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‘But it’s all over the internet,’ was the response to my saying ‘Not as far as I can ascertain’ when someone asked me to check a crystal ‘historical fact’ for them. Information on the internet isn’t to be relied upon! Especially when it comes to the history of crystals! It’s secondhand at best, umpteenhand at worst. And it’s not a new phenomenon:
The many references to Theophrastus and the Questions from him, so frequent in the Works of all the later Writers of Fossils, would make one believe, at first sight, that nothing was more universally known, as perfectly understood, than the Treatise before us: But when we come to enquire more strictly into the Truth, and examine with our own Eyes what it really is that he has left us, we shall find that though no Author is so often quoted, no Author is so little understood, or, indeed, has been so little read; those who are so free with his Name, having given themselves, generally, very little Trouble about his Works, and only taken upon Trust from one another; what we shall in most Cases find, on strict Enquiry, to have been originally quoted from him by Pliny…’
Preface to ‘Theophrastus On Stones’ translated by John Hill 1746
Well, I can vouch for that one! Check me out on the internet and you’ll find I’m all too frequently quoted as saying the opposite of what I did say. Or castigated for failing to point something out that is clearly there – if you read the book. And I am directly quoted on many websites, but without attribution, so the source becomes unclear. My books have only been around for a two and a half decades, think what it’s like for Theophrastus who’s been around for two and a half millennia.
When I went back to Uni to do my Masters in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology, my intention was to research the history of birthstones to track the source. An easy task I thought. But I was mistaken. I soon learned that statements such as ‘It’s in Theophrastus on Stones’ or ‘you’ll find it in Pliny’s Natural History’, or wherever, had little validity. And these ancient tombes weren’t even the primary sources for the information given. Pliny wrote his history to poke fun at people who believed that stones had magical powers – but he inadvertently and serendipitously told us what was believed back then as he drew on almost twenty earlier sources such as Theophrastus (b. around 372BCE), who in turn had drawn on previous stonebooks now lost.
So let’s debunk a few of those myths and reveal a few actual crystal facts of which you might not be aware. I’ve got a great collection of old Lapidaries and 78 bulging folders of academically-sourced research material, not to mention a few hundred books on ancient Egypt, amulets, and the like to draw on. So here we go.
Err, no. Not as far as I can ascertain. I’m open to being convinced of course, but in all the (albeit translated) primary source material I’ve read, in the hundreds of scholarly texts I’ve consulted, and the thousands of original artefacts that I’ve examined, I’ve never seen a piece of Rose Quartz from ancient Egypt. This seems to be as mythical as the alleged source itself. I’ve seen ordinary Quartz, but not Rose. I’ve seen an abundance of Carnelian and Green Aventurine, Lapis Lazuli, Amethyst, Malachite, Libyan Gold Tektite, a beautiful little Turquoise. A piece or two of what looked like Chrysocolla. Copper and its associated crystals being sacred to the Goddess Hathor and much prized. The Egyptians certainly loved their crystals – and used them as medicines as well as for decoration. But not Rose Quartz – nor Emerald either, at least not from the very early periods. Rough Emeralds only came to light in Egypt in the latter days.
Erm, once again, no. I’ve scoured these books from cover to cover, several times. But they are in the very agreeable and equally ancient Posidippus epigrams found on a papyrus bound up within an Egyptian mummy, and the amazingly shamanic ‘Lithika of Orpheus,’ one of my favourite books of all time. Hidden in symbols and allegory, but there all the same. And the stone properties haven’t changed. I quote the Lithica in many of my books and it’s worth seeking out its secrets. (Orpheus-Lithika)
Timanthes carved this starry lapis lazuli,
a gold-speckled Persian half-stone,
for Demylus; in exchange for a soft kiss, dark-haired
Nicaea of Cos accepted the erotic gift.
‘It was in the Breastplate of the High Priest.’
Amethyst, Emerald (‘Smargos’), Diamond, Carnelian, Agate,
Sardonyx, Topaz, Aquamarine, Peridot, Lapis Lazuli, Beryl,
Bloodstone, Onyx, Chrysoprase, Jade, Chalcedony,
Garnet, Turquoise, Jasper…
The list goes on – and on.
Every translation of the Bible gives a different set of crystals for the Breastplate. Someone worked out there were around 39 different stones mentioned. And I’m not even sure that the Hebrew version agrees with any of them – or so a Hebrew scholar told me. There are mistranslations, scribal errors, hearsay, word of mouth distortions, and so it goes on. There simply is no definitive list – and people have been trying to establish one for a very long time.
What the breastplate is assumed to have looked like, but don’t be fooled. This isn’t how the Bible describes it. In the Old Testament it’s a pouch. This style is actually an ancient Egyptian Priest’s breastplate.
As with so much in the modern Bible, ‘breastplate’ itself is a mistranslation. If you are unable to read the source account in the original language (if you can even find it!), everything has of necessity to be viewed through the lens of the translator. The Hebrew word means ‘pouch’ so Aaron could have been wearing a woven linen bag tied around his neck and chest inset with 12 engraved crystals – which suggests to me a link with the Egyptian use of precious stones. According to Exodus, the Jews had recently been in Egypt and the Egyptians used engraved gems as amulets and as representatives of the gods, so there may be a cross over of cultural practice here especially as George Kunz, a gemmologist not a biblical scholar, pointed out in 1913 that a High Priest of Memphis from 4000BCE is shown on an Egyptian relief with a ‘breastplate’ with 12 balls, suggesting but not proving a common origin.’ (Kunz: G.W. The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, originally published 1913 by Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. New York: Dover edition, l971 p.283-291). I’ve got that rather stunning illustration somewhere but can’t find it at the moment, when I do I’ll post it on Facebook. Meanwhile take a look at this:
The inner coffin lid of the priest Hornedjitef. Isn’t he amazing? Such a wonderful face and look at that beautiful pectoral ‘breastplate’! You can see him for yourself in the British Museum.
The pouch also contained the Urim and Thummim. No one is certain precisely what these were but amongst the suggestions are that they were meteorites or precious stones and St Augustine is allegedly to have said around 400CE that ‘some described a stone that changed colour’. The instructions for fabricating the Breastplate of the High Priest can be found in Exodus:
And thou shall make the breastplate of judgement with cunning work; after the work of the ephod thou shalt make it; of gold, of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine linen shalt thou make it…
And thou shalt set in it settings of stones, even four rows of stones: the first row shall be a sardius [sardonyx], a topaz, and a carbuncle [garnet/carnelian?]: this shall be the first row.
And the second row shall be an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond. And the third row a ligure [no one can translate this one], an agate, and an amethyst. And the fourth row a beryl, and an onyx, and a jasper; they shall be set in gold in their enclosings.
And the stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel, twelve, according to their names, like the engravings on a signet; every one with his name shall they be according to the twelve tribes….
And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgement the U-rim and the Thum-mim
Exodus 28: l5-30 King James translation
Here’s one suggestion:
The purpose of the breastplate is set out in Exodus as:
A continual remembrance before the Lord. In the breastpiece of judgement you shall put the Urim and the Thummim and they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the Lord, thus Aaron shall bear the judgement of the Israelites on his heart before the Lord continually. (v.29)
The breastplate also had Onyx mounted on the shoulders and the stones were engraved with the names of the tribes in the order of their birth (Exodus 28:10), which suggested a tenuous link to birthstones.
Onyx, as you can see from these pieces, often has markings that can look rather like writing or, in the case of egg shaped ones, the heavenly spheres. They could arguably be used to assist divination.
From the stones which the High Priest wore (these were sardonyxes and I hold it superfluous to describe their nature, since it is known to all), there emanated a light, as often as God was present at the sacrifices that which was worn on the right shoulder instead of a clasp emitting a radiance sufficient to give light even to those far away, although the stone previously lacked this splendour. And certainly, this in itself merits the wonder of all those who do not, out of contempt for religion, allow themselves to be led away by a pretence of wisdom. However, I am about to relate something still more wonderful, namely that God announced victory by means of the twelve stones worn by the High Priest on his breast.. For such splendour shone from them when the army was not yet in motion.. the Greeks called this pectoral ‘logeion’ or oracle.
Notice how casually Josephus refers to the nature of Sardonyx being known to all! But, as Josephus is suggesting that the oracle had been in use 200 years previously when the original was lost in Babylon some 500 years earlier, he may not be the most reliable source. The stones certainly found their way into the Revelation of St John the Divine as the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem, however. But once again, translations differ. Here’s one that links the foundation stones to the twelve apostles:
The Breastplate is the most often cited source for birthstones. There are many guesses – disguised on websites and in books as certainties – as to which tribe and stone were linked to which month. There is no evidence that there is any foundation for this supposition which appears to have been first put together by Josephus, then taken up by an early church father, Clement of Alexandria, in the second century and St Jerome in the early part of the 5th century (Kunz cites Flavii, Joesphi, ed. Eindorft, Parisii, l847, vol.ii, p.97”Antiq Jud,” lib.iii, cap.7, paragraph 7. The text is somewhere in my 78 huge folders, another one to post later.). Interestingly, Josephus apparently also indicates the Breastplate is symbolic of the earth, the oceans, heaven, the celestial spheres and the sun and moon. As far as I can see, neither Theophrastus nor Pliny specifically mention the Breastplate, although Kunz – along with so many others – suggests that the stones are to be found there.
But to go back to Exodus, we are told by Moses that: ‘The people come to me to enquire of God’ (18:15 ) and the Breastplate has been described as ‘a distinctive symbol of the priest in his capacity as the giver of oracles’. Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis says the Talmud describes it as functioning ‘as a kind of ouija board with messages being spelled out for the High Priest.’ The Breastplate could therefore be seen as an oracle designed by God to ascertain his will, in other words, a method of divination. Numbers 27:21 tells us:
And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the decision of the Urim before the Lord.
And Samuel 14:41 says:
Then Saul said: O Lord God of Israel why have you not answered your servant today? If this guilt is in me or in my son Jonathan give Urim, but if this guilt is in your people Israel give Thummim. And Jonathan and Saul were indicated by the lot, but the people were cleared.
Suggesting that the stones gave yes and no answers. Samuel 28:6-7 gives an idea of the different ways in which answer to a question could be sought in those times:
When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, seek out for me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go to her and inquire of her. His servants said to him: There is a medium of Endor.
She raises the deceased Samuel who foretells Saul’s defeat and demise, which duly comes to pass. The culture of the time was steeped in divinatory practices. In this short passage we’ve got dreams and prophesy, ‘lots’ and mediumship. And, if you read on, the source of the churches objection against mediumship. But there was a lot of it about in those days!
Looking for further inspiration for an academic essay, I practised the ancient art of Sortes – opening a book at random – while asking for further insight on the origin of birthstones. The Bible opened to a chapter in Ezekiel that proclaimed:
Moreover, the word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him. Thus says the Lord God:
You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden, the garden of God,
Every precious stone was your covering,
Carnelian, chrysolite, and moonstone, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire [or lapis lazuli], turquoise, and emerald;
And worked in gold were your settings and your engravings.
On the day that you were created they were prepared.
With an anointed cherub as guardian, I placed you
You were on the holy mountain of God;
You walked among the stones of fire.
Ezekiel 28:13-14 (NRSV)
Every precious stone was your covering. Prepared for your birth. And walking in the garden. I love that image! But again translation problems occur. The King James version has a totally different list and says: ‘the spandles you wore were made for you on the day of your birth…’
The ‘day you were created’ suggests conception, ‘the day of your birth’ indicates a possible link to birthstones or at the very least a stone for the month of birth, which excited me. But when I looked at web commentaries on this particular chapter of Ezekiel, I was surprised to find it had been linked to Satan and his fall from grace rather than the connection between the sky and crystals.
This particular portion of Ezekiel appears to have been written during his exile in Babylon, sometime after he received his call to prophesy in 593BCE, which we’ll look at a little later. It’s part of his ongoing tirade against neighbouring kings – this one is addressed to the King of Tyre. By verse 20 he’s admonishing the King of Sidon and in Chapter 29 he turns his attention to the Pharaoh of Egypt. But it has more recently been interpreted by some Christians as referring to the fall of Satan not the King of Tyre. A quick trawl through the web revealed a host of sites under titles such as ‘Delving into Demons’ in which the opinion is given, for instance, that God must be speaking to the ‘invisible and ultimate power behind him’. Such an extrapolation seems to be totally unsupported as Satan is not specifically named – indeed he’s surprisingly absent in the Old Testament. On such ignorant idiocy is prejudice and intolerance founded. But it is why some Christians believe crystals to be ungodly – and believe me I’ve been harangued by enough of them to know how much they fear them. But there are some great biblical quotes to answer back with. Here’s one to start you off, from Chapter 2 of Genesis regarding the Garden of Eden, and who, according to Christian belief, created that???
And the gold of that land is good; bdellium [aromatic tree resin] and Onyx stone are there. (v.10)
What I found far more interesting though, was Ezekiel’s call to prophesy because of the celestial signs and zodiacal and crystal imagery that accompanied it:
As I looked a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, .. gleaming amber [also translated as ‘awesome crystal]. In the middle of it .. four living creatures… As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle… [the fixed cross of astrology]
… I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction, their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl… over the heads of the living creatures there was… a dome, shining like crystal… When they moved, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the thunder of the Almighty… Above the dome [was] a throne, in appearance like sapphire… Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. [Ezekiel 1]
This is Ezekiel’s ‘chariot of fire’. And he goes into what sounds like shamanic trance:
And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet and I heard him speaking to me.
I looked and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. … He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll and go, speak to the house of Israel.
This eating of the scroll reminds me of the ceremony of placing of a piece of magical papyrus in the mouth of Egyptian mummies – and the small pieces of papyri that were rolled up and worn as a protective amulet. But here Ezekiel seems to be literally ingesting the word of God so that he may pass it on.
Ezekiel’s call to prophesy. But the painter forgot the crystal foundations!
So, although I’m still tracking down the origin of birthstones, I now know how something created by God and prized in the beginning of Genesis becomes, allegedly, ungodly. and that Ezekiel and the Breastplate of the High Priest epitomise the difference between prophesy and divination. The Lord speaks directly to Ezekiel and gives him prophetic visions that he passes onto the people. The High Priest is not spoken to directly, he uses a divining tool, the Breastplate and the Urim and Thummin, through which God speaks to reveal his purpose and prognostications.
We’ve come a long way. Time to stop! Perhaps we’ll look at more crystal myths another time.
In case you want to do your own research, here are some ancient crystal name equivalents I have tracked down:
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