During the 17th and 18th century, English land owners would use any and all methods available to them to protect their families and property from Witches. Witch bottles were often buried under the home’s hearth and in some cases, wooden pegs were pounded into the ceiling timbers of the home. Witch marks were carved in the woodwork, talisman were hidden throughout the dwelling; often being hidden under floorboards. The entryways and openings were warded with many different amulets and charms; both above ground and below. Bells made of brass were hung around the necks of animals. Hagstones were used for protection for both humans and animals to prevent witches from riding them to exhaustion. Cold iron knives were buried under the doorstep and salt was used liberally across thresholds and windowsills.
All openings were specifically protected; especially doors, windows, and the chimney. The eastern window would likely have a Witch ball or two hanging in the opening, as well as some on the surrounding trees. There may also have been a horseshoe hanging above the doorway; but with the tines pointing downward, as protection against a Witch entering the home. It may seem excessive in hindsight, but in those uncertain times, there was a widespread belief that Witches were the root of all things evil. It was also believed that legions of Witches were hiding about, nearly everywhere; waiting to steal souls, eat children, and all other sorts of nastiness. Each tool and each method had a different rationale behind it, but at the end of the day, they were all part of an elaborate web of protection against Witches and the effects of witchcraft.
The Witch Ball is a particularly interesting item; often beautiful and ornate, plus there were different stories behind how they worked. Most, but not all, were made of hand-blown glass, usually green or blue. It’s likely that many shades occurred in between the two primary colors as pigmentation wasn’t always an accurate science in those days. There are records of them being made of other items such as wood or other natural materials.
Some have also been discovered covered with strange markings as well. But, in general they were round glass bulbs with a short neck and a hole at the top for a stopper or for hanging. Traditional hanging places were in windows or over the opening of the chimney. They were also placed in prominent places in the home; often on a pillow or other padded base. A Witch ball can range in size from a large marble to more than six inches across; there never was a “standard” size established as far as anyone knows.
The History Behind the Witch Ball
In order to understand the use of Witches Balls, we need to look back to the darker part of history to learn of their origins. To a time when mostly innocent women and men were subjected persecution, pain, and torture; often based on nothing more than an accusation by someone. The church and self-proclaimed Witch hunters would travel throughout the lands seeking to identify and destroy anyone confirmed as being a Witch. The accused were subjected to one of more tests to determine if they were in league with Satan or not, and when found guilty, condemned to death by hanging. Unfortunately, most of the tests were highly subjective and could easily show a person was guilty of Witchcraft, regardless if they actually were.
One gruesome test was called the swimming, or water test. The suspected witch was stripped, bound and thrown in a pond or lake. The logic behind this test was closely connected to the baptismal process used by the church; and the assumption that Witches were unbaptized. Witch hunters believed that a Witch wouldn’t sink in the water, so if the person floated, the hunters would confirm their fate. Since, “the water rejected the person,” it was considered enough evidence. If the person sank to the bottom, they were cleared; yet many of the accused would drown during the tests while the hunters were making up their minds. Of course, we know today that humans do indeed float, so the test was almost theatrical in its application.
At the same time in history, fishermen would use heavy glass balls as fishing floats; stringing them on the edges of their nets. These balls were bluish or green to limit influencing the marine life. These hollow glass balls wouldn’t sink regardless of the amount of weight pulling down on them. These unsinkable balls were “rejected by the water.” The local villagers believed the only way to rid the community of a Witch was by hanging. Combining the two concepts, the already proven balls were “hung” around the home to prevent Witches from entering. A unique approach to be certain, but one with a quick acceptance and high degree of “believability.”
How They Worked – Different Methods for the Same Results
When it came to how the Witch balls worked is where the different stories come into play. Some people believed that a Witch ball acted like a magnet which would pull all negative energy toward itself. Users of these orbs believed they were useful for protection from multiple sources; Witches included. They were often hung from bedposts or in the corners of bedrooms. If a person was extremely sick or suffering from melancholy or depression, or both the belief was that the Witch ball would siphon off the negative energy and help them get some relief. Since all ailments were suspected to originate from Witchcraft, they hoped the ball would cleanse them of their maladies. Another closely related belief was that Witches Balls would negate the effects of the “evil eye” by attracting the gaze of said eye with their sparkling beauty.
When the focus was purely concentrated on defense against Witches, there were several explanations on why they were successful. Blown glass has a tendency to leave strands trapped inside the finished orb. These strands were connected to the inside of the ball and resembled bars when viewed up close. Some believed that these bars were a key part of trapping the energy of a Witch; similar to prison bars is one assumption.
Many people believed the key was related to the color; assuming of course that Witches were both easily lured by something shiny and curious enough to come investigate. Legend has it that once the witch came close, they would be so enamored that they’d enter the orb by their own power. Once inside, they would be trapped for all eternity by the strands. Many other people believed that the Witch ball, both through color and beauty, would mesmerize a Witch to come closer and closer, until the power of the ball would somehow convince the Witch to touch the glass. Once the connection was made between Witch and ball, all the Witch’s energy would be sucked into the orb, which would serve as a prison for the rest of time.
Another belief was that the reflective nature of the ball was where the real power lay. This group believed that Witches, in similar fashion to vampires, did not have a reflection. Another variant to this belief was that Witches were so hideous that they couldn’t bear to see their own reflection. Either way, in this scenario, the Witch Ball actually served to keep them from coming near the locations.
By employing a Witch Ball, the land owners believed they could either trap a Witch for all eternity or prevent a Witch from coming near enough to harm them. The lore does speak of the danger of breaking a Witch Ball; perhaps allowing for the release of a trapped Witch or much worse.
Other Related Things – Possibly Descended from Witch Balls
Gazing balls (the garden type) are thought to be descended from Witch Balls. The school of thought that they work by using reflective power is the basis for this belief. Their origins date back to the 13th Century and their design is quite similar to the glass balls used by fishermen. Of course these were much larger and ornate. Early gazing balls were believed to ward off all types of evil including spirits, ghosts, Witches, demons, and disease. Supposedly, if a garden-type gazing ball was placed near the entrance, any Witch who came near it would see their reflection and be frightened away before causing trouble.
Some people believe Christmas ornaments descended from Witch balls. The hand blown glass balls are similar to the ornaments which started to grow in popularity in the 1800’s, yet not enough evidence exists to make a firm connection.
I’d like to thank several members of the Eastern-Idaho Pagan and Wicca communities for their contributions to this piece. Many of the photographs are from original pieces from the personal collections of Witches, Pagans, and metaphysical practitioners who graciously allowed me access, to share them with the world.