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Precious Stones


From prehistoric times precious stones have been employed universally as personal ornaments and amulets and as elements of adornment in religious and profane art and architecture in general. Men of past ages prized many precious stones because they believed that they possessed magical properties and gave special protection and strength to their owners. An accurate classification of precious stones before the rise of modern chemistry at the end of the 18th century is impossible. Many of the stones mentioned as precious in ancient and medieval writers were not precious in the strict sense but merely resembled genuine diamonds, rubies, emeralds, etc.

Employment in Judaism and Early Christianity.

There is frequent mention of precious stones in the Bible, the jeweled breastplate of the high priest, for example, being described in detail [see precious stones (in the bible)]. In the Greco-Roman civilization, in which Christianity appeared and developed, the demand for precious stones was intense, and the amount of jewelry displayed or worn by possessors approached the fantastic. Pagan moralists attacked such ostentation in adornment as morally wrong, but their censures were not effective. The early Christian writers and Fathers of the Church did not condemn the use of precious stones as such, but warned repeatedly against the evil of luxury so often associated with them and, above all, against belief in their magical properties. Thus, Clement of Alexandria denounced luxury in dress and adornments, mentioning the excessive fondness for gold ornaments and precious stones. He admitted,

however, that women married to wayward husbands might need adornment to make themselves more attractive to such men, and he recognized the necessity of signet rings or seals for protecting property. But pagan devices on seals, especially those of a licentious and magical character, were strictly forbidden. The Christian should use a dove, a fish, a ship, an anchor, or a fisherman (see Clement, Paedagogus 2.12:118129 and, esp. 3.11:5760). All these symbols have important Christian meanings, and the references to them in literary texts are confirmed by the large number of seals and engraved precious stones brought to light by archeology (see "Gemmes," Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. F. Carroll, H. Leclerq, and H. I. Marrou, 15v. (Paris 190753), esp. 816-). Luxury in jewelry was apersistent evil, however, and all the Christian writers of East and West found it necessary to attack it again and again in the strongest terms.

Alleged Magical Properties of Gems. Diamonds were said to give protection against poison and evil powers; agate and sapphire, against despair and envy; emeralds and amethysts, against spells, hail, and locusts; serpentine, against snake bites. The sardonyx was a good luck stone. The beryl gave knowledge of the future and promoted marital harmony. The ruby furnished strength and was a charm against poison and evil spirits. Blood jasper stopped bleeding, and limonite aided pregnancy. Numerous other stones were regarded as efficacious in similar ways (see Pliny, Hist. Nat. bk. 37, and Apuleius, Apol. 31). For many centuries, precious stones in powdered form have been used as medicines. Symbols or formulas inscribed on gems gave them an important role in astrology and other kinds of magic. The employment of month-stones or birthstones, however, is largely modern. As is evident from medieval lapidaries, above all from the classic De lapidibus of Marbod of Rennes (10351123), with its description of 60 stones, belief in the marvelous powers of precious stones was widespread in the Middle Ages. It is still far from dead in the Eastor even in the West.

Bibliography: w. m. f. petrie, j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 10:224225. j.h. emminghaus, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:659. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie (Paris 190753) 6.1: 794864, with copious illustrations and bibliog. a. hermann, "Edelsteine," Reallexikon für Antike Christentum ed. t. klauser [Stuttgart 1941 (1950 )] 4:505550, with bibliog. o. rossbach, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1910) 7.1:10521115. p. schmidt, Edelsteine (Bonn 1948). a. furtwÄngler, Die antiken Gemmen, 3 v. (Leipzig 1900; repr. 1963), of fundamental importance. j. evans, The Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages (Oxford 1923). l. thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 v. (New York 192358) 1:775782. s. thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 6 v. (rev. and enl. ed. Bloomington, Ind. 195558), see index under "Jewels" and the names of the respective precious stones.

[m. r. p. mcguire]

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