surface, such as a pool of water, a mirror, or a ball of crystal, which is where the practice originated, could allow them to see into the future.
The Practice of Scrying
The ancient Druids used a practice called scrying to predict future events. Scrying, which is a variant of the word descry, meaning to perceive, involves starring into a reflective surface in order to get glimpses of the future. The Druids were big proponents of scrying and used it to help them make important decisions and to advise others. Scrying, however, was not exclusive to the Druids. Other cultures adopted the process and have used it for centuries. At first, Druids used pools of water or shiny stones to do their scrying. But later, they crafted orbs of glass, gemstones, and crystal.
Crystal Balls Versus Christianity
When the Romans took over the British Isles, the Druids were all but eliminated and so were their mystical practices. In his The Natural History, Pliny the Elder included a whole chapter on the Druids and made reference to the forms of magic they used, including divining the future “with balls”…one of the first written mention of crystal balls. For the most part, soothsaying with crystal balls ran against the teachings of Christianity and the practice was condemned. St. Augustine wrote in his The City of God, a book from the 5th century, that using crystal balls was a way to become “entangled in the deceptive rites of demons who masquerade under the names of angels.”
The Crystal Ball Renaissance
During the Renaissance, academics began to tap into the written knowledge of the Arab people, which helped to further their understanding of the natural world. One of the Arabic writers, Picatrix, viewed mysticism as true science and advocated for it to be a legitimate branch of science. His writings portrayed scrying as a logical, scientific practice. European scholars began to take a second look at scrying and the practice saw a resurgence in popularity, especially among the academic and elite classes.
Enter the Gypsies
Between the 9th and 14th centuries, groups of Roma people migrated from India to Europe, bringing with them a nomadic lifestyle and a belief in mysticism. This put the Roma people at odds with the Catholic church and they were ostracized. The Catholic church was particularly upset about the Roma, or "gypsy" as they came to be known, and their fondness for fortune telling. Predicting the futures of folks in need of desperate situations became a big source of income for these immigrants when traditional employment was hard to come by. Gypsies used crystal balls to predict the fortune of their customers for two reasons — the Europeans were already aware of crystal balls so they bought into the mysticism surrounding them, and they were portable so a gypsy could set up a fortune-telling stand with ease. The image of a gypsy with a headscarf, hoop earrings, and a crystal ball is a common trope.
Crystal Balls in Politics
Queen Elizabeth I relied on crystal ball readings from an advisor, John Dee, who was a mystic, mathematician, and alchemist. Dee peered into the future and provided the Queen with the best dates to plan important events and meetings. John Dee wasn’t the only crystal ball-user to lend his talents to aid his country. In the United States in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Jeane Dixon used her crystal ball to make political predictions. She is most notably known for predicting the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The Crystal Ball in Pop Culture
The crystal ball has become such a symbol of predicting the future that it is almost always included in television, movies, and literary references to fortune telling. We see it in movies from The Wizard of Oz to Big to Aladdin and to the Harry Potter series, and in TV shows from Gilligan’s Island to The Munsters to The Rugrats. There is even a smartphone emoji of a crystal ball to this day, and even though its original proprietors are of a culture long dead, their story, their mystery, and the history of the crystal ball continues to this day.
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