Offer a libation to the dead while wearing white quartz, and you give the dead the gift of happiness. Rubies will pale in the presence of poison while amber will blacken, and blue sapphires will change color to warn of an enemy's attack. White chalcedony will increase a mother's milk, and citrine will increase prosperity. Opal, often connected with healing diseases of the eye, is known as the thief's stone because of its ability to sharpen the wearer's sight while dimming a pursuer's vision, thus conferring invisibility. Aquamarine is a stone of courage and a protection for sailors, though emerald is also valued by travelers for its ability to calm stormy seas. Topaz not only dispels nightmares but cures madness and cowardice. Diamonds, which have long been a symbol of purity and invincibility, guard the wearer against phantasms, sorcery, snakebite, fire and floods; and turquoise not only protects you from evil but from falling from a horse.
The above bits of lore taken from Vedic, European, and Native American sources are just a tiny sample of what I found when I began researching A Rumor of Gems, a fantasy novel based on the traditional lore of gemstones. For as long as I can remember I've been fascinated by gems. An animist by nature, I was drawn to them not only for their beauty but for their mystery. As a child reading about birthstones, the idea that certain gems had certain powers seemed a self-evident truth. To me they have always held the promise of magic.
An ex-boyfriend once accused me of having a weakness for shiny baubles, and I sometimes think that's the human attraction to gems on its most basic level — a primal, perhaps childlike, fascination with what glitters or reflects color, something as simple and universal as the tendency to pick up a pretty stone on the beach. For me that tendency led not only to the writing of two novels (A Rumor of Gems and its sequel), but to an entry into a world of lore in which those pretty rocks are also amulets, talismans and medicine, guides and companions, bearers of blessings or curses, the residences for spirits, and the means for clairvoyance and prophecy.
Stones that we consider gems have been part of the Earth's crust for millennia, and humans have probably been ascribing value and assorted powers to them since our earliest days on the planet. We can certainly trace beliefs of this sort through recorded time. Jewelry from Pre-dynastic Egypt (5,000-3,000 B.C.) incorporated carnelian, chrysoprase, chalcedony, jasper and rock crystal. Sir E.A. Wallis Budge of the British Museum translated an inscription carved on a Babylonian seal dating to 2000 B.C. "A Douche-chè-A (rock crystal) will increase a man’s possessions and its name is a good augury."
A Roman myth tells the story of how Bacchus, god of wine, ecstasy, and madness, became infuriated by an insult from a mortal. He swore to avenge himself on the next mortal who crossed his path, summoning tigers to work his will. The unlucky mortal turned out to be the maiden Amethyst who was on her way to worship at Diana's shrine. The goddess took what only the gods might consider pity on the innocent girl, turning her into pure rock crystal, so that she would be forever safe from the tigers' claws. Bacchus wept tears of remorse when he saw the lovely statue, and his tears stained the quartz purple, creating amethyst.
The Roman military officer Pliny, who lived from A.D. 23-79 and compiled an extensive encyclopedia of natural history, cataloged what was then known about stones, doing his best to dismiss what he considered to be the lies of "evil Magi." Although there's still dispute over which stones his text actually referred to — i.e., it's now thought that Pliny's Corallis was not coral but red jasper, and what he called "solis gemma" or "gem of the sun" may, in fact, be what we now call moonstone — his work reflects just how radically what we term science can change. In his careful culling of fact from superstition, Pliny dismissed the notion that amethysts cure drunkenness while stating that Adamas, the diamond, would "prevail over poisons" and drive fear from the mind. Though skeptical of the Magi's claim that agate can avert storms if "tied to the hairs of a lion's mane," he did believe that agates could "counteract the bites of spiders and scorpions" and "allay thirst," and also wrote that malachite "makes an accurate impression as a signet, protects children, and has a natural property that is a prophylactic against danger." Much of what was written after Pliny — from the medieval and Renaissance lapidariums through C.W. King’s 1867 treatise, The Natural History of Gems or Decorative Stones either supported, disproved, or merely tried to identify what it was that Pliny wrote about.
The beliefs about a gem’s value, influence, and innate powers are highly specific, and influenced by the time, place, and the culture in which they arise. To collect the beliefs ascribed to any one stone, is often to find that someone somewhere believed it capable of just about anything. As Maria Leach wrote of coral: “It has been highly valued as an amulet everywhere it occurs and a list of its properties reads like a catalog of remedies for all the ills suffered by mankind, from diseases of mind and body to ravages of the elements.”
Jade, for example, has long been revered in China, where it was considered a stone of good fortune and divine blessing, the literal condensation of the air between Heaven and earth that not only bridged the two realms but served as a direct link to the ancestors. Ancestral halls held tablets of jade that represented the dead. The living would then come to these halls and seek counsel from their ancestors, trusting the jade to be the conduit between Heaven and earth. Emperors used it in ceremonies, claiming that direct messages from Heaven came through the stone. Jade was also taken medicinally in powdered form to cure just about everything from insomnia to flatulence. It was further believed that jade could bestow powers of invisibility and levitation. Immortality was even possible if enough of the precious substance were consumed.
Jade was often considered Heaven-sent. In Jade: Stone of Heaven, Richard Gump recounts an eerie tale from the Han Dynasty in which a jade coffin mysteriously appeared in the Imperial Palace. Alarmed courtiers attempted to get rid of it but found it too heavy to move. Finally, they had no choice but to tell the Emperor of this strange apparition. Understanding that it signified the end of his reign, the Emperor dressed in his Imperial robes and lay down inside the coffin. The jade lid shut at once, and his retainers found that the casket could now be moved without effort, allowing them to bury their ruler in the jade sent from Heaven.
The history of a specific gem is often so entwined with folklore that separating fact from fiction seems futile; it seems far richer to simply accept the stone's history as wound through with myth. This is certainly the case with the long and bloody saga of the precious jade of Ho, which was considered a symbol of the divine right to rule China.
According to Gump, the legend begins with a poor scholar named Ho, who is believed to have lived sometime before 500 B.C. When he was a young man Ho saw a phoenix light on a boulder and, as Chinese mythology states that the phoenix will only appear during times of peace and will then light on a boulder of jade, Ho knew he’d found jade. He immediately presented the stone as a gift to his ruler, but the Emperor's court attendants didn't believe the stone was jade and cut off Ho's left foot for his insolence. Ho's faith was unshaken; when the next Emperor came to the throne, he again presented his jade. Again, it was declared a fraud, and this time Ho's right foot was severed. Undeterred, Ho later offered the jade to a third sovereign. Fortunately, this Emperor recognized the stone as fine jade, and Ho was well-rewarded both for the jade and for his suffering. After this the jade's history becomes murkier, with conflicting accounts of its whereabouts. One story says that in the middle of the 3rd century B.C. Ho's jade was ordered carved into an imperial seal — a square of green and white jade — by the tyrant Shih Huang Ti. Rubbings from the seal read: "With the decree of Heaven, I possess longevity and eternal prosperity."
From that point on the seal was revered as necessary to the possession of the throne and so became a sort of royal hostage, often the object of intrigue, theft, or outright war. It also had a tendency to periodically disappear for long stretches, vanishing in A.D. 9 only to reappear in A.D. 91 when it was found in the ruins of a Han temple. During the years of the Six Dynasties as the jade seal continued to be fought over, the belief it in its powers as a manifestation of divine right strengthened. The Northern Chou captured in it A.D. 575 and from that time until the 20th century’s last Manchu Emperor, every Chinese ruler possessed the seal.
The seal even found its way to the great Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. One legend says that in A.D. 1189 when Genghis was about to be pronounced the great Khan, he found a lark perched on a square stone in front of his tent for three mornings in a row. Each morning the bird called out the Khan's name until he understood that this was a sign of divine blessing. At that point the square stone split open. Inside it was the famed jade seal.
One of the lovelier legends of Ho's jade comes from the 18th century when the Yangtze River was flooding. In an effort to stop the floods, the Emperor Ch'ien Lung threw the Imperial seal into the rising waters as a sacrifice. The gods apparently accepted the sacrifice — the jade disappeared and flood waters receded — and it seems they remained pleased with the Emperor because years later they returned Ho’s jade to him as he sat beside the Jade Fountain outside of Peking. The jade seal was simply spouted up by the fountain's sparkling waters
The last known incident of the jade seal was a record of it being shipped to Shanghai in 1936 to avoid capture by the invading Japanese. There's been no mention of it since then, and there's speculation that it may be gone for good, as the Communist government has no intention of allowing anyone to cast doubt on the validity of their rule. Yet, if you take the long view, which you must always do when dealing with beings as ancient as stones, you can only believe that true to its own legend, Ho's jade will one day reappear.
Art: Detail from Madonna of Senigallia by Piero della Francesca, French Jewelry advertisement by Adrienne Ségur, Imperial Jade Seal, Yuan Dynasty