Amulets, Talismans, and Religious Beliefs
Early priests and scholars believed that precious gemstones, including sapphires, had specific “virtues” that could be used to benefit man if their powers were properly harnessed. According to legend, Helen of Troy (c. 12th century B.C.) owned a large star sapphire, which was believed to hold the key to her desirability. The famous “seal” of King Solomon (c. 1000-931 B.C.) was legendary, not only because it was an inscribed sapphire, but also because it apparently gave him power over spirits in the air, earth, and underworld.
During the Hellenistic period (400-100 B.C.) when gemstones were associated with specific deities or occult powers, sapphires were routinely inscribed with the head of Jupiter (Zeus), the god of the sky. During this same period, Arabian kings were known to wear sapphires to protect themselves from envy and physical injury. Early sailors believed that sapphires would protect them from drowning at sea.
In Medieval times, sapphire was used as a test for infidelity; it was thought to change color if worn by the unfaithful. The wives of the crusaders were tested with sapphires (including color change sapphires!) when their husbands returned from their campaigns.
Sapphires have ancient associations with religion. The ancient Persians believed that Earth was balanced on a giant sapphire that was reflected in the color of the heavens. Buddhists believed that sapphires had a calming effect on people, which facilitated their devotion to prayer and meditation. The seventh heaven of Islam is bathed in a shining light of rubies, sapphires, and emeralds.
Sapphires are key symbols in the Christian religion, where they are associated with chastity, piety, and repentance. To the early Christians, sapphires symbolized heaven and their yearning for eternal life. Tradition holds that Moses’ Ten Commandments were written on tablets of sapphire so strong that a hammer swung against them would be smashed to pieces. Each of the Apostles was associated with a specific gem, and sapphire was known as the stone of St. Paul.
Charlemagne owned an enormous sapphire amulet that he wore prominently to display his devotion to God. In the 6th century, a papal bull decreed that every cardinal was to wear a sapphire ring on the right or “blessing” hand. In the 12th century, this practice was encouraged because it was believed to suppress sexual desires, promoting chastity and piety.
During the 12th to 14th centuries, members of the Christian clergy became interested in “lithotherapy” – the practice of using gemstones to heal the sick. The father of the modern botany and zoology, Dominican monk Albertus Magnus (c. 1193-1280), was one of many serious scholars who dabbled in the study of lithotherapy. Skeptics were dismissed as heretics, and scholars who did not enthusiastically support tenets of lithotherapy were threatened with excommunication.
The Christian clergy were not the only scholars fascinated with the power of sapphires. Alchemists also sought to harness their legendary powers. Sapphires were also the favorite stone of necromancers, who employed them to summon spirits of the dead for prophecy and black magic.