For some, they're ancient talismans, remnants of long-dead civilizations - mystical creations, with powers both inexplicable and glorious. But for others, they're shams, products at best of wishful thinking, at worst of willful deception.
JoAnn Parks, however, has no doubt. For her, crystal skulls - or, at least, her crystal skull, the one that told her almost 20 years ago that his name was Max, and that he was on a mission to serve mankind - are very real. And the effect they can have on people is a wonder to behold.
"Max is a tool of focus, a tool of service," Parks says over the phone from her Houston home. "He's a tool for people to tap into and be able to express themselves in many ways. He's here to serve, to encourage one's spirit, to give people insight into many things, especially about themselves. When you look into Max's eyes, you look at a reflection of your own self."
Parks and Max will be in Baltimore next week, for three days beginning May 30. He'll be on display in the lobby of the Senator Theatre, in conjunction with its run of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Crystal skulls are said to be artifacts of the Mayan culture, thousands of years old, created by processes lost to modern man. Believers say they possess mystical powers; some say there are 13 skulls, and that bringing them all together in one place will concentrate their powers and usher the world into a new age.
Naysayers, however, claim the skulls are a hoax, that they were manufactured in the 19th century and sold as pre-Columbian artifacts to gullible collectors. Both the British Museum and the Musee de Quai Branly in Paris, which include crystal skulls in their collections, say they are most likely 19th-century creations.
Parks, however, is a firm believer in Max, which she says was given to her by a Tibetan-trained American healer and former intelligence agent who died in 1977. Max is, she believes, older than the Mayan culture; she suspects he's between 2,000 and 3,000 years old.
Still, Parks insists, Max is no miracle worker, only a facilitator. His power, she believes, comes from enabling people to tap what's inside of themselves, powers of healing and understanding they may not even realize they have.
"I don't feel that Max does the work," she says. "He's not here to raise the dead, and he's not here to levitate. ... He is a tool of service and a tool of focus for people, tapping into that path of what I call their 'unique consciousness.'"