Birthstones are essentially stones with special shapes or colors used for warding off diseases or misfortunes and as facilitators to being about the user’s wishes (Dunwich, 2003). These stones are usually associated with the day or time or month etc. a person is born, hence the name. The use of such stones has been a part of many religions in different parts of the world, and in the modern day too finds many followers. The purpose of this paper is to give a history of the use of stones as symbolic references, and trace their usage as birthstones.
Stones as Symbols Stones are the foundation of human civilization. The body of earth comprises of stones of various shapes and sizes, and people from ancient world considered stones as the most stable of all elements, because of its capacity to remain steady. Hence, stones came to be associated with permanence by people from ancient cultures, who gave them special importance as sacred symbols (Tresidder, 2005). Some of the cultures even today follow the practice of worshipping stones which have a special shape.
In general, all the ancient cultures stones held a special symbolic value. Tresidder (2005) gives some examples like, the individual standing stones of specific shapes being worshipped, sacrificial stone axes or knives in the Neolithic age, and using stones to mark sacred places or act like altars etc. In funeral ceremony stones were used, as also by certain religion in the modern world for symbolizing eternal life. In addition to the above examples Tresidder (2005) also mentions that the stones having specific shapes, sizes and colors were also used as amulets.
Many people used to believe that these stones bring the wearer good luck, while others used them to ward off certain mishaps. Many theorists believe that this was the origin of birthstones as we know today. Gemstones Schumann (1993) says that gemstones have been known to men for more than 7000 years. The earliest gemstones belonging to the precious category were the amethyst, garnet, amber, jade, emerald, turquoise, lapis lazuli etc. Possession of these stones was considered to be a status symbol among the royal and other wealthy people.
Hence, these stones came to be associated with power in addition to being used as amulets and talismans. These stones depending on their history were used to sustain health or bring seafaring people safely and mainly to ward off evil. As time passed on, special stones started to have specific meaning based on various myths, legends and symbolic meaning attached to them. (Dunwich, 2003). Schumann (1993) also says that people used these stones as remedies in powdered form as remedies or were placed in contact with the body, a practice followed even today.
Gemstones are usually categorized as of precious and semi-precious type. (Schumann, 1993) says that in olden times very few stones were designated as precious stones based on their rarity and beauty. In modern times this number has increased multifold. The semi-precious stones were the stones which were less valuable and not very hard. These stones even today are used to denote the stones which are of lesser value than the precious stones, though the difference between them is not very clear.
In present times the quality of stone and at times even their occurrence i. e. natural or synthetic, decides whether a stone is of the precious or semiprecious type. Gemstones associated with Zodiac The association of gemstone with the zodiac was not just associated with a single race or religion in ancient times. Many cultures had similar beliefs. Walker (2002) says that, since ancient times Christians and Jews related certain stones as to the twelve tribes or Israel and to the twelve apostles. Ancient Jewish cabalists believed that the stones each one having an anagrm of the name of the God had mystical power over the twelve angels.
This is given by Walker (2002 ) in his book as follows: ruby over Malchediel, topaz over Asmodel, carbuncle over Ambriel, emerald over Muriel, sapphire over Hercel, diamond over Humatiel, jacinth over Zuriel, agate over Barbiel, amethyst over Adnachiel, beryl over Humiel, and jasper over Barchiel. In addition to this, gemstones were also related to the twelve months of the year, twelve parts of the human body, the twelve hierarchies of the devil etc (Walker, 2002). Each sign of the zodiac was associated with a stone and assisted it in exerting its influence over men.
The gemstones hence started as being allocated as to the signs of the Zodiac and from these birthstones and month-stones started to emerge. In addition to this the gemstones were also related to medicines. For instance jade was said to be originally applied by the Spanish conquerors as a cure for kidney ailments. The stone was referred to as pie-dras de yjada or the stones of the side i. e. the kidney stones. From the yjada the name jade came (Walker 2002). However Gleadow (2001) says that, while the ancient cultures associated stones as being related to zodiac the wearing of birthstones was not very common in those times.
He refers to George Kunz who suggested that this practice arose in Poland in the eighteenth century among the Jewish population there. Walker (2002) also has a similar opinion who mentions that the Jews of Poland related a gemstone to the birth month of the wearer. This was because of their interest in the significance of the original twelve stones in the breast of the Jewish High Priest. The above Jewish practice can be traced back to biblical times, specifically to the breastplate of Aaron (Dunwich, 2003), who was a Hebrew High Priest and a brother of Moses.
This breastplate is known as the Breastplate of High Priest and is said to be the oldest amulets known to man. Dunwich (2003) says that according to Bible this breastplate was made of the following gemstones: sardius, topaz, carbuncle, emerald, sapphire, diamond, ligure, agate, amethyst, beryl, onyx, and jasper. These twelve stones, as mentioned earlier used to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve months of the year and the twelve signs of the zodiac. Gleadow (2001) says that the most common list of birthstones can be derived from the Book of Revelation, beginning with St.
Peter, Aries and the month of March and assuming the Jasper of that month to be red. However, there were many changes made to this list and the list available by different religions or different countries differ a lot and tend to disagree. Also, there is no possibility to get an authentic list because there was no such list to begin with and also the difficulty in recognizing the various gemstones. Gleadow (2001) gives examples for this in his book. He says that the Authorized Version has the reversed order of third and fourth stones in the Book of Exodus.
The topazion is said to be a greenish stone, which means that it cannot be the modern day topaz. In addition, the association of the Apostles with the twelve stations also leads to confusion as all the Gospels do not mention the name of the Apostles in the same order. The list is hence different for people in different countries though it holds similar meanings and significances. Hence the lists are different for ancient Jews, Romans, Arabians, Poles, Russians and Italians, even though the source for all these is same.