Legends of Gems – Horace Thompson


The Strange Beliefs Which the Astrological Birthstones Have Collected Through the Ages

To declare that there are strange, inexplicable powers in gem stones strikes the average person of today as absurd. To him a stone is an inanimate thing. Notwithstanding, since the beginning of time, the notion has persisted that gems do exert a positive influence on their possessors. Today there are people who assert that gems are not dead inert matter but that they are vibrantly alive, their atoms vibrating as definitely as do the atoms in what is usually considered living substances.

Just what is this power of precious stones? As far back as we have any record, there is testimony of the fascination held by crystals and jewels for all mankind. From The Book of the Bead—that profoundly occult volume which is credited to the ancient Egyptians, though its origin is lost in the mists of antiquity—we get a definite idea of the high honor in which gems were held by the ancients.

It tells of the use of jewels, especially jade, lapis lazuli, and amethyst, in ceremonials for the dying in order that they might receive the help they needed on the perilous and troublesome journey through the nether world.  Belief in the magic properties of jewels antedates our present civilization. Investigators of the occult tell us that the Atlanteans, who were said to have been universally instructed in the secret powers of nature, made use of precious stones in their ceremonials of magic. Though of course this cannot be proved, yet in the ruins of the temples of Chichen Itza in Yucatan—temples believed to have been dedicated to a form of religious worship such as was practiced in Atlantis of old—many gems have been found, principally of jade.

When the sacred well was excavated, many plaques and small pieced of carved jade and turquoise were found. When a stone treasure chest was discovered in one of the Mayan pyramids, a jade plaque found there was interpreted as being the figure of the hero god, Itzamna, who had led his people into Yucatan.  Two great streams of lapidary legends flowed into Europe in ancient times, the Egyptian concerned mainly with the life after death and the Babylonian with safety for the living. In the lore of both countries, an occult contact with the gods could be maintained by means of the amulet, which was regarded as a symbol of the relationship between helpless man and the powers of the supernatural. As a visible prayer, the amulet was often engraved with an inscription, sometimes gilded or inlaid with a contrasting color. The materials chosen for amulets were usually the harder stones which would permit of constant wear.

From the beginning color undoubtedly played as large a part as hardness in the selection of amulets. From the writings of Pliny we learn uch of the Greek and Roman beliefs in the magic of gem stones, legends which he preserved in spite of his personal skepticism as to the prophylactic magic ascribed to the stones. Ancient writings of the Chinese and Hindu scribes record their acceptance of the power of precious stones, and Biblical literature abounds in references to the protective virtues attributed to gems.

In fact, few references to gems are left to us from ancient and medieval times that do not infer this occult power. In earlier times the major interest was in the medicinal value of stones when applied to the body or when powdered and taken internally. As beliefs in the potency of gems as medicine waned, the idea persisted that strange and unexplainable rays were cast off by stones worn close to the skin, either secretly as amulets or openly in rings or necklaces. These occult powers were attributed to the vibration of light imparted by the sun’s rays and given off by genuine stones. Often the under sides of amulets and rings were engraved with sacred or personal symbols, or in case the stone was held in a metal base, the metal was thus carved. The engraving on the inside of wedding rings of modern times is a survival of this belief that an inscription should touch the skin.

These personal amulets were later used as signets by which one might seal documents. Egyptian scarabs, carved in the shape of the sacred beetle and used as charms, also served as seals. The cartouches of the Pharoahs were carved as much to serve as personal charms as to preserve the name for immortality. The jasper seals of the Roman emperors undoubtedly served the same purpose. Cameos carved to show the head of a chosen deity attest to this custom, as do intaglios of onyx, jasper, and hematite, which seemed the favored stones in later times.

After the beginning of the Christian era, the church opposed magic in all forms, disapproving especially of amulets engraved with magic-working names but permitting use of stones for medicinal purposes. So strongly did gems appeal to the people, however, that a religious symbolism grew up based on the old legends but embroidering new beliefs with a religious import. The old legends of magic-working gems persisted longer on the continent than in England. However, in the works of many English writers the old traditions seemed to verge with the new well down into the eighteenth century.

A research student reports that though references to precious stones are numerous in Shakespeare’s plays, no implication can be found that he believed in their magic virtues. But in remote districts in England such beliefs still linger, and in Mayfair today a conscious revival of interest in the ancient lore of gems has been manifest. In times past, precious stones have proved a safe treasure in which, to invest personal as well as public funds. Oriental potentates still have enormous storehouses of gems.

The wealth 01 the church has often been concentrated in gem stones. Such wealth could be guarded in small space and could be transported easily. Gems often played important parts in treaties of peace or as tribute to a conqueror. Queen Isabella had already offered her finest pearl necklace in payment for war supplies when Columbus applied to her for the financing of his first voyage westward. The rest of her jewels she pledged for a sum which today would be approximately $93,000.

Within recent years, when the newly established Stanford University was faced with a delay in receiving funds to carry on, the widow of the founder brought forth her jewel casket and placed it in the hands of the president of the university that the precious stones might be sold to meet the crisis.

The average modern, who scorns all things not tangible and concrete, almost always thinks first of diamonds when he is looking at gems with a view to purchasing. In a sense this is well, for the diamond is generally believed to be an adaptable stone; it rarely brings ill will to its wearer, and often does not bring much good, unless one’s temperament happens to be attuned to the stone. It does give a feeling of “possession” and, to those individuals who care for that sort of thing, a sense of social position.

It is strange, considering the present popularity of the diamond, to find that comparatively few legends have grown up about this valuable stone. However, it is only in modern times that people have been able to admire the diamond as we know it today, a stone remarkable for its clear brilliance. As found in the ground, it was usually a cloudy stone covered with a dull crust which prevented its true beauty from being seen.

Sometimes a smooth side would show the transparency of the stone. The diamond was valued mostly for its hardness and its resistance to fire and acid. But the ancients confused hardness with toughness, and long believed that if the stone could be crushed, it was not a genuine diamond. Undoubtedly many fine stones were destroyed when put to such a test.

The Hindu lapidaries found that the powder of such crushed stones would polish the sides of the diamond. For a long time, however, only the regular sides were polished. The dull exterior covering was removed, but the original shape of the stone was preserved. Few stones were so regular in shape that the brilliance could be revealed. When facet cutting was first introduced, gem lovers disapproved of the custom, believing it a trick to cover flaws within the stone.

The art of cutting the diamond into regular facets to increase the play of light against many surfaces was discovered in 1456 by De Berghem, a lapidary of Bruges. He used for his experiments three diamonds belonging to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. One stone was the Beau Sancy, another became the property of Pope Sixtus V, and the third was given by Charles of Burgundy to Louis XI.

Perhaps the most famous diamond known is the Koh-i-noor, or Mountain of Light, which came into the treasury of Delhi in 1304, though Hindu legend states that it had been known for four thousand years before that date. When it was offered as a tribute after the battle of Panpat, it was valued at one-half the daily expense of the world. The Koh-i-noor was taken to London in 1&50 and cut and polished in 1862. With it came the legend that the stone was disastrous if owned by a man.

Whether or not Queen Victoria was superstitious, the fact remains that she bequeathed the Koh-i-noor, not to her son who would succeed her on the throne, but to his queen; and stipulated that the gem was to descend to those who became the royal consorts of England’s kings.

In many countries the diamond was not so highly valued as rock crystal or white sapphire. Very large diamonds were believed to bring disaster to the owner. To have any beneficent effect as a talisman, the diamond should be given freely as a gift, with nothing expected in return. Legend says that it should not be sold or borrowed, and on no account should it be coveted, as envy of a diamond in another’s possession is certain to bring bad luck.

Diamonds which have been stolen are believed always to bring disaster to the thief and to anyone who knowingly wears the stolen stones. Legend has also attached dire consequences to the wearing of diamonds as buttons on women’s clothing, the tradition being that the wearer thus courts violent death. When Tsar Nicholas II and his family met death at Tsar-skoe Selo, the daughters were said to have been wearing their most valuable diamonds covered with cloth and sewed into their clothing as buttons.