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Scrying, or, Crystal Gazing


Contents:

Revival of crystal-gazing. Antiquity of the practice. Its general harmlessness. Superstitious explanations. Crystal-gazing and 'illusions hypnagogiques'. Visualisers. Poetic vision. Ancient and savage practices analogous to crystal-gazing. New Zealand. North America. Egypt. Sir Walter's interest in the subject. Mr. Kinglake. Greek examples. Dr. Dee. Miss X. Another modern instance. Successes and failures. Revival of lost memories. Possible thought-transference. Inferences from antiquity and diffusion of practice. Based on actual experience. Anecdotes of Dr. Gregory. Children as visionaries. Not to be encouraged.


The practice of 'scrying,' 'peeping,' or 'crystal-gazing,' has been revived in recent years, and is, perhaps, the only 'occult' diversion which may be free from psychological or physical risk, and which it is easy not to mix with superstition. The antiquity and world-wide diffusion of scrying, in one form or other, interests the student of human nature. Meanwhile the comparatively few persons who can see pictures in a clear depth, may be as innocently employed while so doing, as if they were watching the clouds, or the embers. 'May be,' one must say, for crystal-seers are very apt to fall back on our old friend, the animistic hypothesis, and to explain what they see, or fancy they see, by the theory that 'spirits' are at the bottom of it all. In Mrs. de Morgan's work From Matter to Spirit, suggestions of this kind are not absent: 'As an explanation of crystal-seeing, a spiritual drawing was once made, representing a spirit directing on the crystal a stream of influence,' and so forth. Mrs. de Morgan herself seemed rather to hold that the act of staring at a crystal mesmerises the observer. The person who looks at it often becomes sleepy. 'Sometimes the eyes close, at other times tears flow.' People who become sleepy, or cry, or get hypnotised, will probably consult their own health and comfort by leaving crystal balls alone.

There are others, however, who are no more hypnotised by crystal- gazing than tea-drinking, or gardening, or reading a book, and who can still enjoy visions as beautiful as those of the opium eater, without any of the reaction. Their condition remains perfectly normal, that is, they are wide awake to all that is going on. In some way their fancy is enlivened, and they can behold, in the glass, just such vivid pictures as many persons habitually see between sleeping and waking, illusions hypnagogiques. These 'hypnagogic illusions' Pontus de Tyard described in a pretty sonnet, more than three hundred years ago. Maury, in his book on dreams has recorded, and analysed them. They represent faces, places, a page of print, a flame of fire, and so forth, and it is one of their peculiarities that the faces rapidly shift and alter, generally from beautiful to ugly. A crystal-seer seems to be a person who can see, in a glass, while awake and with open eyes, visions akin to those which perhaps the majority of people see with shut eyes, between sleeping and waking. {214} It seems probable that people who, when they think, see a mental picture of the subject of their thoughts, people who are good 'visualisers,' are likely to succeed best with the crystal, some of them can 'visualise' purposely, in the crystal, while others cannot. Many who are very bad 'visualisers,' like the writer, who think in words, not in pictures, see bright and distinct hypnagogic illusions, yet see nothing in the crystal, however long they stare at it. And there are crystal-seers who are not subject to hypnagogic illusions. These facts, like the analogous facts of the visualisation of arithmetical figures, analysed by Mr. Galton, show interesting varieties in the conduct of mental operations. Thus we speak of 'vision' in a poet, or novelist, and it seems likely that men of genius 'see' their fictitious characters and landscapes, while people of critical temperament, if they attempt creative work, are conscious that they do not create, but construct. On the other hand many incompetent novelists are convinced that they have 'vision,' that they see and hear their characters, but they do not, as genius does, transfer the 'vision' to their readers.

This is a digression from the topic of hallucinations caused by gazing into a clear depth. Forms of crystal-gazing, it is well known, are found among savages. The New Zealanders, according to Taylor, gaze in a drop of blood, as the Egyptians do in a drop of ink. In North America, the Pere le Jeune found that a kind of thought reading was practised thus: it was believed that a sick person had certain desires, if these could be gratified, he would recover. The sorcerers, therefore, gazed into water in a bowl expecting to see there visions of the desired objects. The Egyptian process with the boy and the ink, is too familiar to need description. In Scott's Journal (ii. 419) we read of the excitement which the reports of Lord Prudhoe {215} and Colonel Felix, caused among the curious. A boy, selected by these English gentlemen, saw and described Shakspeare, and Colonel Felix's brother, who had lost an arm. The ceremonies of fumigation, and the preliminary visions of flags, and a sultan, are not necessary in modern crystal-gazing. Scott made inquiries at Malta, and wished to visit Alexandria. He was attracted, doubtless, by the resemblance to Dr. Dee's tales of his magic ball, and to the legends of his own Aunt Margaret's Mirror. The Quarterly Review (No. 117, pp. 196-208) offers an explanation which explains nothing. The experiments of Mr. Lane were tolerably successful, those of Mr. Kinglake, in Eothen, were amusingly the reverse. Dr. Keate, the flogging headmaster of Eton, was described by the seer as a beautiful girl, with golden hair and blue eyes. The modern explanation of successes would apparently be that the boy does, occasionally, see the reflection of his interrogator's thoughts.

In a paper in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (part xiv.), an anonymous writer gives the results of some historical investigation into the antiquities of crystal-gazing. The stories of cups, 'wherein my lord divines,' like Joseph, need not necessarily indicate gazing into the deeps of the cup. There were other modes of using cups and drops of wine, not connected with visions. At Patrae, in Greece, Pausanias describes the dropping of a mirror on to the surface of a well, the burning of incense, and the vision of the patient who consults the oracle in the deeps of the mirror. {216a} A Christian Father asserts that, in some cases, a basin with a glass bottom was used, through which the gazer saw persons concealed in a room below, and took them for real visions. {216b} In mirror-magic (catoptromancy), the child seer's eyes were bandaged, and he saw with the top of his head! The Specularii continued the tradition through the Middle Ages, and, in the sixteenth century Dr. Dee ruined himself by his infatuation for 'show-stones,' in which Kelly saw, or pretended to see, visions which Dr. Dee interpreted. Dee kept voluminous diaries of his experiments, part of which is published in a folio by Meric Casaubon. The work is flighty, indeed crazy; Dee thought that the hallucinations were spirits, and believed that his 'show-stones' were occasionally spirited away by the demons. Kelly pretended to hear noises in the stones, and to receive messages.

In our own time, while many can see pictures, few know what the pictures represent. Some explain them by interpreting the accompanying 'raps,' or by 'automatic writing'. The intelligence thus conveyed is then found to exist in county histories, newspapers, and elsewhere, a circumstance which lends itself to interpretation of more sorts than one. Without these very dubious modes of getting at the meaning of the crystal pictures, they remain, of course, mere picturesque hallucinations. The author of the paper referred to, is herself a crystal-seer, and (in Borderland No. 2) mentions one very interesting vision. She and a friend stared into one of Dr. Dee's 'show-stones,' at the Stuart exhibition, and both beheld the same scene, not a scene they could have guessed at, which was going on at the seer's own house. As this writer, though versed in hallucinations, entirely rejects any 'spiritual' theory, and conceives that, she is dealing with purely psychological curiosities, her evidence is the better worth notice, and may be compared with that of a crystal-seer for whose evidence the present writer can vouch, as far as one mortal may vouch for that of another.

Miss X., the writer in the Psychical Proceedings, has been able to see pictures in crystals and other polished surfaces, or, indeed, independently of these, since childhood. She thinks that the visions are:--

1. After-images, or recrudescent memories (often memories of things not consciously noted).

2. Objectivations of ideas or images, consciously or unconsciously present to the mind.

3. Visions, possibly telepathic or clairvoyant, implying acquirement of knowledge by supernormal means. The first class is much the most frequent in this lady's experience. She can occasionally refresh her memory by looking into the crystal.

The other seer, known to the writer, cannot do this, and her pictures, as far as she knows, are purely fanciful. Perhaps an 'automatic writer' might interpret them, in the rather dubious manner of that art. As far as the 'scryer' knows, however, her pictures of places and people are not revivals of memory. For example, she sees an ancient ship, with a bird's beak for prow, come into harbour, and behind it a man carrying a crown. This is a mere fancy picture. On one occasion she saw a man, like an Oriental priest, with a white caftan, contemplating the rise and fall of a fountain of fire: suddenly, at the summit of the fire, appeared a human hand, pointing downwards, to which the old priest looked up. This was in August, 1893. Later in the month the author happened to take up, at Loch Sheil, Lady Burton's Life of Sir Richard Burton. On the back of the cover is a singular design in gold. A woman in widow's weeds is bowing beneath rays of light, over which appears a human hand, marked R. F. B. on the wrist. The author at once wrote asking his friend the crystal-gazer if she had seen this work of art, which might have unconsciously suggested the picture. The lady, however, was certain that she had not seen the Life of Sir Richard Burton, though her eye, of course, may have fallen on it in a bookseller's shop, while her mind did not consciously take it in. If this was a revival of a sub-conscious memory in the crystal, it was the only case of that process in her experience.

On the other hand Miss X. can trace many of her visions to memories, as Maury could in his illusions hypnagogiques. Thus, Miss X. saw in the crystal, the printed announcement of a friend's death. She had not consciously read the Times, but remembered that she had held it up before her face as a firescreen. This kind of revival, as she says, corresponds to the writing, with planchette, of scraps from the Chanson de Roland, by a person who had never consciously read a line of it, and who did not even know what stratum of Old French was represented by the fragments. Miss X. seems not to know either; for she calls it 'Provencal'. Similar instances of memory revived are not very uncommon in dreams. Miss X. can consciously put a group of fanciful characters into the crystal, while this is beyond the power of the seer known to the writer, who has attempted to perceive what a friend is doing at a distance, but with no success. Thus she tried to discover what the writer might be about, and secured a view of two large sunny rooms, with a shadowy figure therein. Now it is very probable that the writer was in just such a room, at --- Castle, but the seer saw, on the library table, a singular mirror, which did not exist there, and a model of a castle, also non-existent. The knowledge that the person sought for was staying at a 'castle,' may have unconsciously suggested this model in the picture.

A pretty case of revived memory is given by Miss X. She wanted the date of Ptolemy Philadelphus. Later, in the crystal, she saw a conventional old Jew, writing in a book with massive clasps. Using a magnifying glass, she found that he was writing Greek, but the lines faded, and she only saw the Roman numerals LXX. These suggested the seventy Hebrews who wrote the Septuagint, with the date, 277 B.C., which served for Ptolemy Philadelphus. Miss X. later remembered a memoria technica which she had once learned, with the clue, 'Now Jewish elders indite a Greek copy'. It is obvious that these queer symbolical reawakenings of memory explain much of the (apparently) 'unknown' information given by 'ghosts,' and in dreams. A lady, who had long been in very bad health, was one evening seized by a violent recrudescence of memory, and for hours poured out the minutest details of the most trivial occurrences; the attack was followed by a cerebral malady from which she fortunately recovered. The same phenomenon of awakened memory has occasionally been reported by people who were with difficulty restored after being seven-eighths drowned.

The crystal ball, in the proper hands, merely illustrates the possibility of artificially reviving memory, while the fanciful visions, akin to illusions hypnagogiques, have, in all ages, been interpreted by superstition as revelations of the distant or the future. Of course, if there is such a thing as occasional transference of thought, so that the idea in the inquirer's mind is reflected in the crystal-gazer's vision, the hypothesis of the superstitious will fix on this as a miracle, still more will that hypothesis be strengthened, if future or distant events, not consciously known, are beheld. Such things must occasionally occur, by chance, in the myriad confusions of dreams, and, to the same extent, in crystal visions. Miss X.'s three cases of possible telepathy in her own experience are trivial, and do not seem to rise beyond the possibility of fortuitous coincidence: and her possible clairvoyant visions she leaves to the judgment of the reader, 'to interpret as clairvoyance, or coincidence, or prevision, or whatever else he will'. The crystal-gazer known to the author once managed to see the person (unknown to her) who was in the mind of the other party in the experiment. But she has made scarcely any experiments of this description.

The inferences to be drawn from crystal-gazing are not unimportant. First, we note that the practice is very ancient and widely diffused, among civilised and uncivilised people. In this diffusion it answers to the other practices, the magical rites of Australian blacks, Greeks, Eskimo; to the stories of 'death-bed wraiths,' of rappings, and so forth. Now this uniformity, as far as regards the latter phenomena, may be explained by transmission of ideas, or by the uniformity of human nature, while the phenomena themselves may be mere inventions like other myths. In the case of crystal-gazing, however, we can scarcely push scepticism so far as to deny that the facts exist, that hallucinations are actually provoked. The inference is that a presumption is raised in favour of the actuality of the other phenomena universally reported. They, too, may conceivably be hallucinatory; the rappings and haunting noises may be auditory, as the crystal visions are ocular hallucinations. The sounds so widely attested may not cause vibrations in the air, just as the visions are not really in the crystal ball. As the unconscious self suggests the pictures in the ball, so it may suggest the unexplained noises. But while, as a rule, only one gazer sees the visions, the sounds (usually but not invariably) are heard by all present. On the whole, the one case wherein we find facts, if only facts of hallucination, at the bottom of the belief in a world-wide and world-old practice, rather tends in the direction of belief in the other facts, not less universally alleged. We know too much about mythology to agree with Dr. Johnson, in holding that 'a belief, which prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth,' that 'those who never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience could make credible'. But, on the other hand, a belief is not necessarily untrue, because it is universally diffused.

In the second place, crystal-gazing shows how a substratum of fact may be so overlaid with mystic mummeries, incantations, fumigations, pentacles: and so overwhelmed in superstitious interpretations, introducing fairies and spirits, that the facts run the risk of being swept away in the litter and dust of nonsense. Science has hardly thought crystal-gazing worthy even of contempt, yet it appears to deserve the notice of psychologists. To persons who can 'scry,' and who do not see hideous illusions, or become hypnotised, or superstitious, or incur headaches, scrying is a harmless gateway into Les Paradis Artificiels. 'And the rest, they may live and learn.' {223}

A very few experiments will show people whether they are scryers, or not. The phenomena, it seems, are usually preceded by a mistiness, or milkiness, of the glass: this clears off, and pictures appear. Even the best scryers often fail to see anything in the crystal which maintains its natural 'diaphaneity,' as Dr. Dee says. Thus the conditions under which the scryer can scry, are, as yet, unascertained.

The phenomena of scrying were not unknown to Dr. Gregory, Professor of Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh. Dr. Gregory believed in 'odylic fluid' on the evidence of Reichenbach's experiments, which nobody seems to have repeated successfully under strict tests. Clairvoyance also was part of Dr. Gregory's faith, and, to be fair, phenomena were exhibited at his house, in the presence of a learned and distinguished witness known to the writer, which could only be accounted for either by thought transference, or by an almost, or quite incredible combination of astuteness, and imposture on the side of Dr. Gregory himself. In presence of the clairvoyants the nobleman of whom we speak thought not of his own house, but of a room in the house of a friend. It possessed a very singular feature which it is needless to describe here, but which was entirely out of the experience of the clairvoyante. She described it, however, expressing astonishment at what she 'saw'. This, unless Dr. Gregory guessed what was likely to be thought of, and was guilty of collusion, can only be explained by thought transference. In other cases the doctor was convinced that he had evidence of actual clairvoyance, and it is difficult to estimate the amount of evidence which will clear such a belief of the charge of credulity. As to 'scrying' the doctor thought it could be done in 'mesmerised water,' water bewitched. There is no reason to imagine that 'mesmerised' is different from ordinary water. {224} He knew that folklore retained the belief in scrying in crystal balls, and added some superfluous magical incantations. The doctor himself was lucky enough to buy an old magical crystal in which some boys, after long staring, saw persons unknown to themselves, but known to the professor, and also persons known to neither. A little girl, casually picking up a crystal ball, cried, 'There's a ship in it, with its cloth all in rags. Now it tumbles down, and a woman is working at it, and holds her head in her hand.' This is a very fair example of a crystal fancy picture. The child's mother, not having heard what the child said, saw the same vision (p. 165). But this is a story at third hand. The doctor has a number of cases, and held that crystal possesses an 'odylic' quality. But a ball of glass serves just as well as a ball of crystal, and is much less expensive.

Children are naturally visionaries, and, as such, are good subjects for experiment. But it may be a cruel, and is a most injudicious thing, to set children a-scrying. Superstition may be excited, or the half-conscious tendency to deceive may be put in motion.

Socrates and Joan of Arc were visionaries as children. Had Joan's ears been soundly boxed, as Robert de Baudricourt advised, France might now be an English province. But they were not boxed, happily for mankind. Certainly much that is curious may be learned by any one who, having the confidence of a child, will listen to his, or her, accounts of spontaneous visions. The writer, as a boy, knew a child who used to lie prone on the grass watching fairies at play in the miniature forest of blades and leaves. This child had a favourite familiar whom he described freely, but as his remarks were received with good-humoured scepticism, no harm came to him. He would have made a splendid scryer, still, 'I speak of him but brotherly,' his revelations would have been taken with the largest allowances. If scrying, on examination, proves to be of real psychological interest, science will owe another debt to folklore, to the folk who kept alive a practice which common-sense would not deign even to examine.


Andrew Lang