The Cult of Birthstones by Melusine Draco
The fashion for using ‘birthstones’ as personal amulets appears to have its origins in the twelve gemstones from the breastplate of the Jewish High-Priest and “the gems contributed for the tabernacle by the Israelists in the wilderness”. There are two lists of twelve stones to be found in both the Old and New Testament but these do not correspond to the months of the year, or the zodiac, but to the twelve tribes of Israel, or the twelve mighty angels who guard the gates of Paradise. The following extract is given in Exodus (xxviii, 15-30) and quoted in The Curious Lore of Precious Stones — written by that distinguished mineralogist George Frederick Kunz (1856-1932) who, for more than 50 years was the gem expert for Tiffany’s in New York:
… And thou shalt set in its [the breastplate] settings of stones, even four rows of stones: the first row shall be sardius [carnelian], a topaz, and a carbuncle; this shall be the first row. And the second row shall be an emerald, a sapphire [lapis lazuli?] and a diamond [rock crystal or corundum?] And the third row a ligure [amber or jacinth], an agate, and an amethyst. And the fourth row a beryl, and an onyx, and a jasper; they shall be set in gold in their enclosings.
Islamic legend also represents the various heavens as composed of different precious stones, and in the Middle Ages, these ideas became interwoven with a host of astrological, alchemical, magical and medical superstitions. There is, however, a much earlier Egyptian representation of the breast-ornament worn by a High-Priest of Memphis (14th Dynasty), consisting of 12 small balls or crosses. “As it cannot be determined that these figures were cut from precious stones, the only definite connection with the Hebrew ornament is the number of the figures; this suggests but fails to prove, a common origin,” concluded George Frederick Kunz.
Many of the ‘classical’ lists cited as antecedents for natal or zodiacal stones will include diamonds — but this gem could not have been one of the original stones simply because astrology dates back thousands of years and the ancient lapidaries did not know how to cut a diamond. It is possible that what was later mistaken for a diamond was more likely to have been rock crystal but this ‘humble’ stone would not have been considered valuable enough in later times. The ancient priesthood, however, would have known about the magical powers contained within the rock crystal, even if latter day magicians did not.
Or as Kunz observed, “A mysterious stone mentioned three times in the Old Testament, each signifies a material noted for its hardness and translated ‘diamond’, however, as it is almost certain that the Hebrews were not familiar with the ‘diamond’ it was most probably a variety of corundum …” Similarly, lapis lazuli was referred to as the ‘sapphire of the ancients’ and it may have been lapis rather than the rarer blue corundum that was in use at this time.
Birthstones are still used today as amulets to attract health, wealth and happiness and most people know their own birthstone but from the dozens of different compilations, which is the correct attribution for each month?
The cult of the birthstone and belief that each stone was endowed with its own peculiar virtue for those born in that month can be traced back to the writings of Josephus (1st century AD) and St Jerome (5th century). Despite these early references, the common usage of giving and wearing a birthstone seems to have originated much later in Poland sometime during the 18th century. The belief in the special virtues of the stones was paramount, and it was long before the mystic bond between the stone of the month, and the person born in that month was realised.
Nevertheless, nearly every book on gemstones will assign different stones for each month and Kunz himself, gives eight different listings from ancient Hebrew to the present day as examples. The following are taken from two contemporary publications on the subject — and even here there are contradictions for the given stones against each month.
Gemstones of the Month (Spells, Charms, Talismans & Amulets, Pamela A Ball)
January: Garnet, Onyx, Jet, Chrysoprase
February: Amethyst, Jasper, Rock crystal
March: Aquamarine, Bloodstone
April: Ruby, Garnet, Sard
May: Emerald, Malachite, Amber, Carnelian
June: Topaz, Agate, Alexandrite, Fluorite
July: Moonstone, White agate
August: Cat’s eye, Carnelian, Jasper, Fire agate
September: Peridot, Olivine, Chrysolite, Citrine
October: Opal, Tourmaline, Beryl, Turquoise
November: Topaz, Lapis lazuli
December: Serpentine, Jacinth, Peridot
Gemstones of the Zodiac (Talismans, Charms & Amulets Robert W. Wood)
Aries 21 March — 20 April Red Jasper
Taurus 21 April — 21 May Rose Quartz
Gemini 22 May — 21 June Black Onyx
Cancer 22 June — 22 July Mother of Pearl
Leo 23 July — 23 August Tiger Eye
Virgo 24 August — 22 September Carnelian
Libra 23 September — 23 October Green Aventurine
Scorpio 24 October — 22 November Rhodonite
Sagittarius 23 November — 21 December Sodalite
Capricorn 22 December — 20 January Snowflake Obsidian
Aquarius 21 January — 19t February Blue Agate
Pisces 20 February — 20 March Amethyst
When looking for authenticity in terms of magical working there is an additional complication caused by historical calendar re-alignments and what is known as precession. Because of the tidal effects of the Sun and Moon, the Earth ‘wobbles’ like a spinning top, causing the direction of the Vernal Equinox to shift in the sky. The early calendar makers were unaware of this phenomenon and believed that in making the beginning of the year dependent on the Sun’s entry into the constellation of Aries, they were fixing it forever to the time of the Winter Solstice. At that ancient point in time, theoretically the gemstone representing Aries would have been that of the Winter Solstice, i.e. December.
As the centuries rolled by, the stars of Aries receded from the Winter Solstice, moving steadily through almost a quarter of the great ecliptic and by the 2nd century BC, the Spring (or Vernal) Equinox was not far from the same point where the Winter Solstice had been when the first calendar-makers had fixed the constellation in the heavens. The Vernal Equinox is now on the cusp of Pisces and Aries but over the full ‘wobble’ it will move through all the signs in the zodiac — at the moment the gemstone for Aries is represented by that of the Vernal Equinox, i.e. March.
There is also some evidence in favour of the theory that at the outset all twelve stones were acquired by the same person and worn in turn, each one during the respective month to which it was assigned, or during the ascendancy of its zodiacal sign. According to the German writer Bruckmann (1773 Abhandlung von Edelsteinen), “The stone of the month was believed to exercise its therapeutic (or magical) virtue to the fullest extent during that period. Perhaps the fact that this entailed a monthly change of ornaments may rather have been a recommendation of the usage than the reverse.”
When utilising gemstones as magical correspondences, however, it is vital that we use the ancient propensities for each stone … because it is what the ancients believed, that locks us into the universal subconsciousness so quintessential for successful magic. We are talking here of esoteric archetypes not the fake-lore and fantasy of modern crystal working.
The twelve stones of the High-Priest’s breastplate — sardius (carnelian), topaz, carbuncle; emerald, sapphire (lapis lazuli), diamond (corundum or rock crystal); ligure (amber or jacinth), agate, amethyst; beryl, onyx, and jasper — set in four rows of three to signify the seasons as suggested by Flavii Josephi; and again by Clemens Alexandrius in the 2nd century, give us a starting point. Even then, things are not that simple. The c1539 edition of Marbodus’s lapidary shows a figure of a High-Priest with the names and tribal attributions of the twelve stones, which differ slightly from the Greek Septuagint version from c250 BC as follows — and shows where the confusion over the inclusion of the sapphire may have arisen.
- Sardion (carnelian) — Odem
- Topazion (topaz) — Pitdah
- Smaragdus (carbuncle or emerald) — Bareketh
- Anthrax (carbuncle or emerald) — Nophek
- Sapphirus (lapis lazuli) — Sappir
- Iaspis (corundum) — Yahalom
- Ligurion (amber or jacinth — Lesham
- Achatâs (agate) — Shebo
- Amethystos (amethyst) — Ahlamah
- Chrysolithos (beryl or chalcedony) — Tarshish
- Beryllion (beryl or onyx) — Shoham
- Onychion (green jasper) — Yashpheh
The above does not claim to be the earliest, authentic list since there is still the suggestion that the Hebrew system may have been based on the earlier Egyptian version. Neither should we be dismissive of using an archaic Hebrew system as the foundation for our observances, for as any student of ritual magic will know, the Hebrew influence plays an important part in the development of the ‘Western’ system of the magical Qabalah and ritual magic.
Melusine Draco is the author of Magic Crystals, Sacred Stones published by Moon Books ISBN: 978 1 78099 137 5 186pp Price UK£11.99/US$19.95 : Kindle version available. http://www.moon-books.net