Diamonds - The Legends and Lore
Diamonds are the birthstone for April and they always seem particularly appropriate for this spring month with their crisp brightness and sharp cleanliness.
At the start of April, we thought it might be interesting to explore the mythologies, legends and superstitions of diamonds, and see how these translate into our modern understanding of these kings of gems.
We have written extensively about diamond elsewhere on ShinyPrettyThings, so if you would like an introduction to the subject, more details on how to identify a diamond (or how not to), the mysteries of their birth and how they help us understand the world better, which diamonds rocked our world in 2016, or want to ogle some particularly amazing blues, pinks or incredibly large cut and rough stones, then please follow the links for more information.
Now on to the stories!
In Sanskrit texts dating back to 4BC, diamonds were created by the god Indra. They were supposed to be the crystallized remains of lightning bolts that the god used as weapons.
Gouache painting on paper from an album of eighty-two paintings of Hindu deities. Four-armed and thousand-eyed Indra carries in his upper right hand a vajra (thunderbolt), formed by six rhomboidal elements, with a sword in his upper left. In his lower right he holds a shield and in his lower left another smaller vajra. His many eyes are distributed equally over his four arms. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
This may be the reason why the diamond “was often associated with lightning and was sometimes believed to owe its origin to the thunderbolt” (1). We know that diamonds may be formed by the impact of meteorites but as yet there is no solid proof of the creation of diamonds through lightning strikes although there are indications that it is only a matter of time before one is found. We are much more likely to get something known as fulgurite from a lightning strike than a diamond.
Fulgerites created by lightning fused quartz sand at the Mineralogical Museum of Bonn. Image by Elke Wetzig (Elya) via Wikimedia Commons.
The Hindus believed that a flawed diamond, or one containing specks or spots, was so unlucky that it could even deprive Indra of his highest heaven. This was presumably based in the fact that the god was supposed to have created the stone and as gods were beyond fault, how could such a faulty stone exist? (2)
The Greeks believed that diamonds were splinters from stars that had fallen to earth. The stars themselves were considered to be the children of Eos and Astaios, so diamonds were held to be part of the mythological universe of gods that had fallen into the hands of men. Plato suggested that diamonds were the “fermentation of the stars” (3) – the very point of their origin. No wonder diamonds were revered.
Among the more unlikely legends about the diamond, Pierre de Boniface clamed in the 14th century that wearing a diamond might render one invisible. (4) This claim may have come from the Greek legend of the birth of Zeus, king of the gods. Zeus’s father, the Titan Cronos, was planning to devour his child to prevent his being overthrown by his son. Cronus was supposedly able to see everything that occurred on those realms that fell under his mastery – the earth, the heavens and the sea. The nymph Adamanthea, who nursed the baby Zeus, hung his cradle from a tree so that the child might escape his wrathful father’s gaze and be invisible to him. (5)
Saturn [Cronos] Devouring his Son by Peter-Paul Rubens,1636.
Cronos had had some previous dealings with diamonds in his bloodthirsty past – to revenge a crime against his mother Gaia (the earth), he had castrated his father, Uranus (the sky), with an adamant sickle given to him by his mother. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) his castration, Uranus fathered four more beings. Aphrodite rose from the foam created as his testicles hit the sea, while the giants, furies, and nymphs were born from drops of his blood on Gaia - the earth. It seems appropriate that one of these beings should take Uranus’s revenge on Cronos by hiding Zeus.
In a legend that comes closer to the truth of the birthplace of diamonds than any other, Hephaestus, the blacksmith god of fire and volcanoes, forged weapons for the gods using the strongest metals he could create – adamastos & adamas. These words were used to describe diamond in later years, giving the implication that Hephaestus created diamonds within his volcanoes.
Prometheus chained by Vulcan, by Dirck van Baburen, 1623 (circa 1594/1595–1624). In the Greek tragedy, Prometheus Bound, Hepaestus is to bind Prometheus “to the jagged rocks in adamantine bonds infrangible”.
Plato wrote about diamonds as living beings, embodying celestial spirits. There was a wide spread belief that persisted until the 19th Century that a diamond only retained its talismanic powers if it was acquired as a gift – that the spirits in the stone were offended by being bought and sold – but would happily transfer their benevolence if gifted to another. In 1566 Rueus called the diamond “a gem of reconciliation” as it enhanced the love of a husband for his wife. (1) It seems fitting then that De Beers used the term ‘A diamond is forever’ back in the 1940s to promote the giving of diamonds in engagement rings – the initial point of a marriage.
It is said that the first mention of diamonds in Roman literature was in 1AD where it was written that Cupid’s arrows were tipped with diamonds – the first instance of a diamond engendering love between two people. It isn’t clear which piece of literature this springs from, as the majority of texts indicate that Cupid’s arrows were tipped with gold (for love) or lead (for an aversion to love).
Cupid in a Landscape by Il Sodoma, 1510
However, what certainly was written then, and which holds true now, is Pliny the Elder’s comment that “Diamond is the most valuable, not only of precious stones, but of all things in this world.” (6)
In this culture, the story of the Garden of Eden tells that Eve enjoyed the sight and smell of the flowers in bloom. Satan noted this and created diamonds and precious stones to be just as beautiful as those original heavenly flowers in order to tempt women to false desires. Given the number of crimes that have been committed for the sake of greed and covetousness, it is clear that Satan had a thorough understanding of human nature!
Eve Tempted by the Serpent, William Blake, 1799-1800
In earlier times, diamonds were held to be an antidote for poisons – a curious belief given that at the exact same time the gemstone was also considered to be a deadly poison itself. This contradictory property was based in the belief (from Aristotle) that diamonds were guarded by venomous snakes, whose venom was distilled into the body of the stones. (7)
In progression from this belief comes the idea that the diamond could provide protection from the plague; proof of which came from the fact that the plague or pestilence generally struck first and hardest amongst the poor – where no diamonds were to be found. An extraordinary coincidence.
In 1531 Marbodus even called the diamond a cure for insanity, (8) echoing a comment from Pliny that swallowing a diamond would neutralize poison and guard against insanity. Given the price of diamonds, such actions today might be considered proof of insanity.
The Virtues of Diamonds
As George Frederick Kunz stated in his book, The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, “the virtues ascribed to this stone are almost all directly traceable either to its unconquerable hardness or to its transparency and purity”. Wearers would be blessed with “superior strength, fortitude and courage”(1)
There are multiple tales of kings wearing the diamond into battle – trusting that this adamantine material would render the wearer unconquerable also. Unfortunately, because diamonds have such high reflective properties, these leaders would have looked like walking mirror balls on the battlefield – a blazing target for the enemy’s arrows!
There is, however, one story where a king turned the brightness of diamonds to his advantage. In Diamond is Fragile, Valayev tells a story of the Sancy diamond in which Charles the Brave, the uncrowned king of Burgundy - a man who strongly believed the superstition that whoever carried the heavier diamond into battle was the one who would emerge victorious - mounted the Sancy on his battle helmet.
Duke Charles de Philippe le Bon de Bourgogne (Charles the Bold) by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1618
In a battle against a Swiss army, the commander-in-chief of the Swiss suggested to the Duke of Burgundy that the victory of the battle should be decided by one-on-one combat. Charles the Brave chose to be his own champion (as they had anticipated), while the Swiss put forward their most experienced fighter. On the field, the Duke positioned himself so that the sun was striking directly into his eyes as he faced his Swiss enemy. Everyone thought that the Burgundian leader had made a grave error. The fighters approached each other and Charles the Brave was seen to start shaking his head “like a horse biting on a mouthpiece” (9), drawing derisive laughter from all the onlookers.
To the considerable surprise of all, the Swiss warrior began to squint and blink, eventually covering his eyes with both hands. “Using not the magical charms of the talisman, but the natural properties of the diamond Sancy, Charles blinded his enemy with the reflected sunlight, and pierced his chest with his sword.” (9)
The Sancy Diamond, now housed safely at the Louvre. Image by Inventaire du Patrimonie, via Wikimedia Commons.
To this end, we can see that as with all things, no matter what your beliefs might be, the benefits of a diamond’s properties are what you choose to make of them.
1 – George Frederick Kunz – The Curious Lore of Precious Stones pg 70
2 – George Frederick Kunz – The Curious Lore of Precious Stones pg 154
3 – Burnham, S.M. (1886). Precious Stones in Nature, Art and Literature. Boston, Bradlee Whidden. p. 8
4 – George Frederick Kunz – The Curious Lore of Precious Stones pg 72
5 – The meaning of names – Behind the Name
6 – Pliny the Elder, Natural History, volume 37, chapter XV
7 – George Frederick Kunz – The Curious Lore of Precious Stones pg 377
8 – Marbodus ‘De Lapidibus’ Friburgi, 1531 f.8
9 – Diamond is Fragile – Rustem Valayev, pg 118.