Among the most popular objects on display at the Museum of Cambridge (aka the Folk Museum) are two blue glass balls, known as witch balls. I do like a nice bit of glass, and these two attractive blue globes are very desirable. I also thought I knew what witch balls are, but – as so often – it’s not that simple.
There seems to be a general belief that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a witch ball was hung in the window (preferably the east window) of a house, to keep the witches out. This would work either because they would see their own reflection and be frightened away, or because they would be drawn into the ball and trapped if they tried to pass by it. Some witch balls (especially in America) had tendrils of glass inside the ball, in which the witch would become entangled.
In some variations, the ball is hung in the centre of the house, to reflect/repel the witch’s approach from whatever angle. Or the witch ball is filled with salt and hung in the fireplace. Salt is a well known witch-repellant (cf. throwing salt over your shoulder to drive away the Devil). Was it placed over the fire to stop access down the chimney, or simply to keep the salt nice and dry?
Enid Porter, the doyenne of Cambridge folklore and curator of the Folk Museum for nearly thirty years, describes one of the witch balls in the collection thus: ‘from a house in Gamlingay, [it] has the date 1792 embossed on the metal top. These balls were originally watch balls because they were closely observed, as they hung in the window, by their owners. If the bright surface remained undimmed, all was well; if it became clouded or tarnished, then sickness, death or some other disaster was thus foretold.’ (See below on gazing balls.) But I have also read that the ‘watch balls’ were used to keep an eye on visitors who came up the garden path: their reflection would be thrown into the room before they knocked on the door (or burst through it).
Old witch/watch balls (they are fairly rare survivals) tended to be about 6–8 inches in diameter, and coloured either blue or green. The deep blue specimens in the Museum are presumably of cobalt blue glass, which derives from three possible chemical compounds: potassium cobalt silicate, cobalt aluminate and cobalt oxide (all at different times have been known as smalt). Smalt as a painting pigment is created by grinding glass coloured with one of the compounds, but it fades easily (unlike lapis lazuli); however, when fired and then protected by glaze, it provides the blue in Chinese porcelain, Italian maiolica and Delft wares (compare the red provided by Armenian bole).
Modern blue glass is claimed to have been (re?)invented in the middle of the sixteenth century in Bohemia, and in Britain was produced especially by Bristol manufactories from the eighteenth century onwards: the chemist William Cookworthy, working with glass manufacturer Richard Champion, obtained a 20-year monopoly on cobalt oxide from Saxony, and this with used to impart colour to the recently developed ‘flint glass’ or lead crystal. The Nailsea factory (near Bristol, and operating between 1788 and 1873) produced witch balls with its characteristic ‘latticino’ pattern.
Another strand to this story is the belief that witch balls originated in coastal towns, and were simply the glass floats used to provide buoyancy for fishing nets. Just as these nets could not sink, so witches notoriously remained buoyant when tested by being thrown into water (the innocent sank and drowned). The idea seems to have been that hanging a witch would get rid of the problem: therefore hanging a similarly buoyant glass ball in your window would also get rid of the problem.
And on top of that, witch balls could also be used, like crystal balls, to scry or peer into the future. Dr John Dee (1527–1609) was a famous early possessor of two ‘gazing balls’ or ‘orbucula’ – one a circular ‘Claude glass’, or dark tinted convex mirror, the other a rather intriguing purplish stone which Dee claimed that the archangel Uriel had given him in November 1582, at the same time instructing him how to create the Philosopher’s Stone.
The crystal was passed by Dee’s son to the herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpeper, who used it to try and cure illness – until 1651, when a demonic ghost burst out from it, which much have been disconcerting. Both orbucula are now in the Science Museum.
In the nineteenth century, increased interest in spiritualism meant that gazing balls became popular: Chauncy Hare Townshend (1798–1868), mesmerist, friend of Dickens and all-round collector of Stuff, had one, which is now in the Wisbech and Fenland Museum.
Bulwer Lytton’s crystal ball is still on display at Knebworth. (By coincidence, it was Lytton who urged Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations, the manuscript of which Dickens gave to Townshend and which is also in the Wisbech Museum.) And the post-Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was on-trend in 1902 with this painting, now in a private collection. Is the young woman looking into the future, or is she a witch, casting a spell with the aid of the ball, a magic wand, a skull and a book of enchantments?
Of course, witch balls were not the only means of keeping evil at bay: shoes were built into the walls of houses. The Museum of Cambridge has several examples, and a Concealed Shoe Index kept by Northampton Museum has nearly 2,000 items, mostly dating from the nineteenth century. One theory is that they are a fertility charm (think of shoes attached to the getaway car at weddings), but apparently witches, attracted to shoes by the human smell, get in and then can’t get out. (Wicked stepmothers forced to dance until they die come to mind.)
Dried cat corpses are also common, but are they there to keep out the witches, whose familiars they so often are, or to chase away rats?
And there is a variant on the witch ball, used to protect a specific individual: the witch bottle (also shown in the photo of the balls). For much more on all of this, see Brand, vol. 2, pp. 367 ff., who is eloquent on the terrible consequences of unbridled superstition. Modern reproductions of witch balls are a popular house or garden ornament, but it’s sobering to think of the fear and suspicion of one’s neighbours that drove their original deployment.