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Clear as Crystal — Precious Stones


Many literary works on gemstones have originated from various ancient and medieval authors. A famous text on the history of gemstones, the Cysianides, came from the ancient Alexandrian School of Greece. Furthermore, Pliny the Elder expounds on the history and the effective medicinal uses of various gems. However, the most renowned and most copied early text on gemstones is The History of Jewels by the twelfth-century medieval philosopher and alchemist Albertus Magnus.

Many gems are included in myths, legends, religious beliefs, and rituals from around the world. Especially gem-laden trees seem universal. Babylonian legends tell of trees that instead of fruit are laden with precious stones. The ancient Sumerian Gilgamesh Epic describes a most splendid tree bearing precious stones for fruits and crystal branches. Hindu mythology also describes such a tree, known as the Kalpa Tree, a glowing mass of precious stones, pearls, and beautiful emeralds hanging from its boughs, with corals and rubies representing the fruit, the foliage made of zircon, the roots of sapphire, and the base of diamonds. Hindu legend also tells of a huge container made of the purest crystal, the creation of the god Maya, encrusted with pearls and precious stones. Although it contained no fluids, its transparency created the illusion of being filled with fresh clear water so that all approaching it were tempted to plunge into its depths. Some Christian legends about the Holy Grail portray this sacred receptacle as fashioned from pure amethyst, whereas the visions of the prophet Ezekiel compare the throne of Jehovah to a magnificent sapphire.265 In the visions of John of Patmos, the Glory of God is similarly compared to multicoloured gemstones.266 

Besides universal gem-trees and receptacles, descriptions of wonderful gem-cities are also found in various religious texts. In the Book of Revelations, the New Jerusalem is described as built of precious gems.267 In the Hindu Puranas, the divine Krishna takes up abode in the wonderful gem-city of Devârakâ, which was decked in pearls, rubies, diamonds, and other precious stones. Another such gem-city is described in Greek literature, known as the City of the Islands of the Blessed. Made of gold, it has walls fashioned from emerald, temples formed of beryl, and altars of amethyst. Similarly, in Islamic legend, the various heavens are composed of different precious stones.

Since ancient times, precious and semi-precious stones have been credited for their supernatural powers. Many such gems were believed to glow magically in the dark, symbolising hope and endurance. Rabbinical tradition describes a stone that Noah placed in the Ark as providing brightness when the Flood obscured the sun and moon. Another Hebrew legend relates that Abraham presented the six sons his wife Hagar bore to him with enormous precious stones, their brightness exceeding that of the sun, the stones able to light the way during times of darkness and gloom.268 

A curious quality ascribed to precious gems in the past was their perceived ability to produce progeny. This strange idea, which survived until well after the Middle Ages, was first related by Theophrastus (372–circa 287 BCE), the earliest Greek writer on the subject of precious stones. An account dating to the sixteenth century relates that diamonds owned by a noblewoman of the House of Luxemburg regularly produced offspring.269 A popular idea during the Middle Ages was that male and female diamonds grew together if nourished by the dew from heaven. This notion related to the belief that certain stones had supernatural indwelling powers.

Occult and mystic forces were attributed to the various beautiful stones that captured and played with rays of light, emitting a spectrum of magnificent colours. Benevolent or evil spirits were believed to dwell in such stones, therefore, the popular seventeenth-century notion that angels often entered precious stones to protect humankind. The supernatural powers considered inherent in gemstones could be lost if the stones were handled or gazed on by someone evil.

Throughout the ages, specific stones have been attributed special powers. Gemstones were credited with inspiring creativity, love, and passion. Some stones became known especially for their luck-bringing qualities, whereas others over the centuries acquired a reputation of ill luck. The precious violet amethyst is still traditionally linked with Episcopal eminence. Blue gems such as the lapis lazuli and the sapphire were looked on as symbols of chastity and, therefore, considered appropriate for those of ecclesiastical rank. The emerald and the turquoise were used in rites to incite love and passion; the sapphire was believed to sharpen the intellect; the emerald strengthened memory; and the amethyst was thought to promote temperance and sobriety. Both opals and pearls have always been considered unlucky, whereas sparkling diamonds are still known as ‘a girl’s best friend’. 

Gemstones were often selected for their symbolic value. The diamond stood for unyielding durability, the pearl for purity, the ruby for the administration of justice, whereas the topaz was an emblem for nobility and regal splendour. In the past florid gems were an important status symbol for the aristocracy and laws were actually in place, ensuring that only the privileged class wore gemstones, thereby preserving a visible division of social rank. 

Throughout history, amongst most civilisations, the use of gemstones as amulets and charms is evident. The virtues believed inherent in precious stones were believed to gain added potency when the gems were engraved with sacred or symbolic symbols. Amulets containing gemstones such as jasper, lapis lazuli, purple amethyst, red coral, green jade, and orange carnelian, have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians placed the forms of scarabs and various animals carved from or containing these precious stones on their mummies to protect the dead from evil influences in the afterlife. Such amulets were invariably inscribed with the names of gods, pharaohs, priests, and other personages to add to their protective powers. The Egyptians used specific stones for particular amulets. For example, heart amulets were mostly fashioned from carnelian, and eyes were mainly fashioned from lapis lazuli, turquoise, and jade. Worn as amulets, gemstones were believed to prevent many diseases. The ruby was used to ward off plague and pestilence; jade amulets were reputed to protect from kidney complaints; the onyx prevented attacks of epilepsy; the topaz staved off inflammation; whereas jasper was worn to ward off fevers.

In the past, gems were also humanised and attributed with exercising moral judgement. Therefore, it was believed that certain stones were influenced by the mental and moral states, as well as the general health condition of the wearer. In sickness, approaching death, unfaithfulness, or perjury, the lustre of precious stones was thought to dim and their bright colours darken. Any stone, if perfect to look at, was seen as the source of all blessings, whereas a gem lacking in lustre was sure to bring misfortune to its owner. 

Beautiful gems, rare and costly, have always been prized, not only for their aesthetic effect, but also their therapeutic value. Throughout history, precious stones have been used for healing, either placed into wounds or ground up as medicines and elixirs. Many of the remedies were prized because their rarity added mystery and intrigue. It was also believed that gems lying as seeds deep in the earth had been nurtured through moisture and heat generated from the heavens above, hence they were profoundly influenced by the movements of the stars. 

Belief in the curative powers of gemstones dates to ancient Babylon and Egypt but was once universal among all those to whom gems were known. The Ebers Papyrus, the most profound and voluminous record of ancient Egyptian medicine, dated circa 1500 BCE, offers various prescriptions containing gemstones and minerals. For instance, lapis lazuli was recommended as an ingredient in eye salves because of astringent substances purported to be contained in the stone, and the iron oxide, haematite, was used for preventing and treating haemorrhages and inflammations. Now, of course, we find it curious and difficult to understand how such seemingly ineffectual remedies could once have been used and firmly believed in. The curative properties long attributed to precious stones, although thought to be greatly enhanced by inscriptions and designs, were ultimately determined by their colour, according to the laws of sympathetic magic. Accordingly, the therapeutic effects of gemstones were often related to a fanciful analogy between the stone’s colour and the character of the malady to be treated. 

According to the principle similia similibus curantur, ‘like cures like’, all red or reddish stones, whose colour suggested blood, such as the ruby, garnet, carnelian, and bloodstone, were thought to be valuable remedies in curing blood disorders. These red gems were used to stem blood flow and believed to confer invulnerability from wounds. Furthermore, red stones were thought to aid the circulation, treat inflammatory diseases, and exercise a calming influence, removing anger and discord. However, it was thought that red stones used as weapons inflicted severer wounds than normal weapons. In 1892, the rebellious Hanzas used bullets made from red stone during their hostilities with British troops on the Kashmir frontier, believing that such bullets inflicted deadlier wounds than leaden bullets. 

In much the same way, yellow stones were indicated in curing all liver dysfunctions, especially jaundice. Yellow amber crushed and mixed with oil was recommended as a salve to cure skin infections, whereas green and milky stones were regarded as most beneficial for treating the eyes, which is why the opal was used to treat weak eyesight – green most probably suggested through the beneficial influence this colour exerts on the eyes. 

Although most ancient lore surrounding gemstones has been lost with the passing of time, we constantly use the names of precious and semi-precious stones as adjectives. We speak of emerald meadows, turquoise skies, sapphire eyes, sapphire seas, ruby lips, ruby wine, pearly skin, pearly teeth, coral lips, amber hair, and diamond eyes. 

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