1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Crystal-gazing
CRYSTAL-GAZING, or Scrying, the term commonly applied to the induction of visual hallucinations by concentrating the gaze on any clear deep, such as a crystal or a ball of polished rock crystal. Some persons do not even find a clear deep necessary, and are content to gaze at the palm of the hand, for example, when hallucinatory pictures, as they declare, emerge. Among objects used are a pool of ink in the hand (Egypt), the liver of an animal (tribes of the North-West Indian frontier), a hole filled with water (Polynesia), quartz crystals (the Apaches and the Euahlayi tribe of New South Wales), a smooth slab of polished black stone (the Huille-che of South America), water in a vessel (Zulus and Siberians), a crystal (the Incas), a mirror (classical Greece and the middle ages), the finger-nail, a sword-blade, a ring-stone, a glass of sherry, in fact almost anything. Much depends on what the “seer” is accustomed to use, and some persons who can “scry” in a glass ball or a glass water-bottle cannot “scry” in ink.
The practice of inducing pictorial hallucinations by such methods as these has been traced among the natives of North and South America, Asia, Australia, Africa, among the Maoris, who sometimes use a drop of blood, and in Polynesia, and is thus practically of world-wide diffusion. This fact was not observed (that is, the collections of examples were not made) till recently, when experiments in private non-spiritualist circles drew attention to crystal-gazing, a practice always popular among peasants, and known historically to have survived through classical and medieval times, and, as in the famous case of Dr Dee, after the Reformation.
The early church condemned specularii (mirror-gazers), and Aubrey and the Memoirs of Saint-Simon contain “scrying” anecdotes of the 17th and 18th centuries, while Sir Walter Scott’s story, My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror, is based on a tradition of about 1750 in a noble Scottish family. The practice, in all times and countries, was used for purposes of divination. The gazer detected unknown criminals, or described remote events, or even professed to foretell things future. Sometimes the supposed magician or medicine man himself did the scrying; occasionally he enabled his client to see for himself; often a child was selected as the scryer. The process was usually explained as the result of the action of a spirit, angel or devil, and many unessential formulae, invocations, “calls,” written charms with cabbalistic signs, and fumigations, were employed. These things may have had some effect by way of suggestion; the scryer may have been brought by them into an appropriate frame of mind; but, as a whole, they are tedious and superfluous.
A person can either induce the pictorial hallucinations (he may discover his capacity by accident, like George Sand, as she tells in her Memoirs—and other cases are known), or he cannot induce them, though he stare till his eyes water. It is almost universally found, in cases of successful experiment, that the glass ball, for example, takes a milky or misty aspect, that it then grows black, reflections disappearing, and that then the pictures emerge. Some people arrive at seeing the glass ball milky or misty, and can go no further. Others see pictures of persons or landscapes, only in black and white, and motionless. Others see in the glass coloured figures of men, women and animals in motion; while in rarer cases the ball disappears from view, and the scryer finds himself apparently looking at an actual scene. In a few attested cases two persons have shared the same vision. In experiments with magnifying glasses, and through spars, the ordinary effects of magnifying and of alteration of view are sometimes produced; sometimes they are not. The evidence, of course, is necessarily only that of the scryers themselves, but repeated experiments by persons of probity, and unfamiliar with the topic, combined with the world-wide existence of the practice, prove that hallucinatory pictures are really induced.
It has not been found possible to determine, before experiment, whether any given man or woman will prove capable of the hallucinatory experiences. Many subjects with strong powers of “visualization,” or seeing things “in the mind’s eye,” cannot scry; others are successful in various degrees. We might expect persons who have experienced spontaneous visual hallucinations, of the kind vulgarly styled “ghosts” or “wraiths,” to succeed in inducing pictures in a glass ball. As a matter of fact such persons sometimes can and sometimes cannot see pictures in the way of crystal-gazing; while many who can see in the crystal have had no spontaneous hallucinations. It is useless to make experiments with hysterical and visionary people, “whose word no man relies on”; they may have the hallucinatory experiences, but they would say that they had in any case.
The nearest analogy to crystal visions, as described, is the common experience of “hypnagogic illusions” (cf. Alfred Maury. Les Rêves et le sommeil). With closed eyes, between sleeping and waking, many people see faces, landscapes and other things flash upon their view, pictures often brilliant, but of very brief duration and rapid mutation. Sometimes the subject opens his eyes to get rid of an unpleasant vision of this kind. People who cannot scry may have these hypnagogic illusions, and, so far, may partly understand the experience of the scryer who is wide awake. But the visions of the scryer often endure for a considerable time. He or she may put the glass down and converse, and may find the picture still there when the ball is taken up again. New figures may join the figure first seen, as when one enters a room. In these respects, and in the awakeness of the scryer, crystal pictures differ from hypnagogic illusions. In other ways the experiences coincide, the pictures are either fanciful, like illustrations of some unread history or romance, or are revivals of remembered places and faces.
Occasionally, in hypnagogic illusions, the observer can see the picture develop rapidly out of a blot of light or colour, beheld by the closed eyes. One or two scryers think that they, too, can trace the picture as it develops on the suggestion of some passage of light, colour or shadow in the glass or crystal. But, as a rule, the scryer cannot detect any process of development from such points de mire; though this may be the actual process.
On the whole there seems little doubt that successful crystal-gazing is the exertion of a not uncommon though far from universal faculty, like those of “chromatic audition”—the vivid association of certain sounds with certain colours—and the mental seeing of figures arranged in coloured diagrams (Galton, Inquiry into Human Faculty, pp. 114-154). The experience of hypnagogic illusions also seems far more rare than ordinary dreaming in sleep. Unfortunately, while these phenomena have been carefully studied by officially scientific characters, in England orthodox savants have disdained to observe crystal-gazing, while in France psychologists have too commonly experimented with subjects professionally hysterical and quite untrustworthy. Our remarks are therefore based mainly on considerable personal study of “scrying” among normal British subjects of both sexes, to whom the topic was previously unknown.
The superstitious associations of crystal-gazing, as of hypnotism, appear to bar the way to official scientific investigation, and the fluctuating proficiency of the seers, who cannot command success, or determine the causes and conditions of success and failure, tends in the same direction. The existence, too, of paid professionals who lead astray silly women, encourages the natural scientific contempt for the study of the faculty.
The seeing of the pictures, as far as we have spoken of it, appears to be a thing unusual, but in no way abnormal, any more than dreams or hypnagogic illusions are abnormal. Crystal pictures, however, are commonly dismissed as mere results of “imagination,” a theory which, of course, is of no real assistance to psychology. Persons of recognized “imaginativeness,” such as novelists and artists, do not seem more or less capable of the hallucinatory experiences than their sober neighbours; while persons not otherwise recognizably “imaginative” (we could quote a singularly accurate historian) are capable of the experiences. It is unfortunate, as it awakens prejudice, but in the present writer’s opinion it is true, that crystal-gazing sometimes is rewarded with results which may be styled “supra-normal.” In addition to the presentation of revived memories, and of “objectivation of ideas or images consciously or unconsciously in the mind of the percipient,” there occur “visions, possibly telepathic or clairvoyant, implying acquirement of knowledge by supra-normal means.”
A number of examples occurring during experiments made by the present writer and by his acquaintances in 1897 were carefully recorded and attested by the signatures of all concerned. The cases, or rather a selection of the cases, are printed in A. Lang’s book, The Making of Religion (2nd ed., London, 1902, pp. 87-104). Others are chronicled in A. Lang’s Introduction to Mr N. W. Thomas’s work, Crystal Gazing (1905). The experiments took this form: any person might ask the scryer (a lady who had never previously heard of crystal-gazing) “to see what he was thinking of.” The scryer, who was a stranger in a place which she had not visited before, gave, in a long series of cases, a description of the person or place on which the inquirer’s thoughts were fixed. The descriptions, though three or four entire failures occurred, were of remarkable accuracy as a rule, and contained facts and incidents unknown to the inquirers, but confirmed as accurate. In fact, some Oriental scenes and descriptions of incidents were corroborated by a letter from India which arrived just after the experiment; and the same thing happened when the events described were occurring in places less remote. On one occasion a curious set of incidents were described, which happened to be vividly present to the mind of a sceptical stranger who chanced to be in the room during the experiment; events unknown to the inquirer in this instance. As an example of the minuteness of description, an inquirer, thinking of a brother in India, an officer in the army, whose hair had suffered in an encounter with a tiger, had described to her an officer in undress uniform, with bald scars through the hair on his temples, such as he really bore. The number and proportion of successes was too high to admit of explanation by chance coincidence, but success was not invariable. On one occasion the scryer could see nothing, “the crystal preserved its natural diaphaneity,” as Dr Dee says; and there were failures with two or three inquirers. On the other hand no record was kept in several cases of success.
Whoever can believe that the successes were numerous and that descriptions were given correctly—not only of facts present to the minds of inquirers, and of other persons present who were not consciously taking a share in the experiments, but also of facts necessarily unknown to all concerned—must of course be most impressed by the latter kind of success. If the process commonly styled “telepathy” exists (see Telepathy), that may account for the scryer’s power of seeing facts which are in the mind of the inquirer. But when the scryers see details of various sorts, which are unknown to the inquirer, but are verified on inquiry, then telepathy perhaps fails to provide an explanation. We seem to be confronted with actual clairvoyance (q.v.), or vue à distance. It would be vain to form hypotheses as to the conditions or faculties which make vue à distance possible. This way lie metaphysics, with Hegel’s theory of the Sensitive Soul, or Myers’ theory of the Subliminal Self. “The intuitive soul,” says Hegel, “oversteps the conditions of time and space; it beholds things remote, things long past, and things to come.”
What we need, if any progress is to be made in knowledge of the subject, is not a metaphysical hypothesis, but a large, carefully tested, and well-recorded collection of examples, made by savants of recognized standing. At present we are where we were in electrical science, when Newton produced curious sparks while rubbing glass with paper. By way of facts, we have only a large body of unattested anecdotes of supra-normal successes in crystal-gazing, in many lands and ages; and the scanty records of modern amateur investigators, like the present writer. Even from these, if the honesty of all concerned be granted (and even clever dishonesty could not have produced many of the results), it would appear that we are investigating a strange and important human faculty. The writer is acquainted with no experiments in which it was attempted to discern the future (except in trivial cases as to events on the turf, when chance coincidence might explain the successes), and only with two or three cases in which there was an attempt to help historical science and discern the past by aid of psychical methods. The results were interesting and difficult to explain, but the experiments were few. Ordinary scryers of fancy pictures are common enough, but scryers capable of apparently supra-normal successes are apparently rare. Perhaps something depends on the inquirer as well as the scryer.
The method of scrying, as generally practised, is simple. It is usual to place a glass ball on a dark ground, to sit with the back to the light, to focus the gaze on the ball (disregarding reflections, if these cannot be excluded), and to await results. Perhaps from five to ten minutes is a long enough time for the experiment. The scryer may let his consciousness play freely, but should not be disturbed by lookers-on. As a rule, if a person has the faculty he “sees” at the first attempt; if he fails in the first three or four efforts he need not persevere. Solitude is advisable at first, but few people can find time amounting to ten minutes for solitary studies of this sort, so busy and so gregarious is mankind. The writer has no experience of trance, sleep or auto-hypnotization produced in such experiments; scryers have always seemed to retain their full normal consciousness. As regards scepticism concerning the faculty we may quote what Mr Galton says about the faculty of visualization: “Scientific men as a class have feeble power of visual reproduction.... They had a mental deficiency of which they were unconscious, and, naturally enough, supposed that those who affirmed they were possessed of it were romancing.”
Authorities.—A useful essay is that of “Miss X” (Miss Goodrich Freer) in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, v. The history of crystal-gazing is here traced, and many examples of the author’s own experiments are recorded. A. Lang’s The Making of Religion, ch. v., contains anthropological examples and a series of experiments. In N. W. Thomas’s Crystal Gazing the history and anthropology of the subject are investigated, with modern instances. For Egypt, see Lane’s Modern Egyptians, and the Journal of Sir Walter Scott, xi. 419–421, with Quarterly Review, No. 117, pp. 196–208. These Egyptian experiments of 1830 were vitiated by their method, the scryer being asked to see and describe a given person, named. He ought not, of course, to be told more than that he is to descry the inquirer’s thoughts, and there ought never to be physical contact, as in holding hands, between the inquirer and the scryer during the experiment. There is a chapter on crystal-gazing in Les Névroses et les idées fixes of Dr Janet (1898). His statements are sometimes demonstrably inaccurate (see Making of Religion, Appendix C). A curious passage on the subject, by Ibn Khaldun, an Arabian medieval savant, is quoted by Mr Thomas from the printed Extracts of MSS. in the Bibliothèque Nationale. There is also a chapter on crystal-gazing in Myers’ Human Personality. (A. L.)
- Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, v. 486.
- “Philosophie der Geistes,” Hegel’s Werke, vii. 179, 406, 408 (Berlin, 1845). Cf. Wallace’s translation (Oxford, 1894).