The History and Folklore of Sapphires

The value and power of sapphires as well as its use to the wearer, stated by Damigeron and the Bishop of Rennes, as an antidote for poison by Bartolomeus Anglicus, the sapphire of Sir Richard Francis Burton, and the other well-known sapphire gems

The sapphire is noted as a regal gem by Damigeron, who asserts that kings wore it about their necks as a powerful defence from harm. The stone preserved the wearer from envy and attracted divine favor. (Pitra, "Specilegium Solesmense," Parisiis, 1855.) For royal use, sapphires were set in bracelets and necklaces, and the sacred character of the stone was attested by the tradition that the Law given to Moses on the Mount was engraved on tablets of sapphire. (Epiphanii, "De XII gemmis," Tiguri, 1565, fol. 6.) While we should probably translate here "lapis-lazuli" instead of "sapphire," all such passages were later understood as referring to the true sapphire, which is not found in pieces of the requisite size.

In the twelfth century, the Bishop of Rennes lavishes encomiums upon this beautiful stone. It is quite natural that this writer should lay especial stress upon the use of the sapphire for the adornment of rings, for it was in his time that it was beginning to be regarded as the stone most appropriate for ecclesiastical rings. The sapphire was like the pure sky, and mighty Nature had endowed it with so great a power that it might be called sacred and the gem of gems. Fraud was banished from its presence and necromancers honored it more than any other stone, for it enabled them to hear and to understand the obscurest oracles. (Marbodei, "De lapidibus," Friburgi, 1531, fols. 46, 47.)

The traditional virtue of the sapphire as an antidote against poison is noted by Bartolomaeus Anglicus, who claims to have seen a test of its power, somewhat similar to that recorded by Ahmed Teifashi of the emerald. In John of Trevisa's version this passage reads as follows: (Bartolomaei Anglici, "De proprietatibus rerum," London, Wynkyn de Worde, 1495, lib. xvi, cap. 86, De Saphiro.)

His vertue is contrary to venym, and quencheth it every deale. And yf you put an attercoppe (Old English for spider.) in a boxe and hold a very saphyre of Inde at the mouth of the boxe ony whyle, by vertue thereof the attercoppe is overcome & dyeth as it were sodenly, as Dyasc. sayth [pseudo Dioscorides]. And this same I have assayed oft in many and dyvers places. His vertue kepeth and savyth the syght, & clearyth eyen of fylthe wythout ony greyf.

Voicing the general belief that the sapphire was endowed with power to influence spirits, Bartolomaeus says that this stone was a great favorite with those who practised necromancy, and he adds: "Also wytches love well this stone, for they wene that they may werke certen wondres by vertue of this stone." (Bartolomaeus Anglicus, l. c.)

There was in the South Kensington Museum, in London, a splendid sapphire of a peculiar tint. In the daylight it shows a beautiful rich blue color, while by artificial light it has a violet hue and resembles an amethyst. In the eighteenth century this stone was in the collection of Count de Walicki, a Polish nobleman, and Mme. de Genlis used it as the theme of one of her stories, entitled "Le Saphire Merveilleux." Here the sapphire is used as a test of female virtue, the change of color indicating unfaithfulness on the part of the wearer. If the owner of the stone wished to prove that the subject of the test was innocent, she was made to wear the sapphire for three hours of daylight; but in the opposite case the test was so timed that it began in daylight and ended when the candles or lamps had been lighted. This sapphire, still known as the "Saphire Merveilleux," was for a time in the collection of the Duke of Orleans, who bore the name of Philippe Egalite during the French Revolution.

The star sapphire is that variety of sapphire in which, when the stone is cut and rounded off horizontal with the dome of the crystal, the light is condensed across the three lines of crystalline interference. Three cross lines produce a star which moves as a source of light, or as it is moved from the source of light. Star sapphires very rarely possess the deep blue color of the fine blue sapphire; generally the color is somewhat impure, or of a milky-blue, or else a blue-gray, or sometimes almost a pure white. The blue-gray, gray, and white stones frequently show a much more distinct star, possibly from the fact that there are more inclusions between the layers of the crystals than with the darker blue stones, as it is the set of interference bands that produces the peculiar light. Just as the eye agate was used in some countries to preserve against the Evil Eye, so the moving star is believed by the Cingalese to serve as a protection and a guard against witchcraft of all kinds.

The great Oriental traveller, Sir Richard Francis Burton, had a large star sapphire or asteria, as it was called. He referred to it as his talisman, for it always brought him good horses and prompt attention wherever he went; in fact, it was only in those places where he received proper attention that he would show it to the natives, a favor they greatly appreciated because the sight of the stone was believed to bring good luck. The fame of Burton's asteria travelled ahead of him, and it served him well as a guiding-star. De Boot, writing in the seventeenth century, states that such a stone was called Siegstein (victory-stone) among the Germans.

The remarkable asteria, known as the "Star of India," in the Morgan-Tiffany Collection in the American Museum of Natural History, has a more or less indefinite historic record of some three centuries, but after its many wanderings it has now found a worthy resting-place in the great Museum. Its weight is 543 carats. (The subject of the origin, development and reform of the caratweight has been fully treated by the author in the Trans. of the Soc. of Min. Engineers, 1913, pp. 1225-1245, "The New International Metric Diamond Carat of 200 milligrams.")

The asteria, or star sapphire, might be called a "Stone of Destiny," as the three cross-bars which traverse it are believed to represent Faith, Hope, and Destiny. As the stone is moved, or the light changes, a living star appears. As a guiding gem, warding off ill omen and the Evil Eye, the star-sapphire is worn for the same reasons as were the oculus mundi and the oculus Beli. One of the most unique of talismanic stones, it is said to be so potent that it continues to exercise its good influence over the first wearer even when it has passed into other hands.


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