We have evidence from medieval times of the use of crystal balls as means of divination. In Greek and Roman periods, these crystal balls and their fortune tellers had a tendency to scare people. Fortune tellers and their seeing of the future was not a rare thing in the Greek and Roman periods. The only thing needed to see the future was a polished reflective surface upon which the fortune teller would gaze. Various objects were used for fortune telling; polished steel, the surface of water, mirrors, drops of lead or quicksilver, and even pools of ink- anything that had a reflective surface was used and was just as effective as a crystal ball. What happens during the fortune telling sessions is that the points of light that reflect off the polished surface attract the attention of the fortune teller. Eventually, the optic nerve in the fortune teller's eyes becomes so tired that it begins to pick up on the reflex action that comes from the brain of the gazer. Thus, the impression received from inside is projected and seems to come from outside influences. The results from these sessions vary based on the idiosyncrasy of the various fortune tellers as everything they think and see is based upon their optic nerve. Many times, the effect of this long period of gazing paralyzes temporarily and will not respond to stimulation from within or without. In other cases however, the optical nerve dies in regards to external impressions but retains enough activity to react to something coming from within their brain. It is thus stated, that before the appearance of the desired visions, the crystal disappears and a mist rises before the gazer’s eye.
The Achains frequently used a mirror to detect future diseases or to learn whether there was to be a danger of sudden death. Of the subject of the Temple of Demeter, or Ceres, Patras writes:
"In front of the temple of Demeter there is a well. A stone wall separates this well from the temple, but steps lead down to it from the outside. Here there is an infallible oracle, although it does not answer all questions, but only those touching disease. They attach a slender cord to a mirror and let it down into the wall, balancing it carefully so that the water does not cover the face, but only touches the rim. Then, after making a prayer to the goddess and burning incense to her, they look into the mirror, and it shows whether the sick person will die or recover. Such is the power of truth in this water."
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This magic well and its special mirror must have been in Lucian’s mind when, in his description of the palace of the Moon-King, he writes:
"Another wonderful thing I saw in the palace. Suspended over a rather shallow well there is a large mirror, and anyone who goes down into this well will hear every word that is spoken on earth, while, if he gazes on the mirror, he will see there every city and every nation just as clearly as though he were looking down upon them from a slight elevation. At the time I was there, I saw my native country and its inhabitants. Where I myself was seen by them in turn, I am not sure.”
Lucian adds, with a small touch of irony, “Anyone who doubts this assertion needs only to go there himself and he will find out I speak the truth.” As no one has yet made a trip to the moon, the assertion is still uncontradicted.
The Mexicans, in their religious legends, taught that their god Tezcatlipuco had a magic mirror which showed him every occurrence in the world. He was sometimes named Necocyautl, the “sower of discord,” because he often stirred up war among men. He was also the lord of prosperity, which he shared and took away whenever he felt like it.
In the Orphic poem “Lithica,” a magic piece of stone is described. The stone is called “sideritis” or “ophitis,” and is said to be round, heavy, and black. It's also possible that it could have been metal. Helenus, the Trojan soothsayer, used this sphere to foresee the downfall of his city. As such, he attempted to stop this downfall by fasting for twenty-one days and then wrapping the sphere in soft garments, just like one would an infant. To this stone, he offered sacrifices until, because of his own magic, “a living soul warmed the precious substance.”
An odd variety of divination involved placing mirrors on boys' heads. With the boys' eyes blindfolded, they were supposed to see forms or signs. This phenomenon is noted by Spartianus in his life of the Emperor Didius Julianis (ca. 133-193). Spartianus used this kind of divination, and the boy given the task magically announced the approaching rise of Septimius Severus (146-211) and the dethronement of Didius Julianus.
The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers is an example
of divination by way of a silver cup. Joseph had concealed a silver cup in a sack of grain that Benjamin took with him when leaving, making this a pretext to ask the brothers to come back. Joseph then sent messengers to stop the brothers and insist that they
return the “stolen” cup. The messengers used these words: “Is not this it in which my lord drinketh, and whereby indeed he divineth?”
Incidentally, a decree was passed in the fifth century by St.
Patrick and Bishops Auxilius and Issernanus in Western Europe regarding crystal gazing. It stated that any Christian that believes that there’s a witch in the mirror is to be cursed by the Church unless they renounce that belief and diligently perform any
penance imposed on them. In this case, the vision in the mirror was not a vision or a prophecy but an evil spirit seeking to negatively influence the person gazing into the mirror.
Hydromantii were people who lived in the 9th century and believed to have
the power to see evil spirits on the surface of the water. These diviners insisted that they received explicit communications from the spirits, believing those appearances to be realities. Hincmar, the Archbishop of Rheims, wrote about it in 860 A.D., depicting
the supposed appearances as “Images or deception of the demons.”
In writing an introduction to “Crystal Gazing” by N.W. Thomas,
Andrew Lang (1844-1912), a Scottish poet and literary critic, wrote about hypnagogic illusions, or images that grow out of the bright rays of light that frequently appear when the eyes are closed before sleep takes over. He almost always saw unfamiliar faces
except for the one time when he saw his own face in a profile. Lang suggests that the same is true for scryers, or crystal gazers when they see images from the light points in the crystal to foretell the future.
Ibn Kaldoun (1332-1406), a Persian historian and forerunner
of modern sociology and demography, wrote that it is a mistake to believe that images appear on the surface of the mirror. The diviner stares at the surface until it disappears and a curtain, like a mist, arises between him and the mirror. It is on this curtain
that the images appear and the crystal gazer can then ask questions about the future. However, these images are not something the diviner sees with his eyes; they are more of perceptions he feels with his soul.
The four letters to make up the
Tetragrammaton would be the four Hebrew letters of Yud, Hey, Vav, Hey, which is a Hebrew name for G-d considered too sacred to pronounce in Judaism. Therefore, the Hebrew word Adonai is usually substituted when reading those Scriptures. Christian scholars
have later adapted the consonants of YHVH to read “Jehovah.”
Roger Bacon (1214-1292), an English philosopher and
Franciscan friar, was one of the most gifted men of his century due to his research in the area of nature and empiricism. However, his real greatness was not genuinely appreciated while he was alive, and somehow, many legends portrayed him as a magician and
a necromancer. A popular English book entitled“The Famous Historie of Fryar Bacon” describes Roger Bacon’s incredible powers.
According to this book, the friar made a “glass” through
which he could see events occurring in distant places. On one occasion, two young men who were excellent friends asked the friar to look into his “glass” to see what their fathers were doing at the time. The friar consented and told the young men before him
that their fathers were fighting with one another, and one was down on the ground with the other one ready to strike him. The two young men began arguing over their fathers, and the incident ended tragically with both men stabbing each other to death.
The testimony of John Salisbury (1120-1180), a prominent
English philosopher of the 12th century Renaissance and bishop of Chartres, showcases the popularity of crystal-gazing in 12th century England. He wrote that when he was a boy, he and his companion, a few years older than him, received instruction from a priest
who was addicted to magic arts.
The priest would polish the boys’ fingernails with
consecrated oil or ointment and then instruct them to look at the polished surface until an image would appear. Sometimes they would look at the smooth, polished surface of a basin instead. John himself never saw any shapes on those surfaces; however, his
companion sometimes observed vague and blurry forms. During these acts of divination, the priest would chant certain names which terrified John, since he believed them to be names of evil spirits. John’s aversion to crystal-gazing was even believed to interfere
with the process of divination itself.
“Policraticus” was a well-known book that John of Salisbury
wrote around 1159 on ethical and political philosophy under the genre of advice literature. In it he claimed that the “specularii,” or the crystal gazers, would never use their gift of visualizing images on polished surfaces to cause harm to anyone, instead,
it was mostly used in exposing thieves and in counteracting magic spells.
According to Paracelsus (1493-1541), a Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer of the German Renaissance, the word “to conjure” simply meant “to observe anything rightly, to learn and to understand what it is.” His writings on alchemy and hermeticism described the crystal as having the same qualities as air - the images that could be seen in the air could also be seen in the crystal, or “speculum,” as it was sometimes called.
However, images seen in crystals are often reversed, distorted, and twisted, since they are concentrated in a double convex lens that makes up the inner crystal sphere. When these images become visible to a person who is expecting to see odd and peculiar things, they form mental impressions which may be very difficult to erase. That is why crystal gazers are often profoundly agitated and nervous. Their brains may even see kaleidoscopic effects when gazing into the crystal.
An old German manuscript written in 1658 by a Capuchin priest explains how to properly use an Erdenspiegel, or an earth mirror, for divination purposes. The mirror needs to be placed 2 inches above a board, and a list of questions is to be placed below it. The scryer is advised to place three grains of salt on his tongue, recite a prayer and cross himself. He would then take the mirror in his hands and breathe on it three times, reciting the following: “In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
He would then continue with the following invocation: “....Thou shalt appear to me in the world-mirror, and give me knowledge and instruction in answer to my questions.” The strong religious tone for the use of the mirror and the fact that it was a priest who recites the benedictions shows that there was a mentality to accept the use of “white magic.”
The scrying was usually done by a child, while the chant recited by a minister. We can see this from a 15th-century spell recited after a lengthy and incoherent incantation that ends with the following: ... and you ask a child if he sees anything, and if not, let the minister begin his conjuration again. An essential part of any conjuration usually consisted of the repetition of the many divine names, most of them in their original Hebrew. However, so much has been misconstrued by reciters who did not know their original meaning that it was often difficult to interpret them correctly.
According to one 16th century manuscript, this type of magic often intersected with religion. The gazing crystal was placed on the altar, on the side that the Gospel is read on, and the priest would say Mass on that side as well. Scrying, in general, was seen as a special privilege, granted only to the few chosen ones. A young boy or girl was preferred for the job, not older than 12 years of age. If the conjuration was successful, the manuscript tells us that the angels that would appear in the glass would not depart until the sun would set or they would be permitted to leave by the priest.
A certain religious spirit was often present in the lives of the 16th-century crystal gazers, or specularii, as they were otherwise known. One such speculator, John A Windor, reported that when he led a sinful life, the visions would not appear for him in the crystal. He would then fumigate the apartment, believing that the very air was tainted with his sins.
Another seer, a woman by the name of Sarah Skelhorn, asserted that the spirits that appeared to her in the mirror would often follow her around the house, from room to room, forcing her to acknowledge their presence. Both of these scryers had regular employment, for it was quite conventional for a gentleman to have a household scryer, just as one would have his own physician if he could afford it.
In von Goethe’s play, Dr. Faust asks Mephistopheles,
the devil, whether such crystals can be made, and the devil replies that it certainly can be. He then directs Dr. Faust to go to a glass-maker on Tuesday, to form a glass. This task had to be done in the hour of Mars, that is in the first, eighth, fifteenth
or twenty-second hour of Tuesday. The completed crystal then has to be purchased, and cannot be accepted as a gift. Once the glass was finished, Mephistopheles gave instructions to bury it in a grave for a period of three weeks. If a woman purchased the glass,
she would bury it in a female grave. These initial measures would only prepare the crystal for its consecration, the material itself would be worthless until certain spirits were summoned to dwell within it.
Mephistopheles admitted that he alone was not powerful
enough to consecrate the crystal, so he instructed Faust to also summon the spirits Azeruel and Adadiel. He then assured Faust that the three spirits together would show him in the crystal anything he wished to know. If anything were stolen, the vision of
a thief would appear in the glass; if anyone were suffering from an unknown illness, its characteristics would be revealed so that the afflicted individual may be cured.
Another way to prepare the crystal or mirror for scrying
is mentioned in the same manuscript. After the glass is bought, it is to be submerged in baptismal water where a first-born male child was baptized. It would then remain in the water for three weeks, after which the water would be poured over a grave. The
6th chapter of the Revelation of St. John would be read, and a special conjuration would be pronounced, asking G-d to infuse the crystal with truth and clarity.
The visions seen in crystal gazing were thought to
be the work of evil spirits trying to seduce the souls of men by offering them riches or promises to see the future. As was common in activities involving magic, sometimes it was used with good intentions, but more often than not, the use of magic produced
tragic or unintended consequences.
One 16th century writer recounted the story of a demon
who showed a priest living in Nuremberg in 1530, a vision of a buried treasure. Believing in the truth of the vision, the priest eagerly traveled to an excavated cavern, where he could see a large black dog lying next to a treasure chest. He ran into the cavern,
hoping to secure the treasure, but the top of the cave crumbled down on him, killing him instantly.
Dr. Dee was a famous charlatan who was a regular at the Court of Emperor Rudolph II and was highly favored by Queen Elizabeth. The Queen visited him a few times and even sought his advice on political matters. He recounts in his diary how the Queen visited him a few hours after his wife died, and having learned that it was so soon after the funeral, the Queen refused to enter his house. Instead, she asked for him to bring out his scrying glass and show her some of its magical properties at the Church of Mortlake. He obliged, to his Majesty’s great satisfaction and delight.
It was at Montlake, on December 22, 1581, that Dr. Dee made his first attempt at crystal gazing. The religious ceremony began with a pious incantation to summon the angel of the stone. The celestial being soon revealed himself in the stone and answered questions put forth by those present through the voice of the scryer.
Often, a child was given the role of crystal-gazing
to minimize the suspicion that an evil spirit was somehow involved in the process. In Dr. Dee’s experiments, the notorious Kelley acted as an interpreter of the crystal visions, and a little girl named Madimi acted as an intermediary of the higher powers.
She was described as a pretty eight-year-old girl with long, flowing hair. To make her more noticeable in a crowd, she wore a silk dress with sparkly red and green effects. Sometimes, during a seance, she would be seen bouncing about the study, sharply contrasting
with the backdrop of old, dusty books, musical instruments, and other strange objects collected there.
Even though Dr. Dee writes so extensively about Madimi
in his diary, it was apparently a figment of his imagination or a creation of Kelley’s overactive brain. Whenever Madimi is portrayed as speaking, it is Kelley’s voice that transmits to Dee her revelations. In one passage, Dee says to Madimi, “...I know you
see me often and I only see you by faith and imagination.” Sometimes, another spiritual maiden was mentioned, a lively little Indian spirit called “Bright Eyes,” who loved jewelry and candy.
Not only was the quality of the crystal important, but the overall placement and setting of it were essential as well. In one of Dr. Dee’s manuscripts, it is recorded that on March 10, 1582, Kelley saw in the crystal a vision of the exact arrangement of how the crystal should be set on the table. The exact instructions were also given to the scryer by the angel Uriel. The table needed to be square, with four legs, and a “Sigillum Dei,” or Seal of G-d, impressed onto a purest, colorless wax, was placed on top of it. The seal contained a cross and the four magic letters of A.G.L.A. Which is a transliteration into the Roman characters of the initials of the Hebrew words, “Thou are great forever, O, Lord.”
In addition, four smaller seals were to be provided, to be placed under each leg of the table. The seals were impressed with various geometric figures representing the seven holy names of G-d along with the seven angels ruling the seven planetary heavens. Zabothiel for Saturn, Zedekiel for Jupiter, Madiniel for Mars, Semeliel for the Sun, Nogabiel for Venus, Corabiel for Mercury, and Levaniel for the Moon. The table was to be covered with a silky, red tablecloth, with tassels on each of the four corners. The crystal, set in a frame, was placed over the main seal on the table.
The scryer would then see a figure at the table with the crystal resting upon it. Kelley would describe in detail to Dr. Dee the figure that he pretended to see next to the magic crystal. Use of such detail would make his vision appear more realistic and give credence to the story. He called this apparition “the Nalvage,” or a spirit that first appeared to the doctor and his family in Cracow, Poland, on April 10th, 1584. That spirit quickly became a frequent visitor.
The spirit wore a gown made of white silk, a white, glittery fur cape complete with three pendants with green tassels on each end. His face had no beard and resembled that of King Edward the Sixth, with blond, curly hair hanging down from his cap. He held a small wand, the size of a pinkie, which was divided into three equal parts, made of the brightest gold, and stood next to a round table, made of Crystal or Mother of Pearl. When reading these words spoken by Kelley and so carefully preserved by Dr. Dee, it reminds us of the spirits of the Natives, or the original owners of the American lands, and their strong connection with the spirit world.
Most of the records found on crystal gazing show conclusively that the images revealed in the crystal were merely products of the expectations, hopes, and fears of the gazer. The visions were only prophetic because they dictated the future actions of the gazer, as he or she would consciously attempt to fulfill his or her own predictions.
An example of such self-fulfilled prophecy is described in an old German book, called “The Most Noble Pastime,” by Johann Rist, published in 1668. A young, lovesick maiden consults an enchantress in an attempt to find out what the future holds for her and her forbidden lover. The enchanted crystal is brought out, wrapped in a yellow handkerchief, and placed in a green basin, which sits on a blue cloth. The use of those different colors is thought to stimulate the optic nerve to create visual illusions on the polished surface of the crystal.
The young girl looks long and hard at the crystal until finally, she thinks she sees a vision of herself and her lover, looking pale and sad. She decides they must be going on a distant and dangerous journey because he is dressed in riding boots and carries a pair of pistols. The maiden is so terrified of such a vision that she faints. The outcome of this divination resulted in the couple running away together. When her lover suggested this adventure to her, she readily agreed, believing it was written in the book of fate.
Dr. Dee and Kelley, and their infamous crystal is also mentioned in the English mock-heroic narrative poem “Hudibras,” written by Samuel Butler. This poem humorously exposes and chastises most flaws and shortcomings of the 17th century. When the protagonist, Sir Hudibras, seeks the services of a scryer to foretell his future, the poem implies that Kelley solved all his problems by playing a game of hiding and reappearing with the Devil’s looking-glass.
An individual blessed with creativity and the natural ability to visualize imagery would not hesitate to create life-like pictures from the repeated reflections of the surrounding objects or the shifting light patterns bouncing off the crystals. Whether or not these visions have any predictive value, entirely depends on the significance we choose to attribute to the process of subconscious intelligence. There can be no doubt to its existence, as many influential thinkers believed that our cognitive functions may sometimes be stretched well beyond their limits.
John Aubrey, an English antiquarian, natural philosopher, and writer (1626-1697) provided the following account of a particular crystal ball:
"I have here a special Beryl, which is a perfect sphere, about an inch in diameter, set in a ring, in a circle of silver. Its stem is about 10 inches high, covered with a thin layer of gold paint. The four corners of the circle contain the names of the four angels, Uriel, Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel, while the top features a cross pattee, a type of a curved cross, popular in medieval art."
The Beryl originated in Norfolk, where a particular minister was able to see angels and spirits clearly on the crystal’s surface and used it for divination. One day, a miller, his very dear friend, was able to see those spirits as well, so the minister gifted him the Beryl to use after his death, which he prophetically saw in the Beryl. The miller was able to perform great cures with the Beryl, as per the account of Mr. Ashmole (1617-1692), another English antiquarian, politician, astrologer, and alchemy student. The miller could see either the recipe for making the cure on the surface of the Beryl or the herbs themselves, but only if the condition could be cured in the first place.