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A Brief History of the Crystal Ball

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When you think of fortune telling, a few classic pop culture props come to mind: candles, tarot cards, sartorial mainstays like a turban, silks, or bangles, elaborate tapestries, and of course, the crystal ball. If you’re not a divination expert, you might not know that what one does with a crystal ball is known as scrying—a world derived from descry, which means to perceive. While the fortune-telling act is based primarily on staring into reflective surfaces like mirrors, stones, and pools of liquid, you can technically scry into pretty much anything. The practice has been around for thousands of years, making appearances in the mystical and religious traditions of numerous ancient civilizations (perhaps most notably the Druids)—as has the sparkling glass ball we've come to associate with it.

Druids were a class of educated, highly respected citizens who lived in the British Isles and France during the Iron Age; they practiced a wide range of disciplines including poetry, lawmaking, medicine, and religious rites. While the Druids were largely wiped out with the spread of Christianity in the following centuries, witness accounts by notable Romans such as Julius Caesar and Pliny the Elder gave us some account of their religious practices. Pliny in particular devoted one chapter of The Natural History to “The Druids of the Gallic Provinces.” And in the very next chapter, he describes (and dismisses) various forms of magic, although not necessarily of Druids. These include “with water” and “with balls,” which might be early accounts of scrying.

As Christianity continued to dominate Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages, scrying became a divisive practice. Some devout Christians saw it as vehicle for divine intervention, and claimed to have caught glimpses of angels in their gazing, while others saw the practice as blasphemous at best, and a portal for demonic spirits at worst. In his fifth-century book The City of God, St. Augustine denounced scrying, claiming all such mystic practices as “entangled in the deceptive rites of demons who masquerade under the names of angels.” The practice, however, would soon find an unlikely defender in the scholars and academics of the Renaissance.

As Mark Pendergrast explains in Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection, the Renaissance brought with it an increasing popularity of translated Arabic writings. Along with many important scientific ideas, these translations yielded the works of Picatrix (a name given to both the translation and purported author), who saw mysticism as a branch of science. In elevating the practice of scrying to something noble and rational, these beliefs offered a welcome alternative to the gloom and guilt of Christianity, and scrying grew in popularity and regard among the educated elite, soon establishing itself as a scientific—or at least quasi-scientific—staple among burgeoning academics. According to the Museum of the History of Science, which boasts a 17th century crystal ball in its collection: “The literature of magic itself recalls a time when natural and supernatural knowledge shared a common language. Sixteenth-century records of séances at which spirits were conjured typically went under the title of ‘Books of Experiments.’"

The crystal ball continued to be stigmatized by the church, but remained in relatively good standing in the scientific world, eventually finding its way into the royal English court. Its introduction was thanks to John Dee, an alchemist and mathematician with a deep interest in the mystical. Dee was a close advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, and she relied on his counsel in the scheduling of important events and matters of astrology, among other things. Along with his partner Edward Kelley (who was reportedly a much more successful medium, though some believe he was duping Dee all along), Dee would hold regular scrying sessions that involved he and Kelley staring into an obsidian mirror in the hopes of communicating with angels to gain otherworldly wisdom.

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse, 1902 // Public Domain

Dee wasn’t the only crystal-gazer to dabble in the political world; a few centuries later, Jeane Dixon garnered fame for her political predictions, which she made throughout the '40s, '50s, and '60s with the help of her trusty crystal ball. Dixon is best known for predicting the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though the legitimacy of her predictions is doubted by many. Her numerous skeptics coined the term “The Jeane Dixon effect” to describe the phenomenon of psychics being remembered favorably despite a scant number of accurate predictions, and a slew of inaccuracies. Dixon certainly had her share of inaccurate predictions: that Russia would be the first country to put a man on the moon (nope), and that George H.W. Bush would easily triumph over Bill Clinton (sorry, George).

Even her famously accurate prediction of JFK’s death seems less-than-legit when you consider the vagueness of the actual “vision.” The item that ran in the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade, on May 13, 1956, read: “As for the 1960 election Mrs. Dixon thinks it will be dominated by labor and won by a Democrat. But he will be assassinated or die in office 'though not necessarily in his first term.’” On top of that, Dixon also predicted that Kennedy would lose the 1960 election.

The popular image of the crystal ball reader—turban-clad and hunched over the ball—made its way into the mainstream partially thanks to the Roma or Romani people (often referred to as “gypsies” in the English-speaking world), who practiced various divination techniques and would sometimes set up fortune-telling booths at stops along their travels. Still, their clairvoyant displays were less about showcasing exceptional psychic talent and more about practicality: the booths were portable and easy enough to tote around as the community escaped persecution.

As for the turban itself, its origins almost certainly lie directly in the persona of one performer: Claude Alexander Conlin, who went by the stage name Alexander, The Man Who Knows. Alexander was a stage mentalist who, with the help of a crystal ball, would make incredible predictions about his audience members. Though he was extremely popular, Alexander was also a master marketer who made millions selling his own merchandise, including crystal balls. It’s likely this commitment to marketing we have to thank for the turbaned, bejeweled image of the male fortune teller, as you can guess from his striking (and well-circulated) posters.

Since then, the Alexander-esque image has become a widely popular way to depict fortune tellers in movies, from Big’s (1988) Zoltar to Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz (1939). As a result, while most people in the modern world rarely (if ever) encounter the object itself, the icon is in many ways as prevalent as ever. After all, there's even an emoji of it.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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How to Make Sure Your Child’s Halloween Costume is Safe
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For kids, Halloween is a time to let their imaginations run wild and offers them chance to inhabit some of their favorite characters. For parents, it’s a time to make sure their children don’t gorge on candy and that costumes don’t pose any unnecessary dangers. Owing to poor production quality or design, some outfits and masks hold the potential for tripping, skin irritation, or—very rarely—becoming a fire hazard, ABC News reports.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are a few ways to mitigate those risks. When shopping for costumes, look for nylon or polyester materials or tags that indicate the material is flame-resistant. Flimsy fabrics, particularly in outfits with long sleeves or big skirts, might brush up against candles and ignite.

Mobility is another concern: If a costume has a long skirt, it shouldn’t interfere with walking. Masks shouldn’t significantly obstruct vision and should provide ample ventilation; kids should be advised to lift them up when crossing streets to make sure they can see crossing traffic. For trick-or-treating after dark, reflective stripes on treat bags can help visibility for passing motorists.

Kids who get together to try on one another’s costumes pose a less serious, though potentially troublesome, hazard: head lice, which can be passed from sharing masks and costumes. If your child plans on exchanging disguises, sealing the costumes in plastic bags for 48 hours or drying them on high heat for 45 minutes should kill any pests.

[h/t ABC News]

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