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Gems and Minerals: Lore and Mythology

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Rhodochrosite Tourmaline Rhodonite, Calcite, and Franklinite


Mineral Lore and Mythology

Throughout history, mankind has valued gemstones and minerals for practical, mythical, and aesthetic reasons. The practical uses of minerals probably dominated in the past, just as they do today.  Archeological evidence from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania suggests that man's tool-making ability may date back more than 2 million years, starting with primitively chipped pebble tools.  Chalcedony arrow and spear heads (dating back as much as forty thousand years) have been found at later sites all over North America, as well as in France, Egypt, and other north African countries. These tools allowed our ancient ancestors to hunt and kill much larger mammals, such as the mastodon.  Today, minerals rich in silica and rare earth elements are mined to make silicon chips and superconducting materials that enable man to explore space and surf web sites half-way around the world.  Mankind may be more sophisticated in the use of minerals, but the desire to improve life through minerals and earth materials remains the same.

Goethite, Limonite, and CalciteMinerals and rocks have been used  to produce artwork from early times. The pigments used to draw animals in the caves of Lacroux in southern France were made of powdered iron and manganese oxide minerals and mineraloids.  Ancient stone and mineral carvings dating to more than 20,000 years before present were fashioned by primitive men  the world over.  The minerals that were ground for paints through the Middle Ages continued to be used until the introduction of acrylic paints in the latter half of the 1900's.

The use of minerals as gemstones also dates back to ancient times.  The ancient Egyptians mined emeralds (beryl) more than 3000 years ago.  Other minerals found in their jewelry and the walls of their tombs and pyramids include native copper, gold and silver, several varieties of quartz and chalcedony, turquoise, gem quality olivine (peridot), feldspar, jade, fluorite, and malachite.  Many of these same minerals have been found in the ruins of Sumerian and Babylonian cities and tombs. 

Diamonds were mined from alluvial sands in India and traded to the Romans, who also valued precious opals above all other gemstones.  Diamonds are still mined for use in jewelry, and for a variety of industrial uses.  The first recorded diamond engagement ring was given by the Hapsburg Emperor Maximillian I to Mary of Burgundy in 1477.  Louis IX of France (1214-1270) had previously issued an edict limiting the wearing of diamonds to kings, and forbidding all women (including queens and princesses) to wear them! 

The quality of the Columbian beryl that became available in the 1500's far exceeded the beryl available to the ancient Egyptians, and a large emerald, ruby or sapphire with precisely the right color and few flaws is worth far more than a comparably-sized diamond.  Jade has been treasured and finely worked in South America and China long before Columbus landed in the West Indies.

MalachiteAnother longstanding use for minerals has been as coloring agents in cosmetics; for example, the ancient Egyptians used powdered malachite or lazurite as eye paint (similar to today's eye shadow).  The sparkle in some Cover GirlT eye shadows is light reflected from tiny flakes of the mineral muscovite, and until recently blusher contained ground hematite, the same mineral that was used to impart a reddish tint to skin tones in past millennia.  Talcum powder and most face powders are still primarily composed of ground talc.

The tombs, temples, and palaces of the Egyptians and other ancient cultures were carved into cliff or mountain faces (most often limestone), or constructed from large dressed stones.  The military might of the Romans was enhanced by their well constructed roads, which were composed of bricks and rocks over a substratum of smaller pieces of broken rock, and their aqueducts.  The beauty of Stonehenge, the Egyptian and South American pyramids, the Parthenon, Cambodian temples, Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Cathedrals of Europe have captivated people from all cultures and backgrounds.

The mythical importance of minerals has waned since ancient times.  Although some "New Agers" attribute healing and energy channeling powers to gemstones, minerals, and even faceted glass, most people do not attribute any more power or energy to a well-formed quartz crystal than to the rounded quartz pebbles contained in concrete or on a beach.  However, this was not the case in earlier times.  Numerous treatises were written between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries on the mystical and supernatural powers of minerals.  These include five volumes of the Natural History of Albertus Magnus's dedicated to the "valuable" stones and minerals that imparted supernatural powers to their owners.  The only factual analysis of minerals written during this period was  De Re Metallica, written by Georgius Agricola, a physician working in a German mining district .

The minerals with the most interesting pasts are those that were easily identifiable from ancient times, including emerald, topaz, ruby and sapphire corundum, and opal.  Although diamond was probably known in India from 800 B.C., only the most wealthy Romans could afford the few poor quality brownish diamonds exported from India starting around 100 B.C..  These diamonds were valued for their extreme hardness, and were not cut or faceted.  The Roman philosopher Theophrastus believed that dark colored diamonds were male and light colored diamonds were female.  Indeed most mineral were believed to have gender at one time.  For instance, arsenic, the native element composed of the toxic element arsenic (As), is derived from the Greek word for male. 

Emerald (green gemstone-quality beryl) has the longest history of the precious gemstones.  The Romans associated emerald with sexual passion and reproduction, and dedicated emeralds to Venus.  In thirteenth century Europe, emeralds were considered to deplete or destroy sexual passion. Marbode, an 11 century writer, suggested that emerald improved memory and eliminated depression.  Abselmus de Boot, an early 17 century philosopher, recommended the wearing of emerald to prevent epilepsy, bleeding, and panic.  

Topaz was thought to be able to prevent sudden death, cure madness, and improve vision.  Rubies were thought to lend invulnerability when inserted into the owner's flesh.  Sapphire protects kings from harm and envy, prevents terror and poverty in all men, makes stupid men wise and irritable men good-tempered.

Few gemstones have had as diverse a reputation as opal. The Romans considered opal to be the gemstone of love and hope.  According to Marbode, opal made its wearer invisible.  The Australian aborigines believed that opal was a devil waiting to lure men to their destruction through magic.  Shakespeare called opal "the queen of gems" in Twelfth Night.  According to Dr. George Harlow, opal got a reputation for being unlucky after Sir Walter Scott wrote about an evil character dying after a drop of holy water came into contact with her enchanted opal.

The beautifully illustrated book, Gems and Crystals, by Anna Sofianides and Dr. George Harlow of the American Museum of Natural History, is an excellent resource for those interested in the beauty, mythology and geology of gemstones.


The Romans and other ancient cultures believed that certain minerals had the power to protect when worn as talismans.  Each mineral was considered to have maximum power during one of the twelve months of the year.  Individuals who could not afford twelve minerals, one for each month of the year, economized by purchasing only the mineral that provided protection for the month of their birth.  This is the origin of the birthstone.  

The gemstones now associated with each month have only slight relationship to the ancient beliefs.  When it came to the ability to heal, protect or bring good luck, the actual gemstone and similar minerals were regarded as being equally effective even if they could be distinguished.  Since ancient peoples identified minerals primarily by color, little distinction was made between similar looking pairs of minerals, such as emerald and chrysoprase (green), ruby and garnet (red), or citrine and topaz (yellow), and gemstone names typically were applied to several different minerals of similar color.  The sapphire of the Bible is much more likely to have been lapis lazuli than blue corundum, and adamas (diamond) was probably white sapphire or white topaz.  The gemstones in the contemporary birthstone table shown below are approximations of the twelve gemstones that decorated the breastplate of Aaron, brother of Moses and high priest of Israel.  Each of the twelve gemstones was engraved with the name of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.


Garnet or Rose Quartz 


Amethyst (purple Quartz) or Onyx (banded black and white Chalcedony)


Aquamarine (Beryl) or Bloodstone (red Chalcedony due to included Hematite)


Diamond or Rock Crystal (colorless, transparent Quartz) 


Emerald (green Beryl) or Chrysoprase (translucent apple-green Chalcedony due to inclusion of Serpentine Group Minerals)


Alexandrite (Chrysoberyl), Moonstone (iridescent Alkali Feldspar), or Pearl 


Ruby or Carnelian (translucent red brown to brick red Chalcedony due to included Hematite)


Peridot (Olivine) or Sardonyx (banded brown to ochre and white Chalcedony)


Sapphire (blue Corundum) or Lazurite (lapis lazuli)


Opal or Tourmaline 


Topaz or Citrine (yellow Quartz) 


Zircon or Turquoise 



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