Spirits and the Medieval Crystal Ball

The vision in crystal balls believed to be from an indwelling spirit, crystal balls as an accepted part of Christianity, the account of Faust and preparing a crystal ball, and the association of both white and black magic with the spirits in the crystal b

In medieval times it was believed that the vision in the crystal was produced through the agency of an indwelling spirit, and, therefore, it was necessary to use some very potent spell to force this spirit to enter the stone. Many of these ancient spells have been preserved, and they contain a strange and incongruous mixture of religious and magical formulas. In one of these, dating from the end of the fifteenth century, after a recitation of a long and rambling conjuration, we read, "And yen ask Ye chylde yf he seethe any thyng, and yf no, let the mr begin his conjuratyo agayn." As usual the scrying was done by a child, the conjuration being spoken by the minister. An important part of the conjuration consisted in the repetition of a number of divine names, most of them originally Hebrew, but so much corrupted by reciters who did not know their meaning that it is now exceedingly difficult to interpret them correctly.

A proof that this form of magic was often regarded as quite compatible with religion is offered us in a passage from a sixteenth century manuscript, (Sloane MS. 3851, f. 50b.) where we read that the crystal should be laid on the altar "on the Side that the gospell is read on. And let the priest say a mass on the same Side." If the conjuration is successful, the same manuscript tells us that "these angells being once appeared will not depart the glasse or stone untill the Sonne be sett except you licence them." It also seems that "scrying" was looked upon as a special gift, only granted to a favored few as a peculiar privilege, and we read that "Prayer and a good beleefe prevailed much. For faith is the cay to this and all other works, and without it nothing can be effected." The child scryer, either maid or boy, should not be more than twelve years old.

That a certain religious spirit, however mistaken, often animated the crystal-gazers of the sixteenth century, is shown in the case of the "speculator" of John a Windor, who confessed that when he led an impure life the "daemons" would not appear to him in his glass. He would then proceed to fumigate the apartment, as though believing that the very air was contaminated by the sins of the operator. We may hope that the seer was not content with this, but also tried to reform his evil ways. Another scryer, a woman named Sarah Skelhorn, declared that the spirits that appeared to her in the glass would often follow her about the house from room to room, so that she at last became weary of their presence. (Jonson, "The Alchemist," ed. Hathaway, New York, 1903, note.) Both of these scryers had regular employment, for it was quite customary for a gentleman to have a household seer, just as he would have a body-physician, if he could afford it.

A sixteenth century work on magic, the "Hollenzwang" of Dr. Faustus, whose name has been immortalized for all ages by Goethe, gives very particular and detailed directions for the preparation and consecration of a crystal, whether glass or quartz. Faust asks his "Mephistophelis" whether such crystals can be made, and the spirit replies: "Yes, indeed, my Faust," and directs Faust to go, on a Tuesday, to a glass-maker, and get the latter to form a glass. It was requisite that this work should be done in the hour of Mars, that is, in the first, eighth, fifteenth or twenty-second hour of Tuesday. The crystal when completed must not be accepted as a gift, but a price must be paid for it. When the object had been secured, Mephistopheles directs that it be buried in a grave, where it must be left for the space of three weeks; it was then to be unearthed; if a woman purchased it, she must bury it in a woman's grave. However, these preliminaries only served to prepare the crystal for the final consecration, as the mere material mass was regarded as inert and possessing no virtue until certain spirits were summoned to dwell within it. Mephistopheles confesses that he alone would not be powerful enough, and he directs Faust to call upon the spirits Azeruel and Adadiel also. Faust is assured that the three spirits will show him in the crystal whatever he may wish to know. If anything has been stolen, the thief will appear; if any one is suffering from disease, the character of his malady will be revealed, etc. (Keisewetter, "Faust in der Geschichte und Tradition," Leipzig, 1893.)

Another way of preparing a crystal glass or mirror is given in the same work. After the glass has been bought it is to be immersed in baptismal water in which a first-born male child has been baptized, and therein it is to remain for three weeks. The water is then to be poured out over a grave and the sixth chapter of the Revelation of St. John is to be read. Hereupon the following conjuration should be pronounced:

"O crystal, thou art a pure and tender virgin, thou standest at one of the gates of heaven, that nothing may be hidden from thee; thoustandest under a cloud of heaven that nothing may be hidden from thee, whether in fields or meadows, whether master or servant, whether wife or maid. Let this be said to thee in the name of God, as a plea for thy help."

(Keisewetter, "Faust in der Geschichte und Tradition.)

The visions seen in crystal gazing were often supposed to be the work of evil spirits, seeking to seduce the souls of men by offering the promise of riches or by according them an unlawful glimpse into the future. Here, as in other magical operations, there was both white and black magic, recourse being had in some cases to good, and in others to evil spirits. As an illustration of the latter practice, a sixteenth century writer relates that in the city of Nuremberg, some time during the year 1530, a "demon" showed to a priest, in a crystal, the vision of a buried treasure. Believing in the truth of this vision, the priest went to the spot indicated, where he found an excavation in the form of a cavern, in the depths of which he could see a chest and a black dog lying alongside it. Eagerly the priest entered the cavern, hoping to possess himself of the treasure, but the top of the excavation caved in and he was crushed to death. (Wieri, "De prestigiis demonum," Basileae, 1563.)

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