Historical knowledge

A mysterious crystal ball

In the grave from Årslev lay a small ball of rock crystal with a carved inscription, ABLANAQANALBA. The inscription is a so-called palindrome – a text that can be read both forwards and backwards (around the letter Q). The magical use of letters like this palindrome and repetitions of strings of letters was one of the remedies prescribed by the Roman Emperor Caracalla’s personal physician Serenus. The spell ablana/analba is known from several amulets from the Mediterranean area and is related to the cult of the god Abrasax. The meaning of the text is ‘You are our father’.

Beneath the inscription the ball is decorated with a small ‘anchor’. The anchor is an early Christian symbol. In the Bible it is a symbol of hope – the hope of the soul. The anchor may symbolize the soul of the deceased. After a long and perilous journey, the soul finally drops anchor in a safe haven.

We know from the classical authors that rock crystal was thought to have healing properties – it could assuage thirst, and cool and cure fever. Another property of such a crystal ball is that if one looks through it one can see the world upside down. This may have contributed to the magical significance of the ball. The crystal ball from Årslev is the only one of its kind in Denmark. Its origin in the Roman Empire would have made it an exotic object in the Iron Age society of the time. Very few people could write and decipher the Scandinavian runes. Even fewer could read and understand the Greek inscription on the Årslev woman’s crystal ball.

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