Watch-bottles, Witch-Balls, Witch-Watchers, Wizard-Balls and ‘Bounched glasses’: A History of the Witch Ball
The Museum has a fine collection of ‘witch balls’; large spheres of reflective coloured glass that were hung as charms in gardens and in windows of parlours and shops. But the story of the witch ball is long and complex – they have been used as divinatory devices, salt cellars, toys, liturgical objects and even flower decorations. This blog explores their uses and reveals some startling new facts about their history…
A day-tripper to Glastonbury in the 1930s saw a witch ball hanging in a shop window. Her natural reaction was to search for ‘miraculous sights’: “Thinking of [the] many stories I had heard about these enchanting things, I resolved to gaze therein for a few minutes.”
The power of the witch ball to fascinate and reveal hidden truths reaches back to at least the sixteenth century. The famous confounder of witchcraft beliefs, Reginald Scot, did not write specifically about ‘witch balls’ but did mention “diverse sorts of glasses … as in the hollow, the plain, … the bounched, the round” – glasses in whom “wonderous devices … miraculous sights and conceits made and contained in glass, do far exceed all other”. Although it is a passing reference, we can see from his description that people were using ‘bounched’ or spherical glasses in magical practice at this time. A ‘secular’ use for such glasses was as garden ornaments: Francis Bacon in 1625 wrote that in a proper garden “every space between the arches [should be filled with] some other little figure, with broad plates of round coloured glass, gilt, for the sun to play upon.” Italian clerics called these balls “Spheres of Light”, whilst their production in England dates to the late eighteenth century. Variations of these, known as gazing balls or kugel were commercially made in Germany from about 1840. They were placed on pillars at the front of the house.
By the twentieth century witch balls had proliferated to such an extent that the folklorist and collector Edward Lovett suggested that few people knew the real meaning of these items which hung in shop windows, especially in his area of interest in south and south west London. The ones he recorded in the capital were usually the size of a cricket ball, multi-coloured and more often found in sweet shops. Curiously, glass walking sticks which were often filled with sweets, were also associated with magical protection (see http://museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk/object/glass-walking-stick/). But how were with balls used, and what was their meaning?
Most writers agree that ‘witch balls’ are protective devices hung up in the home to repel evil spirits, including witches. One author claims that an old name for these items was “Watch-bottles”. This is perhaps derived from rotund glass blown bottles which were used to hold salt. These were hung near the fire to be used in cooking, much like the more common salt box. Physical evidence for these bottles is scant, and the examples that survive cannot be firmly identified as ‘salt containers’, but these items could well have existed and had protective and counter-magical properties. It makes sense to place a salt vessel – salt was of course used in ‘witch bottles’ and to glaze chimney pots – at a place were spirits or witches could gain ingress such as the chimney and fire place. The reflective surface of the salt-ball or “watch-bottle” also keys into the idea that a witch-ball would confuse, attract and entrap evil spirits, thus protecting other items and people within the home. A related custom was perhaps the suspension of small glass vials or balls of charmed or holy water. Whilst this appears to be an American or European variation (see http://risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/2285_witch_ball), a similar practice occurred in Torquay in 1939 where villagers hung up a ‘golden witch’s ball and special bottles of water, which they believed cast a magical protection over their homes.’
The Evil Eye
The witch ball has been associated with charms against the evil eye, but in the Leeds Mercury of 1933, one writer tells us that ‘witch balls’ were originally hung in eighteenth century nurseries “as a pretty toy to catch the child’s eye”. According to this writer, the child gazing into the reflection explains the term ‘watch bottle’ (although this doesn’t explain the ‘bottle’ element); she then goes on to tell of how the rustic cottager later corrupted the ‘watch bottle’ into a ‘witch ball’: “They were no longer hung up as a child’s toy, but were suspended in cottage windows in order to act as charms to distract any wandering witch’s attention from other things in the house.” Again, attracting and confusing the eye of an evil doer is an important element in their use.
This means of stopping the Evil Eye by confusing it can also be seen in the tradition where witch balls were filled with scraps of wool “since it was believed that no witch could cast an evil eye on the owner until she had counted every single bit of wool in the house.” (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 17 November 1932, p. 2). Another ball, much smaller and stuffed with thread, wool and hair, known as a Mazey Ball, is an interesting Cornish variation in the Museum’s collection:
In 1938, the Taunton Courier revealed that “superstitious people hang witch balls in their windows to keep out the bogies”, but you needn’t be superstitious to hang the witch ball at Christmastime, the paper insisted, saying that after Christmas, “your witch ball can remain hanging up, for witch balls are still fashionable for house decorations.”
Decoration & Divination
“Have you any of those brightly coloured glass globes which were to be found in most homes many years ago? I believe they were called witch-balls. … they are becoming quite valuable … that famous stage and film actress, Miss Jeanne de Casalis, has a large collection … spread over her Mayfair flat. There is even an enormous green one hanging in the bathroom.” – ‘Chatty Gossip of the Day’, Lanarkshire Sunday Post, July 3 1927.
As this quote suggests, fashionable society discovered witch-balls in the Roaring Twenties. Smart urbane shops were producing beautiful variations of the traditional witch-ball: small balls contained within larger ones, lamp extensions, water lamps, even balls with water-scenes in which gold flying fish appeared to encircle the bowl when lit from within. There are many references to these ‘witch-balls’ as the pre-eminent wedding gift in the time between the World Wars.
In the ‘Woman and Home’ section of The Northern Whig in the 1930s, readers were told to try “a witch ball set in the midst of a garland of flowers. The bowl was matt blue pottery, the witch ball was rich iridescent blue, and the flowers which edged it were sprays of mimosa mixed with purple anemones.” Another innovation was the brief fashion for “Wizard Balls”; “shaped very much like the witch ball… it has an opening at the top, by means of which it may be filled or half filled with water”. Into this are placed pieces of “coloured rock, sea shells, glass bubbles” – “the wizard bowl more than justifies its name and, when flowers are very expensive, enables us to feast our eyes on beauty, which, in part at any rate, is natural.”
The introduction of water into these balls may have encouraged the magically inclined to use these vessels for divination. This re-commissioning of everyday objects for magical use is a familiar idea; as a lace-maker’s glass from Honiton in the Museum’s collection shows:
A WITCH’S GAZING GLASS. FOR USE THE GLOBE IS EMPTIED AND FILLED WITH WATER. THE GLOBE IS THEN POSITIONED TO CATCH THE RAYS OF THE LIGHT FROM A CANDLE. IT IS THEN USED AS ONE WOULD WHEN CRYSTAL GAZING. AFTER USE THE GLOBE IS REFILLED WITH THE RED AND WHITE GRAINS. THESE ARE USED TO KEEP OUT EVIL IMPS AND TO COUNTER THE POSSIBLE EFFECT OF THE EVIL EYE SHOULD IT CHANCE TO FALL ON THE GLOBE WHEN NOT IN USE. THIS GLASS BELONGED TO A CHARMER LIVING AT HONITON DEVON, WHICH GIVES THE CLUE TO THE GLASSES REAL USE. IT IS A LACE MAKERS GLASS, USED BY THE LACE MAKERS, WHEN FILLED WITH WATER AS A MAGNIFYING GLASS, TO HELP THEM SEE THE MINUTE STITCHES OF THEIR DELICATE AND INTRICATE WORK. (Cecil Williamson Object Label Collection 8986: Museum archive)
Lace Maker’s Glass or Witch’s Gazing Glass (left), Object No. 85
A good friend of the Museum recently sent us a picture of a lace maker’s glass being used for scrying. I won’t attempt to explain what is happening here… judge for yourself!
Lace maker’s glass in action
Magic Witch Balls in Modern London
A visitor to the Museum recently emailed photographs of their grandmother’s witch-ball together with its companion piece: a convex mirror; both have beautiful green surfaces. A family tradition also came with the objects: “The ball should always be hung in sight of the mirror”. The items originally came from a mansion house in the capital (perhaps the fashion for witch-balls was over?), and the grandmother owned a china shop in London before World War II where she also read tea leaves. Perhaps the ball and mirror were part of a clairvoyant’s parlour? Perhaps readings taken between the mirrored objects were more efficacious?
Whatever the circumstances of these objects, we know that other London-based practitioners were using witch-balls in similar circumstances. In 1943, Madame Montague Lawrence was fined for ‘clairvoyant crystal reading’. In an attempt to avoid a guilty verdict, Lawrence claimed that her crystals were only ‘paperweights’ and her large silver ‘crystal’ only a ‘witch-ball’. Here we see that ‘witch-balls’ were indeed tools of the trade for magical practitioners in modern London, but also things which were ‘generally acceptable’ so long as they were not used for divination.
It is ironic that a ‘witch ball’ used for divination in London during the 1940s was deemed illegal, whilst ten years earlier in a Cornish church they held pride of place. During W. Poynter-Adams’ visit to St. Hilary’s church near Goldsithney in 1932 he had seen “six large silvered glass balls” hanging from the six arches within the chancel. When he enquired about the balls, a parishioner told him they were “Witch-watchers … intended to ward of witches from the Reserved Sacrament”.
I’ve only managed to find a low-res screen-shot of St. Hilary’s church from the mid-20th century, but here three of the balls can be clearly seen hanging towards the east end of the church:
The balls no longer hang in the church but interestingly the largest witch-ball in the MWM collection  appears to be roughly the same size as the balls pictured in St. Hilary’s. Indeed they have the same patina and colour, so it is not improbable that Cecil Williamson, founder of the Museum, collected one of these ‘Witch-watchers’ from this church in south Cornwall sometime in the 1960s.
Most writers when considering the origin of the witch-ball suppose they came from the East. Our most reliable source, Edward Lovett, observed that such balls were part of a common culture that spread through France, Italy and even to Constantinople where witch-balls ‘as big as footballs’ would hang outside druggist shops. “They are supposed to be of Eastern origin and introduced to this country by the Crusaders” wrote one journalist, the idea is “supported by the fact that there is a large number of such balls hanging in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, and in many continental churches.” (‘Witch Balls are Lucky’, Dundee Courier, April 1939). As this black and white photograph shows, a witch-ball was indeed hung in this most famous church in front of the iconostasis and below a lamp (centre of image).
Image of the iconostasis of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, c. 1960. Witch ball hanging to right of centre of image.
As we have seen, witch balls come in and out of fashion. In recent years, they have featured in the work of one of the world’s most famous artists, Jeff Koons. The balls used by Koons are slight variations of the witch ball – the German gazing balls which were placed atop pillars in the front yards of German American homes. Koons’ balls are judiciously placed among reproductions of famous artworks: the Belvedere torso, the Farnese Hercules (below), Giotto’s Kiss of Judas, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa… his gazing ball even features on an album cover by Lady Gaga.
Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules), 2013
What is going on here?! Well for Koons this is art for the ‘selfie generation’ – the surface of the ball reflects and envelopes the viewer drawing them into the work and making them part of it. Koons says: “This experience is about you, your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image.”
So from an empty tomb, to a witch’s parlour and to the Gagosian Gallery, the witch ball, like the history of witchcraft and magic itself, has a marvellous and contested history…