- Peter Holslin
- Michael Ingleby, the "friendly neighborhood witch" of magic shop Cat & Cauldron, tells City Weekly's fortune on his trademark crystal ball.
On a brisk autumn afternoon, sitting under a birch tree on the wooden patio of his magic shop in Taylorsville, Michael Ingleby holds communion with his unconscious mind.
Peering through violet-colored contact lenses into the depths of a humongous crystal ball, he makes out a handful of images. There's a dog. A tower. And a leaf of some sort—not a birch leaf (as you might guess from the scrawny tree behind him), but different, more in the shape of a maple leaf.
"I don't know what the association behind that might be for you, but it's something else that shows up here," Ingleby, co-owner of Cat & Cauldron, a metaphysical supply store, tells me.
This is just a quick demonstration of Ingleby's skills as a "scryer"—a practitioner of the occult arts who is able to interpret images and seek meaning through mediums like crystal balls, pools of water, flickering flames and tea leaves.
Scrying (the word comes from the Middle English word "descry," meaning to "catch sight of" or "spy from a distance") has roots in ancient traditions. But in America, it's most commonly associated with witchcraft and fortune-telling. Here in Salt Lake, multiple practicing witches offer their services as scryers, peering into crystal balls to offer spiritual guidance by interpreting the images they see. Joseph Smith, prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was also a well-known scryer, using a "seer stone" to translate The Book of Mormon.
On another cold evening during the week before Halloween, I step into Crone's Hollow—a "magical emporium" in South Salt Lake—to see if I can learn a bit more about this mysterious trade. When I inquire about scrying, an employee steps into a back room and summons one of the owners, TaMara Gold, who promptly welcomes me into her office for an interview.
Gold has been reading crystal balls for 20 years. Every scryer has their own preferred mediums and methods, and she specializes in using a large crystal ball, along with 13 smaller balls (or the "13 sisters," as she calls them) and a flaming cauldron.
"What you have to believe is that the universe offers up to you whatever information you need to know at that time. So, the reader is the conduit for that information," Gold says in between sips of pumpkin-spice coffee. A witch's broom rests in the back corner behind her desk. A box of Tarot cards sits on a silver tray, and before her is arranged a pile of tiny animal bones, used in other types of fortune-telling sessions.
According to Gold, a good scryer relies on natural clairvoyance and well-practiced interpretation. The craft works similarly to the way someone might study a Rorschach inkblot or "Magic Eye" puzzle, slipping slightly beyond their everyday faculties to channel a deeper awareness.
"What you actually see in the ball is reflections and what's around you. And isn't that the way with life? Everything we see, everything we perceive, is all about what's around us and how we view it based on our own filters," Gold says. "I will 'see' things in the ball, and maybe it's a reflection of this cup, or of that refrigerator. But as I look at it and I unfocus my eyes ... something will come out."
As it happens, many pagans, witches, academics and researchers have pointed out that this practice bears more than a faint resemblance to the work of young Joseph Smith.
Growing up in the "burned-over district" of western New York—so named for the revivialist religious fervor taking hold in the area at the time—Smith was reputed to be able to discern the location of hidden treasure using "peep stones" or "seer stones," which he would read by putting his face into a hat with the stone dropped at the bottom.
His scrying efforts got him into legal trouble in 1826. But a couple years later, Smith was said to have used a now-iconic "seer stone" to translate the golden plates given to him by the angel Moroni. LDS historians acknowledge that this is how Smith presented his flock with The Book of Mormon. A photograph of the opaque, layered, brown-colored "seer stone" he used is on display at the Church History Museum, across the street from Temple Square. For any doubters, there's a video on the church's website featuring two buttoned-up academics seeking to clear up questions about this quirky-sounding practice."He's just trying to block out light. That's the point," Mark Ashurst-McGee, an official historian for the LDS church, explains in the video—likening Smith's stone-in-hat translation methods to the way someone would put their hand over their smartphone screen to read a text message on a sunny day.
"We believe in a God that can work through small and simple things, and God can speak to Joseph Smith however he wants to," Ashurst-McGee adds, describing Smith's use of the seer stone as one of God's "modern miracles."
Other historians see Smith's scrying a bit differently. D. Michael Quinn, a renowned scholar of Latter-day Saint history and former BYU professor who was excommunicated from the LDS church in 1993, explores in his exhaustively researched book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View how the Smith family embraced treasure-hunting and occult magic, practices that were popular in America during the 17th and 18th century and that informed the church's early years.
The book wasn't written to discredit Smith or the church. Quinn stresses in the book's introduction that it's important to situate the early years of the church in the context of its own time and place. He also makes an effort to untangle the overlap between magic and religion in general—both of which, Quinn writes, "involve supernatural supplication, supernatural coercion, intricate rituals and efforts to understand the otherworldly and ineffable."
Gold, from her professional standpoint, believes some genuine forms of magic did play a role in Smith's use of seer stones.
"I believe that he had some kind of sight," she says, adding that she considers Smith a "witch" and a "charlatan."
"When he took those stones and put them down into the hat, and put his face down in there, what he was doing was he was shutting out everything else and he was making a connection with those stones. Do I believe he had the sight? Yeah. I mean, I think there was charlatanism mixed in with that. But he had the ability to see things."
At Cat & Cauldron, orange leaves fall into great piles on the patio as Ingleby continues gazing into his crystal ball. He says there isn't much overlap between his pagan-oriented practices and the LDS church today. However, many of his clients are themselves Latter-day Saints, attending fortune-telling sessions at the shop but also getting up early for church every Sunday.
Whatever their spiritual affiliations, Ingleby suspects that humans are often looking for the same answers.
"We are all curious—what else is out there?" he says.