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"[New Jerusalem’s] light was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal."
-- Revelations. 21:11
When you think of Saint Paul, do your thoughts turn to…sapphire? Would you necessarily associate Saint Andrew with Chalcedony? Or Saint Peter with Jasper? While unaware of the more advanced mineralogical concepts of geology, the biblical ancients still held profound and complex interpretive beliefs surrounding crystals and their Heavenly powers.
Already fuzzy with the passage of time, multiple translations—Greeks translating Hebrew, later writers translating ancient Grecian—add to the confusion of biblical gem myth. Consequently, much of the information surrounding biblical mineral lore is speculation, though a few standard interpretations remain; one such is the mythos of Aaron’s High Priest gemstone-studded breastplate.
The earliest mention of the breastplate, and the twelve gemstones that adorn it, occurs in the Bible’s Book of Exodus in which Aaron, brother of Moses, is named the first High Priest of the Jews and honored in this capacity with a breastplate. For the ancients, twelve meant wonder and honor; consider the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles, and the twelve stones of the foundation of the New Temple of Jerusalem. The breastplate’s twelve gemstones traditionally represent the twelve tribes of Israel but later reinterpretations by European priests in the 8th and 9th centuries suggest the gemstones actually reflect each of the twelve apostles. Researchers also believe that the description of the gemstones in Exodus 28:15-30 may be the original twelve birthstones!
Andreas, 10th century bishop of Caesurae, provides a brief description of the twelve stones, as recounted in George F. Kunz's book The Curious Lore of Precious Stones (1913):
The Jasper, which like the emerald is of a greenish hue, signifies St. Peter.
The Sapphire is likened to the Heavens (from this stone is made a color popularly called lazur) and signifies St. Paul.
The Chalcedony may well have been considered what we now call the carbuncle and represents St. Andrew.
The Emerald, which is of a green color, is nourished with oil that its transparency and beauty may not change; this stone signifies St. John the Evangelist.
The Sardonyx, which shows a certain transparency and purity of the human nail, represents James.
The Sardius with its tawny and translucent coloring suggests fire and represents Philip.
The Chrysolite, gleaming with the splendor of gold, symbolizes Bartholomew.
The Beryl, imitating the colors of the sea and air, and not unlike the jacinth, suggests Thomas.
The Topaz, which is of a ruddy color, resembling somewhat the carbuncle, denotes Matthew.
The Chrysoprase, more brightly tinged with a gold hue than gold itself, symbolizes St. Thaddaeus.
The Jacinth, which is of a celestial hue, signifies Simon.
The Amethyst, which shows to the onlooker a fiery aspect, signifies Matthew.
While some of these stones look downright unfamiliar—Sardius? Jacinth?—and others are easily recognizable (amethyst = amethyst), still others represent another mineral completely. For example, ancient ‘onyx’ equates to a modern day turquoise, ‘chrysoprase’ refers to citrine, ‘emerald’ is a type of dark garnet, ‘topaz’ is actually peridot, and intriguingly, ‘sapphire’ is actually lapis lazuli.
Can you guess the modern day equivalent of these esoteric biblical breastplate gemstones?
· Sardius, or Odem in Hebrew, is a form of translucent, orange-red quartz used for wax seals and ancient rings. What’s the modern day equivalent?
· Sardonyx, or Yahalom in Hebrew, had traditionally been translated as ‘diamond’ since ‘yahalom’ means to cut. This translation lost steam when no evidence appeared to link Hebrews with any knowledge of diamonds. Since sardonyx was a popular stone carved into seals, some suggest ‘yahalom’ refers to pressing vigorously, as one would with a seal on hot wax. Sardonyx is a common calcium carbonate found in caves. You might see animals or totems carved into the modern day version of sardonyx.
· Jacinth is Lesham in Hebrew. Although scholars concede that ‘Lesham’ signifies the tribe of Joseph, that’s where agreement ends. Some scholars believe this stone is amber, while others suggest a brown variety of sapphire. Kunz asserts that ‘jacinth’ is a stone the Hebrews often wore during this period, one that would hold significance. Modern ‘jacinth’ shows up everywhere, from earrings to books ends, necklaces to tumbles.
Andreas, the aforementioned bishop, also notes an additional intriguing feature of the infamous breastplate—its amazing variety of colors. These include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, sky blue, purple, and translucent tan. Seem familiar? Aside from the obvious (though historically impossible and so retrospective) Christian symbolism of the stones’ colors—Pentecostal red to Judas’ treacherous tan, virginal sky blue to Lenten violet—the breastplate appears to include the colors of the chakras!
Interested in additional information about these ancient guardians? Take a look…
Emerald or Garnet:
Hebrew name Nophek literally means ‘glowing coal,’ thus the conclusion that rather than emerald as we might recognize it, this is instead almandine, a bright red variety of garnet.
Hebrew name Yashpheh refers to a translucent green stone. Myth suggests that bloodstone, a medium to dark green jasper with telltale splotches of red, originated when Christ's blood fell from the cross. (Although an engaging piece of lore, history shows that bloodstone had already been prized in India for centuries predating Christ’s birth and death.)
Topaz or Peridot:
Hebrew name Pitdah is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning yellow.
Sapphire or Lapis Lazuli:
The Hebrew Sappir—the well known and common lapis lazuli, originally called ‘sapphire’—was the stone on which the Law was given to Moses on the Mount.
In the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Maria Leach suggests that "belief in the supernatural properties of precious stones goes back beyond recorded history.” As long as humans continue their curious dance with crystals’ stories, myths, and lore, their intrigue will continue to spark interest for future generations with their beauty, mystery, and tradition!
Healing Crystals Expert
Kunz, George F. (1938). The Curious Lore of Precious Stones. Halcyon House: New York.
Leach, Maria. (1984). Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. Harper & Row: New York.
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