Past Treasure of the Month – October 2009

Early 20th Century Crystal Ball
A crystal ball, a stand, a silk cover, a custom box, and a 1916 instructive book about crystal gazing.

To compliment the allure of Halloween during the month of October, the Rosenberg Library Museum featured an early 20th century crystal ball as the “Treasure of the Month.” The crystal ball on display at the Library belonged to Mrs. Elizabeth Calders of Louisiana. The set includes a crystal ball, a stand, a silk cover, a custom box, and a 1916 instructive book about crystal gazing. The collection was donated to the Rosenberg Library in 1977 by Catherine Hall, daughter of Elizabeth Calders.

Crystal balls, which are usually made of natural stone, are one of several instruments that some believe help aid in the art of clairvoyance. The use of a reflective or translucent object was developed in ancient civilizations to foresee possible outcomes of future events. The form of divination achieved through trance induction by means of gazing at a crystal is commonly known as crystal gazing, or crystallomancy.

Book cover

With respect to the tool or object used to induce a trance, several objects were commonly known to achieve the desired outcome including a crystalline gem stone or a convex mirror, but a crystal ball was most often used. Crystal balls were carved from natural crystalline stone such as quartz, beryl, calcite, obsidian, amethyst, or glass. The size of the ball varied greatly among those who practiced this mystical art. Some gazers used a “palm ball” of only a few inches in diameter; others preferred to use a larger ball mounted on a stand. The largest flawless known quartz sphere is part of the collection at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It spans 12.9 inches in diameter and weighs close to 107 pounds.

Crystal gazing was developed by various cultures for a variety of purposes as early as 3000 BC. The Babylonians, Ancient Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, Mayans, Incas, North American Indians, and Australian Aborigines all used mirrored objects, pools of water, or crystal balls to communicate with and receive answers from the gods, and often used scrying in temples to aid diplomats in decisions, to define diseases, or to learn of future dangers. The Druids in Celtic Britain as well as Scottish Highlanders then used these “stones of power” to predict distant or future events, to give character analyses, to tell fortunes, or to help make choices about current situations and problems.

There are numerous literary accounts which refer to the superstitions associated with crystal balls. The Orphic poem “Lithica,” a Greek epic poem, told of a magic stone sphere, made of heavy black stone or metal, which was used to foretell the downfall of Troy. The Arabic author, Haly Abou Gefar, told of a golden ball used in the incantations of the Magi. Dr. John Dee, a scientist, astronomer, mathematician, and alchemy and divination expert was Queen Elisabeth I’s consultant, and commonly used crystal and crystal balls to acquire knowledge. Ancient Mexican lore also tells of a god named Tezatlipuco who beheld a magic mirror which allowed him to view events throughout the world.

Can you find any flaws?

Crystal balls were also used by seers, sorcerers, psychics, and other members of the Occult in Europe’s medieval age (5th century to the 16th century). It was in this time period that the universal image of crystal-gazing changed, and the general public began to fear it as an evil. In this case, as in many others, the vision in the crystal or mirror did not represent some former or contemporaneous happening, but the figure of an evil spirit, who, either by signs or words, imparted to the scryer the information he was seeking. Christians believed that those who practiced this activity were to never again be received into the Church unless this belief was renounced and penance was diligently performed.

After the fear subsided and curiosity reemerged, crystal balls became common props for fortune-telling, hypnotism, and prophecy readings. These routines, in which a magician asks audience members questions, are known as “C.G.,” or Crystal Gazing acts. Claude Alexander Conlin, known as Alexander the Crystal Seer, was one of the most popular stage magicians in the early 20th century. He specialized in psychic readings, dressed in Oriental robes and feathered turbans, and used a crystal ball as his main prop. His stage image is popularly connected to the fortune telling machines found at carnivals. Another stage magician and mentalist who was also a crystal gazer was Julius Zancig, but he did not perform for the public. Rather, he used the crystal ball in his work as a spiritual counselor for private clients.