A Spiritualist Ghostbuster’s Crystal Skull
A Canadian spiritualist ghostbusting actor walks into a bar wearing New Age crystals and a crystal skull around his neck, goes up to the bartender, and orders a vodka. . . . No, this weird mashup is not the setup to a joke (certainly not a funny one) but instead more or less describes one of the strangest intersections of Hollywood, New Age paranormal belief, ghost hunting, and alcohol.
This story involves crystal skulls. There are many skulls in the world carved out of quartz crystal of varying sizes and designs. I’ve seen them in a lot of places, especially in South and Central America, where they are sold as tourist trinkets. The ones you can buy for a few dollars are rather plain, but the big ones (life-size or so) are steeped in myth and romance. There are only a handful of the life-size skulls in existence, and they have inspired awe for generations. They are said to be hundreds of years old and possibly of Mayan or Aztec origin.
I examined a glowing crystal skull in the British Museum (see Figures 1 and 2), and the skulls are indeed a sight to behold. Of course I’m not the only one interested in them. Many people have been enchanted by the world’s crystal skulls. Screenwriter George Lucas has said in interviews that he has been interested in crystal skulls for many years. He even wrote a script about them, which finally became the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (See Figure 3). While there is little evidence for the reality of most of the artifacts that Indy chased in his earlier films (such as the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail), crystal skulls are quite real. The crystal skulls are said to have no tool marks that show when or how they were made. Beyond the artistry of carved crystal, many believe the skulls have special abilities, such as aiding psychic abilities, healing the sick—or even power over death.
Another person interested in crystal skulls is Dan Aykroyd. He’s famous, in skeptical circles anyway, for enthusiastically endorsing all manner of paranormal phenomena and producing a plethora of mystery-mongering TV shows. His website refers to him as “a well-known actor, musician, entrepreneur and spiritualist; a believer in what he calls the ‘invisible world’ where otherworldly presences are a ‘form of reality as valid as our normal reality.’” His father, Peter, is a Canadian author and historian who wrote a book on ghosts titled A History of Ghosts.
Dan Aykroyd was so taken with the skulls, in fact, that he cofounded a Canadian company called Crystal Head Vodka, which launched in 2008 with the bottling of its crystal-filtered libation in novelty glass skulls (Figure 4). The vodka’s packaging states,
A controversial archaeological mystery, 13 crystal heads have been found in regions around the world, from the American southwest to Tibet. They’re dated between 5,000 and 35,000 years old, and were supposedly polished into shape from solid quartz chunks over a period of several hundred years. Although according to Hewlett Packard engineers, they bear no tool marks to tell us exactly how they were made. The heads are thought to offer spiritual power and enlightenment to those who possess them, and as such stand not as symbols of death, but of life.
In a video introduction on the vodka’s website Aykroyd states:
I have always been an avid researcher of the subject of the legendary thirteen crystal heads which have been unearthed at numerous locations and at various times on our planet. The story goes that thirteen crystal heads have been found in places varying from the Yucatan peninsula in Central America to the American Southwest in New Mexico and also in Tibet. There are now seven heads known to be in mankind’s custody . . . and one is currently owned by a woman in the Southwest who claims that she had to finally put it in a closet after he (or she) began speaking to her. Scientists estimate that it took between 300 and 500 years to carve one of these heads from a single piece of quartz. However, in tests conducted on the Mitchell-Hedges head by Hewlett-Packard labs in the 1960s [sic], they could find no discernable tool marks on the head to show how it was carved. Equally fascinating is that according to both physicists and jewelers these heads should not exist but should have shattered in the course of making them. . . . The Navajo believe that [the skulls] were bestowed on their people as a gift from higher beings not of this Earth as a means of cataloguing sacred cultural knowledge from the past, assessing the present, and foretelling the future. Contrary to the common perception of a skull as representing death, the people from these cultures—the Aztec, Mayan, and North American First Nations, for whom these artifacts possess sacred and mystical properties—associate the crystal heads with a life-affirming symbology. In ancient tellings, the heads are living and sentient sources of knowledge, insight, and power. (Aykroyd 2008)
Perhaps Aykroyd was sampling some of his own product, because very little of what he said is accurate. Tool marks have indeed been found on several of the crystal skulls (see Sax et al. 2008); the Hewlett-Packard report says nothing of the sort (Hewlett Packard 1971); and in any event Aykroyd seems unaware that one of the crystal skulls he highlights, the New Mexico “crystal skull,” is in fact not crystal at all but instead made of blown glass (Smith 2008; see Figure 5) and therefore would not have “shattered in the course of making” it, as he claimed. As for the most famous crystal skull in the world, researchers such as Joe Nickell (2006) and Daniel Loxton (2008) note that the Mitchell-Hedges skull was not in fact found in the Yucatan peninsula but was instead bought at auction, and its reputed history is thoroughly fraudulent.
Not only is the vodka made from pure Newfoundland water and bottled in a replica (glass) crystal skull, but Aykroyd (2008) would not stop there in his quest to imbue his vodka with New Age woo—if not better flavor: “A quadruple-distillation process made Crystal Head as pure as vodka can be, but the quest for an almost mystical purity continued. As a final stage, the liquid was filtered through 500-million-year-old crystals known as Herkimer diamonds. These quartz crystals are found in very few places in the world, including Herkimer, New York and regions in Tibet and Afghanistan. Perhaps because they share the raw material from which the original crystal heads were carved, they are thought to have similar spiritual qualities.”
The Herkimer “diamonds” through which the vodka is filtered have another interesting connection to the paranormal, as Joe Nickell noted in his book Real-Life X-Files (2001). They were used as so-called “crystal tears” by a woman named Katie who was reputed to be a physical medium and who could miraculously produce apports from the Great Beyond, including the tears.
From a distilling point of view, it’s not clear why “filtering” a vodka through crystals would improve its flavor or purity any more than filtering it over rocks or glass marbles. Of course, truth never stands in the way of a good story—and certainly not a good advertising campaign. Crystal Head vodka can be found at the intersection of New Age woo, pop culture, and mystery-mongering pseudoscience.
Aykroyd, Dan. 2008. Promotional video for Crystal Head Vodka, accessed on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKqjIv91Zx8.
Hewlett Packard. 1971. History or hokum? Measure February: 9–10.
Loxton, Daniel. 2008. Crystal skulls. Junior Skeptic (Skeptic magazine) 14(2): 96–89.
Nickell, Joe. 2006. Riddle of the crystal skulls. Skeptical Inquirer July/August: 15–16.
Sax, Margaret, Jane Walsh, Ian Freestone, et al. 2008. The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls. Journal of Archaeological Science (May 18).
Smith, Mike. 2008. The San Luis Valley crystal skull. Skeptical Briefs (December): 3–5.