The Internet being of cyclic nature, I feel like talks about the use of crystals come back to view at least twice a year. I usually don’t pay much attention to those discussions, since they tend to be unfruitful and, to be quite frank, boring. However, the topic of the historicity of linking certain stones to certain gods -or more widely- properties is an interesting one nonetheless.
But first, a disclaimer: 1) Some of the practices I will be describing below are not safe and should not be reproduced at home. I feel like this should go without saying, but the fact Goop’s jade egg is still on the market only proves the necessity of such disclaimer. 2) I do not care about people’s personal practices. If you associate certain stones with deities, good for you. It’s not my problem and this post isn’t meant to attack your practice. It’s merely meant to put some things within context.
Now that this is out of the way, let’s define the matter at hand. Let me start by saying that from this point on, I will refer to “crystals” as “gems” or “stones”. Both terms seem to be more appropriate and widely used in academical context.
We do not lack evidence of gemstone usage in the Ancient world, both literary and archaeological. Usage included jewelry making, medicine, and magic. The first is a given so I won’t dwell on it. I am more interested in the other two and how they relate to each other.
On the literary side, the earliest Greek treatise on stones is from Theophrastus (371 – 287 BC), titled Περὶ λίθων (“On stones”, quite literally). In this work, he lists the stones known to him and their properties from a physical standpoint and explains where they are found in the Greek world. He gives, in general, very few indications of potential magical properties.
We start having much more literature around the properties of gems in the Roman period, especially around the 1st century BC onwards, with Pliny the Elder’s (23/24 – 79 AD) Natural History, and the works of Greek physicians like Dioscorides (40–90 AD) and Galen (129 – 216 AD). Some of those works will be considered of importance throughout the Middle Ages, while some will be “rediscovered” at the Renaissance.
On the archaeological side, we have thousands of magical gems (see: the Campbell Bonner database). Here is the official definition given by the database:
Interestingly, the timeframe the previous definition gives fits the one where we find the majority of literary sources. This is probably no coincidence, and it probably isn’t a coincidence that interest in stones and gems seems to appear after the Classical period, especially if we consider the importance of Egyptian and Mesopotamian elements found on them. This would coincide nicely with the growth of the Hellenistic Empire.
Before I jump into what would be considered “magical use” (the lines are blurry, as we’ll see), let me give a few examples of medical use taken from Dioscorides:
Here we have an example of how the stone could be used as an ingredient: filed down to a powdery state and most likely mixed with wine before being drunk by the patient. Another example, still from Dioscorides, would be qualified today as on leaning more on the magical side:
There comes the issue of correspondences. Here Dioscorides gives us straightforward uses but doesn’t necessarily tell if the colour matters and/or if something should be carved on it. Meanwhile, the archaeological pieces we have are all inscribed somehow (and it’s very likely how the modern eye could distinguish them from just any shiny rock).
So the question is, what makes magical gems magical? Attilio Mastrocinque in his article The Colours of Magical Gems noticed a pattern between the colour of the chosen gem and the organ/bodily function/secretion it is supposed to regulate or heal:
The divinities majoritarily represented on magical gems are not strictly Greek. Chnoubis or Chnoumis is the Greek name of the Egyptian creator god Chnoum, for example. Even hematite gems which are described as representing Ares are explained by Mastrocinque this way:
It seems more and more clear that the Greeks and, by extension, the Romans, adopted a long Egyptian and Eastern tradition. There are, still, gems that clearly show Greco-Roman elements:
In this case, we find both the Gorgon and Hekate in very traditional apotropaic positions. More interesting, however, in a series of amulets showing Herakles fighting the Nemean lion serving this purpose (Christopher Faraone, Text, Image and Medium: The Evolution of Graeco-Roman Magical Gemstones):
This particular case is interesting because, as Faraone notes, we know of the existence of a carnelian scarab with the same scene that was found in a 5th century BC grave in Cyprus. More curious is the fact that this specific scarab also has two eyes of Horus next to Herakles. It is impossible to know if this amulet was just that, a protective amulet featuring two highly apotropaic symbols or if it was intended as something else.
One last notable example before I start wrapping things up. There is a series of lapis-lazuli gems that represent Aphrodite Anadyomene (“rising from the sea”). The Campbell Bonner database counts 23 of these. On these, Faraone says:
Once again, we have a case of an association linked to a Greco-Egyptian syncretism. It is worth noting, however, that other gems representing Aphrodite aren’t necessarily blue. She is also found on hematite, carnelian, or amethyst, amongst others. This would lead us to believe that the choice of the gem is not made upon the basis of correspondence with a divinity, rather than the function, as seen with the medical examples above or, as with this example, a specific epithet or specific voces magicae (and even then, there is an example of Aphrodite Anadyomene on orange/red carnelian…)
This perhaps explains why it is possible to find such statements in some studies:
This quote I took from Religion in Roman Britain by Martin Henig, who only references Joan Evans as source (Magical jewels of the middle ages and the renaissance particularly in England, 1922). Some of those observations, which clearly are hard to consider valid for generalization (counterexamples are plenty) also contradict other systems of correspondences, such as the one found in PGM CX. 1-12:
The PGM (Greek Magical Papyri) is always a difficult source to assess because of its syncretic and fragmented nature. In any case, its material is dated between the 1st and 4th century AD, which is a timeframe that is likely to be in sync with Roman Britain. It is worth noting that this specific passage of the PGM refers to the planets carrying the names of deities.
In any case, none of those correspondences seem to fit with modern ones, which are, for the most part, taken from an entirely different system (especially the bastardized/westernized idea of chakras). As for other uses, we can clearly see that some of the health claims made by “lithotherapists” (or just Karens on the Internet) trace back to ancient Greek medical treatises. And, please, don’t ingest crystals.
- Attilio Mastrocinque, The Colours of Magical Gems
- Veronique Dasen, Magic and Medicine: Gems and the Power of Seals
- Christopher A. Faraone, Text, Image and Medium: the Evolution of Graeco-Roman Magical Gemstones, all 3 in: Gems of Heaven : Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity c. AD 200 (eds. Chris Entwistle & Noel Adams), British Museum Press, 2012
Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells, 1986
Dioscorides & Lily Y. Beck (tran.), De materia medica, 2005