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Sphere No. 5: Crystal Ball

Spring, 1997

ONE of the more enigmatic objects in the collections of the Museum is a ‘crystal ball’. Mounted with a silver zodiac band and suspended by a short chain, it is perhaps appropriate that its origins and provenance are unknown.

The ball (its material still awaits positive identification) has been tentatively ascribed to the seventeenth century, perhaps chiefly on the basis of the engraving on the accompanying iron case. Yet the form of the engraved signs on the ball’s zodiac ring is suggestive of a later date, though their small size makes identification difficult.

With a diameter of only 24 mm the ball is small enough to be an amulet, worn for personal protection. But it is perhaps more likely intended for divination, as a ‘scrying’ glass.

In the modern stereotype, crystal balls are firmly linked with the predictions of the fairground fortune teller. But, historically, divination has come in many forms and the tools of its trade have been diverse. Genuine crystals were rare and relatively prestigious devices, and similar effects were sought using mirrors and reflections from the surfaces of liquids. More prosaic techniques such as ‘sieve and shears’ or ‘book and key’ employed objects that came readily to early-modern hands.

The purposes of divination – from the identification of a thief, to fortune telling and the discovery of buried treasure – were equally various. More powerful, but theologically much more dangerous, was spirit conjuring, which sought access to the vast hierarchies of angels and lower spirits elaborately charted in Neoplatonic cosmology.

A crystal ball may thus seem far removed from the world represented by the Museum’s more familiar artefacts. It may even seem antithetical to the rational values traditionally ascribed to scientific instruments. Yet the distance between such instruments of divination and the instruments of the sciences was not always so great.

At least until the seventeenth century, divination was carried out not only by village ‘cunning men’ but also by more scholarly figures. Indeed, the link between occultism and the man of learning remained a staple of popular culture well after 1600, when an English commentator noted that ‘Nowadays among the common people he is not adjudged any scholar at all, unless he can tell men’s horoscopes, cast out devils, or hath some skill in soothsaying.’

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’. Perhaps a ‘crystal ball’ is not entirely out of place in a museum of the history of science.