Actual ancient lapidaries or “the ancient Greeks and Romans probably didn’t use crystals the way you think they did”

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.

The sources

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:

“The designation ‘magical gem’ is a category of modern archaeology, which denotes the most sophisticated amulet type of the Roman Imperial Period. Magical gems were carved of precious stones sized 1 to 3 centimeters, chiefly between the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD, and were designed to bring their owners health, prosperity and love. Their typology follows the shapes of Graeco-Roman glyptics complemented with a few Mesopotamian and Egyptian variants. They are distinguished by their characteristic engravings of inscriptions, signs and images, which usually appear on both faces of the gems, and sometimes even on the edge.”
Their usage

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:

“IV, 139 λίθος σάπφειρος, Lapis lazuli Lapis lazuli seems to help people stung by scorpions when drunk. It is drunk for internal ulcerations and it shrinks excrescences, defects inside the cornea, and pustules on the eyes, and it joins together the rents of their membranes.”

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:

“V, 142 λίθος ίασπις, Jasper There is a jasper which is emerald green, another like crystal resembling phlegm, another light blue, another smoky as if it were blackened with smoke, one which has cracks that are quite white <and> shining and which is called astrios, and there is one called terebinthizon, resembling turquoise in color. All seem to guard against evil when hung on a person and to promote a speedy birth when tied around the thigh.”
While, in the case of Selenite, both “medical” and “magical” properties are offered:
“V, 141 λίθος σεληνίτης, Selenite Selenite, which some people have called aphroselenos because it is found at night when the moon waxes, occurs in Arabia. It is white, transparent, and light. Filed down, it is given as a drink to epileptics and women use it as a protective amulet. It also seems to make trees fruitful when attached on them.”

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 series of gems discussed above show that haematite (and its reddish-brown variety, i.e. limonite) was used to protect red-brown organs, such as the liver and kidney, and that natural pieces of this stone actually have the shape and gloss of these organs. The inscriptions on several gems confirm that they were amulets for the liver. Moreover the Syrian god Adad was known for his stone kidney, and a Syrian haematite intaglio is shaped like a kidney. The colour and properties of stones were supposed to be syntonic with the world of the gods.”
“Stomach or intestinal diseases, pregnancy and the womb’s other functions, and breast-feeding were dealt with thanks to Chnoubis and his gems. The liquid secretions on which bodily health depended are red (blood), black (when the intestine is bleeding), green or transparent (the stomach juices), and white (milk). Chnoubis gems are rarely red or yellow, whereas they are often white, green, and sometimes transparent or black. If we reject the idea of casuality, we must look for a logic or a taxonomy in the choice of colour. A possible explanation emerges from the colours, because white stones were suitable for breast-feeding and the iconography of a threeheaded Chnoubis appears on a white gem. This iconography is known as useful for breast-feeding. Therefore: white gems = milk. Greek physicians recommended, in case of stomach diseases, green or transparent stones with the image of this god. Therefore: green or transparent gems = the stomach, whose juices are green or transparent. Other physicians recommended transparent stones for pleuritic and hip diseases, and therefore another possibility is: transparent gems = pleura and hips; but in this case the colour was scarcely related with the disease. Another numerous group of gems shows this god over the womb, and these gems are of haematite.”

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:

“This Ares is not the Greek god, but the result of cultural synthesis in which a Syrian god assumed the iconography of the Homeric god. This iconography was used to represent Syrian gods like Azizos and Arsou, or the warlike god of the Nabataeans.”

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:

“Pliny describes a type of coral called Gorgonia, after the monster’s name. In fact a series of coral gems with Medusa’s face have been preserved (Pl. 3a). Red jasper could be used as a substitute for coral, as is proved by gems with the same subject. These gems often have an image of Hekate on the reverse; both Gorgon and Hekate were considered to be powerful characters in averting demons, illnesses and enemies.”

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):

“In his chapter ‘On the colicky condition’ Alexander of Tralles, a 6th-century ad Greek physician, prescribes the following treatment for colic, a painful disease of the lower intestine: ‘On a Median stone engrave Heracles standing upright and throttling a lion. Set it in a gold ring and give it to the patient to wear’ (2.579). There is some confusion about the precise identity of the ‘Median stone’ in this passage, which may have been a form of haematite or magnetite but Alexander’s description coincides well with a popular series of amulets that consist of an opaque red stone (almost always jasper) engraved with the wrestling scene that he describes; […]”

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:

“On the back of the stone we find the magical word arôriphrasis which is typical of these amulets, as we can see from one of the lapis stones in the British Museum (Pl. 12c). Scholars, myself included, sometimes repeat the claim that arôriphrasis transliterates an Egyptian title of the goddess Hathor as ‘The Lady of the Blue Stone’; the epithet exists, but apparently bears no phonetic resemblance to the word arôriphrasis on the gemstone. We do find, however, on one lapis gem of this type the name ‘<H>athor’ inscribed before arôriphrasis, suggesting that the word – whatever it means – was, indeed, an epithet of some sort, and since Hathor and Aphrodite are assimilated in Graeco-Roman Egypt, there is some logic to the appearance of the name and Aphrodite on these blue stones. As in the case of the other types, a rare inscribed prayer tells us much about the perceived power of this kind of amulet: on a greenish lapis gem of another type (with Aphrodite and Ares) we read: ‘Arôriphrasis, give your charm to the bearer’. It would seem, then, that like the name Chnoubis, arôriphrasis identifies a divinity – probably Aphrodite/Hathor – who is thereby invoked to produce charm and beauty in the person who wears the gem.”

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:

“It may be observed that gemstones depicting Jupiter are frequently cut on milky chalcedony; those showing Sol are often on heliotrope which was thought to reflect the sun’s rays; of Mars on red jasper or cornelian, the colour of blood; of Demeter on green jasper which has a sympathy with vegetation and of Bacchus on amethyst which was believed to be wine coloured hand to prevent drunkenness. Such systems of correspondences, differing in detail no doubt, form a continuous tradition linking the Hellenistic age to the very end of the Middle Ages. During all that time lapidaries, stone books, were consulted. No doubt they were in Roman Britain.”

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:

“. . . a voice comes to you in conversation. Lay out the stars on the board in their natural order, with the exception of the sun and the moon. Make the sun gold, the moon silver, Kronos of obsidian, Ares of yellow-green onyx, Aphrodite of lapis-lazuli streaked with gold, Hermes of turquoise; make Zeus of a [dark blue] stone, but underneath of crystal.”

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: