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What are witch balls and how were they used?

And what to keep an eye out for when you want to buy one

What are witch balls?

If you’re in the habit of rummaging around antique stores, there’s a chance that you may have come across a ‘witch ball’. Witch balls are large or medium glass balls, highly decorative, often silvered, green, gold, red or blue, with a lustrous mirrored surface. The ball should have a metal loop on the top through which you can attach a chain or rope to hang it from the ceiling.

What is the history of witch balls?

As with so many other antiques, there’s a romantic (if not always strictly factual) story lurking somewhere.
In popular imagination, ‘witch balls’ were hung up in 18th and 19th-century windows to ward off evil spirits. It was believed that witches could be entrapped by their own reflection. If you hang up a witch ball you will see that it reflects the entire room, creating a fascinating optical effect.
I also came across another theory that the balls were originally used to dry salt in front of the fire and, as salt was considered a useful talisman against the ‘evil eye’, the association stuck.

Origin & purpose

The witch ball originated among cultures where harmful magic and those who practiced it were feared. The word witch ball may be a corruption of watch ball because it was used to ward off, guard against, evil spirits. They may be hung in an eastern window, placed on top of a vase or suspended by a cord (as from the mantelpiece or rafters). They may also be placed on sticks in windows or hung in rooms where inhabitants wanted to ward off evil

There are several variations relating to the purpose of witch balls. According to folk tales, witch balls would entice evil spirits with their bright colours; the strands inside the ball would then capture the spirit and prevent it from escaping. Another tradition holds that witch balls or spherical mirrors prevented a witch from being in a room, because witches supposedly did not have a reflection or could not bear seeing their own reflection. Yet another variation contends that witch balls were used to avert the evil eye, by attracting the gaze of the eye and preventing harm to the house and its inhabitants.

In the 17th century, witch balls and witch bottles were filled with holy water or salt. Balls containing salt were hung up in the chimney to keep the salt dry. Salt was a precious commodity, and breaking the ball or bottle was considered bad luck.

Christmas ornament?

It is sometimes claimed that the modern Christmas ornament ball is descended from the witch ball. The ornament was allegedly originally placed on the tree to dispel a visitor’s envy at the presents left beneath the tree.

What to look for when buying witch balls

Of course witch balls make a fun and unusual thing to collect, especially at Christmas. A collection of witch balls would look fantastic if arranged en masse or, during the summer months, if hung from a tree. Once you’ve handled an original example you should get the feel for it. Nineteenth-century balls should be handblown. They will have an uneven surface. Look for original tarnishing, wear and spotting on mercury and silver plating (as you might see on old mirror plates), dimples and imperfections in the glass.
The bottom of the ball might also be worn, especially if the ball has been stored away for some time, and the ball will also be heavy. Many of the modern versions are much lighter in weight. The metal mount and loop should have genuine age.

And as a final note of warning: they say it is bad luck to sell a witch ball. So if you’re thinking of buying one, remember that a witch ball is for life, not just for Christmas. Good luck with starting your own collection!