History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Virgin Scrying?

Did you know that it was once thought advantageous to use virgins for scrying? While crystal balls are probably the most common form of scrying known now, and maybe second to that mirrors (you probably know John Dee's famous mirror). But other reflective surfaces have been used, including onychomancy (divination by a polished fingernail).

Claire Fanger makes a good argument for the late medieval link between scrying and summoning spirits. While summoning angels and binding demons might appear on the surface to be completely different skill sets or activities, clearly the two are easily linked because of the cosmological outlook both share:

though techniques are not identical, both types of ritual exist in a continuum of practices which involve similar assumptions about the operators’ place in the cosmos and the appropriateness of seeking spiritually infused knowledge.

 Implicit in this outlook is the involvement of spirits of one kind or another in scrying rituals. You see what you see through the intercession of a spirit that brings you the images across time or space. In this still too-little studied arena of magic, the study of the rituals of John Dee offers the most detail of early magic, though scrying as a practice is known certainly as early as the Greeks. While the assumption has been that early modern magic is quite distinct from medieval magic, Fanger demonstrates well that even Dee draws more on that immediate past than his protestations of 'modernity' would indicate. 'Theologically suspect' as the medieval rituals might be, Dee had many of those medieval necromantic books in his library. As Fanger notes,

Dee’s library was known to have included many medieval ritual texts, including the copy of the Sworn Book of Honorius (an avatar of the ars notoria) now owned by the British Library as Sloane 313. Dee’s Sigillum Dei Æmæth, a diagram which was to be inscribed in beeswax and used as a support for Dee’s crystal, shows a startling similarity to the sigil diagrammed in Sloane 313, though this book is not acknowledged as a source by Dee himself.

More work needs to be done in the area, but the connection seems quite clear. It should not be surprising that supposed breaks with the past often include more borrowing than the 'innovators' would care to acknowledge.

So what about virgins? Part of it is the general 'cleanliness' of the ritual, to avoid any interference from detritus; just as you polish the reflective surface of the crystal or mirror, you want to have your medium free from any kind of disturbance or even influence. In the instructions from MS Rawlinson D 252 it specifies:

The operator is instructed to begin the experiment in clean clothes, and to have a virgin boy or girl and a crystal of good size. You must wash hands and face, and in a private place, when the air is calm, write the names on agla on the stone in olive oil; let the boy be seated with his back to the sun and lay the stone in his hands. 

The ritual itself, whilst appealing to the spirit guides, also invokes a connection to the innate, natural qualities of the crystal. The magic worker seeks to unlock the power of the natural magic within the tools and therefore can 'see' it most clearly not through their own fallen and sinful eyes (however much ritual preparation has been done) by appropriating the vision of a virgin child, the human nature closest to the prelapsarian world. As Fanger argues,

They [these rituals] make the most of the cosmological associations between purity and truthtelling, emphasizing an order of things in which the pure and baptised infant has no choice but to tell the truth, is literally unable to lie.

 It's fascinating the ways people in the past have used these combinations of ritual, religious and natural traditions in their magic working. Syncretism has always been the rule.

What do you see in your crystal ball? 


The fortune teller, Miss Jane Aitken by Edward Arthur Walton, R.S.A., P.R.S.W. (Scottish, 1860–1922)

Work Cited

Fanger, Claire. “Virgin Territory: Purity and Divine Knowledge in Late Medieval Catoptromantic Texts.” Aries, vol. 5, no. 2, July 2005, pp. 200–224. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1163/1570059054761659.

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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