Symbolism of precious stones in Byzantium

Lecture held by Antje Bosselmann-Ruickbie, Mainz

Surprisingly, magic played an important part throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire, although it was a Christian state. Wide-spread representatives of the material culture of magic are amulets made from different materials, but prevailingly preserved in metal and stone. Most examples date from the Early Byzantine period (4th-7th century), however, later examples as well as written sources prove that amulets must have existed until the end of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. A great number was made of precious stone such as sapphire, emerald, agate, sardonyx, carnelian, jasper, amethyst or haematite. Their protective character was usually defined by a representation, e.g. of a demon or a figure defeating a demon. Beyond that, the material itself played an important role. We learn from written sources that magical properties and healing powers were ascribed to gemstones. One example is the amethyst, which was supposed to protect the wearer from insobriety (amethystos, Gr., ‘not drunk’). Byzantine writers such as Epiphanius of Salamis (4th century) or Michael Psellos (11th century) provide an insight into the magical properties ascribed to the stones which can vary depending on the source.

Lecture held during the conference “Gemstones in the first Millennium AD. Mines, Trade, Workshops and Symbolism.” October 22nd, 2015 at the Roemisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz (Germany).


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