Friday, January 5, 2018

Witch Balls and Gazing Balls

I am slowly taking down Christmas on this Old Christmas Eve, and as I was sorting a box of decorations that I hadn't used I discovered a couple of glass balls I'd forgotten about. I bought them last summer at a yard sale and a thrift shop and never got them hung.

So now they grace my wintry views.

As I was hanging them, I got to thinking about witch balls--which is what many people call these colorful baubles. Some witch balls have strands of glass running through their centers. Mine do not, and some people call these plain ones friendship balls. But history reveals that early witch balls were like mine, just plain round glass balls.

According to Wikipedia, the belief that glass orbs would repel evil spirits began long ago. To determine if a person was a witch, the accused would be stripped to undergarments, bound hand and foot, and tossed into the water. Here is a description of the process:

Although the belief in trial by water can be traced back to the third millenium BC, the official use of 'swimming' in English law dates back to King Athelstan (928-930), where trial by water, termed 'indicium aquae', was a general test for all crimes. It ceased to be an official Law in 1219 under Henry III's reforms. For the next six hundred years it was popularly, but unofficially, supposed to be infallible in discovering the guilt of witches and those suspected of subscribing to the black arts.

It was believed that water rejected servants of the devil and that if a suspected person floated and refused to sink when placed in water it was proof of guilt.

The ordeal of 'swimming' was endorsed by James I of England, who stated in Daemonologie (1597) "that God hath appointed ... that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosome, that have shaken off them the sacred Water of Baptisme, and wilfully refused the benefite thereof."

As described by Sir Robert Filmer (1653) a suspect would be stripped naked and then tied up - the right thumb to the left big toe and vice versa. In this position she was then secured by ropes and thrown into a deep stream or pond three times. If she sank (and often drowned) she was deemed as innocent - if she 'fleeted' (floated) then she was 'guilty'. Often men with long poles were employed to push her under the water, while others, holding the ropes could drag her to the surface again. It became well known that, if the poor victim was laid out 'flat on their back and [holding] up their feet with a string' then 'the forepart will not sink' (Thomas Ady 1656) Foxearth and District Local History Society.

Some sources say that witches were believed to have rejected baptismal water, so therefore the water or swimming test was considered as a second baptism, and a witch would be rejected.

So how do glass balls fit into this? Glass balls have been used for centuries to float nets, and people saw this as the water rejecting the glass ball. So a ball that had floated in water was somehow viewed as a talisman against evil, and people would hang balls that had been used as floats in their homes to ward off witches and other evil spirits. Ir seems an odd twist, doesn't it, and yet there it is.

Many floats were made of blue and green glass, and these became the traditional colors for witch balls although today they can be found in almost any color or combination of colors.

Today glassblowers in the US and probably other countries continue to make witch balls; some who buy these glass orbs probably have no idea of their history. Others, like me, buy them because of that history.

My gazing ball, 2012
A spinoff of the witch ball is the glass gazing globes that many of us have in our gardens. Most of these have a mirrored surface.

According to lore, witches, on seeing their reflection in a mirror, will be frightened away (which is why people often had a mirror on the outside of their house). I suspect that again, many who have gazing globes in their gardens would be surprised at this connection.

Witchballs were not always glass. Some were made from human hair and grease formed into a ball, or with animal hair, as in this funny, flatulent story from North Carolina called The Witchball:

Once there was a poor boy who wanted to marry a girl, but her folks didn't want him. Hs grandma was a witch an' she said she'd fix it up. Sh made a horsehair witchball, an' put it under the girl's doorstep. The girl come outside, passin' over the witchball, an' went back in the house. She started to say somethin' to her mother, an' ripped out (crepitus ventris), an' every time she spoke a word, she'd rip out. Her mother told her to stop that or she'd lick her. Then the mother went out for somethin' an' when she came back in, she broke wind too, every time she spoke. The father come in an' he did gthe same thing.

He thought somethin' was the matter. so he called the doctor, an' when the coctor come in over the doorstep, he started to poop with every word he said. and they were all atalkin' and apoopin' when the ol' witch come in, and told them that God had probably sent that on them as a curse because they wouldn' allow their daughter to marry the poor boy. They told her to run and git the boy, 'cause he could marry their girl right away, if God would only take that curse offa them. The ole witch went and got the boy, an' on her way out, she slipped the witchball out from under the doorstep. The boy an' girl got married and lived happily ever after. (from The Encyclopedia of Superstitions--a History of Superstitions. M. and E. Radford, Rider & Company, London; probably first published in Journal of American Folklore 47, October-December 1934, "White Folktales and Riddles" by Ralph Steele Boggs.)

Want to know more? Try these online articles:

The dunking test.

Swimming and other strange tests for witches.

10 Tests For Guilt at the Salem Witch Trials.

History of the Gazing Globe.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Marilyn said...

I love witch balls. I have six or seven of them. I had always heard that the witch or evil spirit would be attracted to the shiny balls, but when they came inside to investigate they were trapped by the glass strands and could not escape. I have a colonial-era story about a witch ball.

Brig said...

That was interesting to learn, I had not heard these background stories before.

Granny Sue said...

I'd love to hear that story sometime, Marilyn. I found only the one story that mentioned them, but I will need to do some more looking.

Mac n' Janet said...

Great post, never heard of witch balls made of hair. Saw some for sale in an antique shop in England. Also saw a dunking stool in a church there.

Steve Arnold said...

I have always wondered why people had gazing balls in their gardens. I never knew their origin, thanks for a very informative post!

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