Amethyst – the February birthstone
The rich violet tones of the amethyst have been treasured since the earliest days, with beads dating from 2500BC being discovered on Cretan islands. Amethyst is the purple variety of quartz, coloured by iron, and may be seen in pleasing shades ranging from a subtle tint of mauve through to an intense, almost reddish-purple.
Our first written record of this stone comes from 348-322BC in the treatise History of Stones by Theophrastus – a student of Aristotle – written nearly 300 years before Pliny’s Natural History.
Theophrastus is more interested in the geology and gemmology of the material, whereas Pliny goes into the attributes of the material, deploring “the falsehoods of the magicians”(1) who claim that the stones are capable of preventing drunkenness.
A sobering stone?
Amethyst is widely supposed to prevent inebriation, but where does this claim come from? For this we need to cast our eyes back Ancient Greece. The Greeks (like the Romans) did not like drunkards, although moderate drinking was universally accepted, as indeed it is today.
As Plato so pithily wrote in his Republic, “what do you say of lovers of wine… [but that] they are glad of any pretext of drinking wine”?
The Greeks referred to amethyst as Bacchus Stone, a reference to the myth in which Bacchus had been offended by some neglect and was determined to have his revenge. He decided (somewhat arbitrarily) that the best way to avenge this slight was to ensure that the first person he met on his wanders would be eaten by tigers.
As so often happens in these tales, the unlucky stranger was an uncommonly beautiful and devout young lady by the name of Amethyst, who was on her way to worship at the shrine of Diana the huntress. Diana recognised the danger to her supplicant, and rescued her by turning her into pure white stone.
Bacchus saw the beauty and innocence of this maiden and recognised his own folly. In repentance, he poured grape juice on the statue, turning it to a violet hue.
To which we might all say – what?? How is petrification saving someone? And when does pouring wine on someone make things any better? Greek myths rarely make a huge amount of sense but they do give us some wonderful stories.
To go back to etymology - which tends to be a little more logical - the Greek word μεθυσος (pronounced methusos) means ‘a drunkard’. The addition of the letter α (a) before a word created the negative meaning. So ‘a-methusos ‘or ‘amethyst‘ comes to mean ‘not a drunkard’.
Other properties of Amethyst.
The other properties of amethyst are that it dispels sleep, sharpens the intellect, works as an antidote to poison and preserves one from harm in battle (for which it came to be known as Soldier’s Stone). All of which might come in very handy the morning after a heavy night when one attempts to battle through the day ahead.
In the Renaissance, the amethyst became a symbol of modesty, humility and love to the end. It was claimed that the wedding ring of the Virgin Mary was created from this stone. In the Russian Gemstone Encyclopedia, another name for it is given as the Widow Stone – symbolising loyalty to ones dead spouse as the stone relieved the soul of pain and grief, lending tranquillity and good thoughts. It was also considered an emblem of unrequited love.
George Frederick Kunz took this motif further on the basis of Camillo Leonardi’s Speculum Lapidum (written in 1502), who claimed that amethyst lent a sobering effect on those “over-excited by the love passion”. Leonardi also claimed that amethysts made one “shrewd in business matters”(2).
Indeed, appropriately enough for the month that holds Valentine’s Day, St Valentine himself was supposed to have worn a ring set with “an engraved amethyst bearing the figure of a little Cupid”. (3)
In this vein, the birthstone verse for February runs:
“The February-born may find
Sincerity and peace of mind,
Freedom from passion and from care,
If she an amethyst will wear.
Let her an amethyst but cherish well,
And strife and care can never with her dwell.” (4)
Let’s raise a glass to the February babies, and hope that the lovely amethyst keeps our minds clear, sharp and shrewd in the event of any trials that might lie before us this month.
1 – Pliny’s Natural History Book XXXVII page 434.
2 – George Frederick Kunz, The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, page 58
3 – IBID page 257
4 – IBID page 327