An email from Bytes subscriber Charles Z, who originally hailed from the US:
Bytes makes one curious, and makes YOU the victim of that curiosity!
I am in New Zealand and while listening to the radio this morning I heard a commentator use the term Crystal Ball! I began to wonder about how that term originated, and about the idea of predicting the future and where it started.
I recall in my youth, there were mediums, fortune tellers, and palm readers, often associated with carnivals and travelling shows, but sometimes as established businesses.
And in my study of the classics, there were Oracles, as in Delphi. Even Julius Caesar was warned to "Beware the Ides of March", (before it was the day income taxes were due in the USA!)
My Grandmother had a "Dream Book" which was supposed to guide which 3 digit number to play (a daily lottery in my home town), and if she had a dream that involved say, umbrellas, it might counsel her to put a nickel on 395!
The nearest I could relate to a crystal ball was a mannequin of a fortune teller at a penny arcade amusement park into whose stand you inserted a coin and a prediction would be displayed.
So what do you know about this icon of predictability? Anyone who tries to forecast exchange rates has got to be sceptical about knowing anything about what will happen tomorrow, but it does appear that mankind has always sought this ability!
Best regard from Kiwi land!
Here you go Charles:
- A crystal ball is also known as an orbuculum.
- It is a crystal or glass ball and common fortune telling object, generally associated with the performance of clairvoyance (ie extrasensory perception) and scrying (the practice of looking into a translucent ball or other material with the belief that things can be seen, such as spiritual visions).
- The earliest use of crystal balls can be attributed to the Celtic Druids who divined the future and omens with beryl balls. Beryl is a mineral which forms hexagonal crystals which may be very small or range to several metres in size. Pure beryl is colorless, but it is frequently tinted by impurities; possible colors are green, blue, yellow, red, and white.
- In the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder describes use of crystal balls by soothsayers ("crystallum orbis", later written in Medieval Latin by scribes as orbuculum). By the 5th century AD, scrying was widespread within the Roman Empire and was condemned by the early medieval Christian Church as heretical.
- Dr. John Dee was a noted British mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I. He devoted much of his life to alchemy, divination, and philosophy, of which the use of crystal balls was often included.
- Crystal ball gazing was a popular pastime in the Victorian era and it was often that Immediately before the appearance of a vision, the ball was said to mist up from within
- As noted above, the art or process of "seeing" is called "scrying". It includes images claimed to be seen in crystals, or other media such as water, which are interpreted as meaningful information. The "information" gleaned then is used to make important decisions in one's life (i.e. love, marriage, finances, travel, business, etc.) Some professed seers say that they do not actually see images in the crystal, but rather that the featureless interior of the crystal facilitates them in clearing their mind of distractions so that future truths or events will become known to them.
Lillian Gish, silent film actress, early 1920’s
Crystal Ball rings
Fortune teller, 1920’s
David Bowie with crystal ball in Labyrinth (I love this movie, and David Bowie in it).
Poster for Labyrinth
A crystal ball in the Royal Sceptre of Scotland is said to have been originally possessed by pagan druids.
The largest flawless quartz sphere is in the National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, USA
The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse
The larger crystal ball used in The Wizard of Oz disappeared after the making of the film in 1939 but was found several years later in a prop house maintained by special effects pioneer Kenneth Strickfaden. Around 1973, ownership was transferred from Strickfaden to Maxwell Smith’s legendary science fiction prop house, Vectrex. An anonymous man found the ball at a junkyard at the defunct prop house more than a decade ago, its authenticity being confirmed by tiny bubbles found in the clear glass matching the small blemishes seen on the irregularly shaped ball in the film. It was sold in 2011 for $126,500 with part of the sale proceeds being given to worthwhile causes.