A ‘witches globe’—a delicate glass sphere, attached to twine via a (now rusty) nail—hangs in Second Sight: Witchcraft, Ritual, Power at The University of Queensland (UQ) Art Museum. It stands guard, as traditionally intended, to protect those within from the forces of witchcraft.
During its lifetime, this particular witches globe has been variously sold as a historical antique, kept in an anthropology museum, and (here, for the first time) displayed in an art museum. Like many magic-related objects, the globe’s inability to fit comfortably at one cultural institution or within one taxonomy provides a constant challenge to the ways in which modern human sciences have sought to classify the products of human endeavour.
The witch ball, as it is now more commonly known, has historically been an artefact of European religious practices as well as one that reflects the long-standing fascination with the aesthetics and perception-altering potential of reflected and refracted light in rounded glass. These complex origins have meant that witch balls have often defied the taxonomical distinctions underlying divisions between modern cultural institutions: Are they essentially historical objects? ‘primitive’ anthropological objects? religious ritual objects? Or perhaps aesthetic objects?
The Aesthetics of Witch Balls
The interest in decorating spaces with coloured glass spheres can be traced at least as far back as the early modern period (1450–1750). The glass spheres that decorated gardens and rooms enticed observers with their ability to both mirror and distort their view of the world. In 1852, The Magazine of Art in Britain remarked that:
So great is their power of reflection that the entire details of a large apartment are caught upon them with surprising minuteness and clearness of definition and in amusing perspective.
This sentiment was shared by an article in the British Country Life magazine in 1951, which explained that, since the Elizabethan days, ‘Glass spheres … have enlivened dark rooms [and] could mirror a whole room in miniature with the vividness of a Dutch painting.’
There was a simultaneous sense of surprise at the miniaturisation of such detail and one of amusement at being presented with an unfamiliar point of view. The impact on observers would have been similar to the surprise we might feel today when viewing a photograph taken with a fisheye lens or, not so long ago, viewing our distorted bodies in a house of mirrors.
It wasn’t until perhaps the 1930s that witch balls enjoyed their greatest commercial popularity. At this time, women’s magazines recommended decorating modern living spaces with a witch ball—to add ‘charm’ or a ‘gentle Victorian’ touch to a room. In this same period, artists took a particular interest in the curious, paradoxical capacity of reflective spheres to simultaneously distort and accurately reflect reality.
The Witch Ball as Apotropaic Object
The history of the apotropaic use of witch balls is less certain, and may even have been a nineteenth-century innovation, even if the design and use of witch balls drew on older traditions of apotropaic magic.
According to folklore, witch balls were usually hung near entrances. The use of charms at a liminal between-space that marks a social–spatial boundary such as a doorway is common in many societies. The witch ball was thus one of various objects, including shoes and bones, that people commonly placed in the walls of buildings—even those in old Australian houses—to protect their property from harmful forces.
There exist a range of stories in British folklore about how witch balls function. By one account, the ball’s shiny surface would cause a witch to cast a curse back on herself; by another, the empty space within it would trap curses and evil spirits, meaning that ball needed to be cleaned regularly.
Bostock and His Donated Witch Ball
That this ‘witches globe’ came to be housed in an anthropology museum illustrates how the West has popularly imagined where witchcraft fits in world and global history.
This particular witch ball was donated by Dr John Bostock (1892–1987) to UQ’s Anthropology Museum in October 1955. It was labelled a ‘witches globe’ in the museum’s registry.
Bostock was a Scottish-born and London-trained psychiatrist who migrated to Australia in 1922, initially to work at Perth’s Hospital for the Insane. He eventually settled into private practice in Brisbane in 1927, where he remained engaged in the development and training of psychiatrists. Today, the psychiatry ward at the Royal Brisbane Hospital is named after him.
Bostock left us few clues as to why or when he collected this witches globe. He likely purchased it from an antique dealer in Britain, as it has the peeled remains of an undated customs sticker on it, indicating that The British Antique Dealers Association certified the globe as being ‘over 100 years old’. The original label dates it to 1850 and explains that the witches globe was used by ‘the superstitious’ to ‘befuddle any witch who wished to enter’.
Associated documentation identifies the witches globe as originating from Yorkshire, Bostock’s hometown. Bostock always described himself as a Yorkshireman throughout his life and travels. So, it’s possible that he picked up the globe as a memento, or a souvenir, to remember his childhood.
The witches globe in this exhibition was part of a larger group of objects donated by Dr Bostock to the UQ Anthropology Museum, which originate from a wide variety of locations, including Australia, Papua New Guinea, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
Anthropology museums, like the discipline of anthropology itself, emerged in the nineteenth century as spaces dedicated to the study of non-European Others. While the focus of anthropology has changed in recent decades (as the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘other’ has been challenged), it was nevertheless unusual in Bostock’s time for European objects to be displayed in anthropology museums. The fact that the UQ Anthropology Museum accepted the witches globe is likely a product of the belief at the time—based on a stadial view of history—that Europe’s pre-modern past could be equated with the non-European present. Or, to put this more provocatively: It was believed that witchcraft belonged to the West’s past and the non-West’s present. Within this view of the world, it made sense to place artefacts of Europe’s pre-modern past (such as the witch ball) together with objects collected from ‘pre-modern’ non-European peoples.
It’s unlikely that Bostock himself regarded witchcraft as posing a threat. For many people in Britain, however, witchcraft remained a serious matter at the time. In 1956, only one year after Bostock donated his witches globe, the opening of a Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in the British Cotswolds caused uproar in the local community. The small town of Bourton-on-the-Water, at the opposite end of England to Yorkshire, had a reputation of being a pleasant tourist spot, but had experienced a murder case only 10 years prior that was attributed to witchcraft.
Today, the UQ Anthropology Museum catalogue classifies the witches globe as a ‘magic/ritual’ object, which is a very recent category in the museum. Before this category was created, the witches globe was classed as a ‘magic utensil’, which was the category the museum’s former system used for objects used in magic rituals. But it is difficult to divorce the ritual use of witch balls from their aesthetic lure. Certainly, at the time that Bostock donated his witches globe, typical collectors (and there is no evidence to suspect that Bostock was otherwise) preferred witch balls that had demonstrated connections to spiritualists and nomads, as this authenticity greatly enhanced their charm. The difficulty in classifying witch balls comes from the struggle to establish their meaning and audience—whether historical, supernatural, anthropological, or artistic.
Bethany Hawkins is a UQ graduate, with a BA majoring in Ancient History and Writing, and an MA in Museum Studies. She is interested in cultural history, both ancient and modern, and the classification of religious objects—which she recently explored in her master’s thesis.
Dr Daniel Midena is a cultural historian currently based in Copenhagen, Denmark, who holds an honorary affiliation with UQ. His research spans the histories of science and religion (and especially their intersection) in German and British colonies in the South Pacific in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His current research interest is in the history of efforts by colonial administrators to regulate ‘witchcraft’ within the British Pacific empire.