It’s story time at Jewel School! Did you know there was an Ancient Greek gemologist? Read on to learn more about him, and about gems in myth and lore.
Ancient Greek gemologist, myth, lore
You’ve heard of Plato and philosophy, Aristotle and science. How about Theophrastus and Gemology? Yes! Theophrastus was an Ancient Greek Gemologist! This Greek forefather had a lot to say about gems. Additionally, Greek mythology and ancient lore boast many stories including sparkling gems.
Theophrastus: the first Ancient Greek gemologist
As a young person, Theophrastus moved to Athens from Lesbos. He studied at Plato’s ancient school of philosophy. When Plato died, he started hanging around Aristotle, who admired his work and appointed Theophrastus successor at the Peripatetic school.
Also known for his work in botany, Theophrastus wrote a treatise, ‘On Stones’, (Περὶ λίθων), that classified rocks and gems according to their behavior when heated. Often utilized by gem workers, this writing was a valuable resource all the way through the Renaissance period. Free from most ‘fable and magic’, Theophrastus did however, describe the gem, Lygurium, as formed of the solidified urine of the lynx, which was included in many lapidaries — until it disappeared by the 17th century.
While Theophrastus was trying to separate fact from myth, Ancient Greeks continued to weave within the stories of their gods and goddesses, fables and fantasy that many of these talismanic gemstones still carry with them today. Let’s take a look at some of those stories.
The Delphic Oracle and ‘Saphirus’
The transparent Blue Sapphire, according to the Gemological Institute of America, is a variety of the species, Corundum whose sister stone is the Ruby. Theophrastus believed the word ‘Saphirus’ was ascribed to the gem we now know as Lapis Lazuli as there are many accounts of the stone actually having gold veins running through it.
Whether Lapis or Sapphire, in her article. ‘History and Legend of Sapphire’, Fara Braid states that the Greeks associated the ‘Saphirus’ with Apollo, Greek god of sun and music. It was often worn during the consultation of oracles at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Necromancers were fond of this stone for its ability to make clear those oracular revelations difficult to hear and understand.
The Heliades and Tears of Amber
Although Amber is not a gemstone, The Gemological Institute of America identifies this beautiful organic substance as fossilized resin. It’s been treasured since 2000 B.C.
“One day Phaeton, the son of Helios, god of the sun, convinced his father to let him drive the sun chariot across the sky. It did not take long for the wild horses pulling the chariot to realize that an inexperienced charioteer was driving them. Cold covered the Earth as they drove far away. Desert heat scorched the land when they were too close. In order to save the Earth from chaos, Zeus struck Phaeton with his lightning bolt. Phaeton’s body fell dead into the Eridanus River where his sisters, the Heliades, found him.They came to the river and wept each day for their dead brother. Wasting away on the riverbank, their bodies eventually took root and became covered with bark and the sisters turned into poplar trees.Their tears, however, continued to flow, and as they hardened in the sun, they turned into amber.”
Dionysos and Amethyste
From pale purple to vivid violet, this quartz gem is one of the most popular in the world. It’s also February’s birthstone. The word, ‘Amethystos’, according to Ellen Stieber in her article ‘About Stones’, translates to ‘not drunken’ and was considered to be a strong antidote against drunkenness’. Perhaps that is why goblets were often carved from this gem.
Credited to Remy Belleau, a French author and poet from the 16th Century, Dionysos, the Greek god of the grape harvest, winemaking, and frivolity, relentlessly pursued a maiden named Amethyste. On her way to the temple of Artemis to pray, she immediately implored the goddess to allow her to escape Dionysos’ pursuit in order to remain chaste.
Sympathetic to her cause, Artemis turned her into a clear, white stone. Both shamed and crestfallen at his thwarted attempt to capture her, as an offering, Dionysos poured wine over Amethyste’s image of stone, dyeing the crystals forever purple.
So many more stories
We have just begun to explore the sparkling gems, rocks, jewels, and precious metals that are woven into the fabric of the magical myths of ancient Greece. Classical Greek themes are ever-present in jewelry design. There’s so much to discover. We’ll see you next time, at Jewel School.
Paraskevi, also known as Vivian Paul Anton, is a 2nd generation jewelry designer, certified gemologist, and proprietor of Paul’s Jewelers in Milwaukee, WI. She trained at the Gemological Institute of America and at the Kulicke-Starke Academy of Arts. Early in her career, she interned with Ilias Lalaounis in Greece. Her pieces have been featured in major magazines and acquired by actors, athletes, and patrons all over the world.