Friday, 10 August 2018

Healing Stones: New Age Trend Isn't All That "New"

I love stones and crystals, and have done so since I was a little girl when my dad would help me collect rocks. While my first rock collection was lost in a childhood move, I still have a bowl of beautiful stones and crystals to which I add occasionally with material found both in nature and in shops. I used to keep that bowl in my office at university and people would assume I was some kind of "New Age" person; I even had someone ask if I had cleansed my crystals in the full moon (no, they weren't poking fun, they were serious - I managed not to laugh out loud). What I am saying is that my love of stones is purely aesthetic, and not rooted within a belief in magic. I was once told that amethyst helped prevent worry, so for a while I used to carry one into exams and public speaking events, but my use of it was a bit like Dumbo's feather - it gave my confidence a boost.
My rock collectionAs a self-confessed lithophile and ancient historian, I love the occasional references you get to stones in ancient texts. Pliny's last two books of Natural History is particularly fun to read as it is devoted to stones. So imagine my surprise and joy when looking for examples for the use of so-called swallow-stones in the treatment of epilepsy last year when I came across a Latin text entitled On the Virtues of Stones by Damigeron. I might have danced in my chair just a little.
A quick glance of the Latin showed that this book was an interesting mix of folklore, medicine, and magic, exactly the kind of book which people promoting New Age ideas love to use in order to give their theories authority. You see similar uses of ancient herbal texts for natural therapies. So it came as no surprise that the only English translation of this work was published in 1989 by a small publisher whose website states it does bookbinding and self-publishing, "Ars Obscura Press" in Seattle. It practically screams New Age. While I haven't seen the whole book (there are no copies in Australia) passages of it quoted in articles indicate a pretty accurate translation.
But who was Damigeron? 
I have only been able to find two references to Damigeron outside of this text. The Christian author Tertullian made a passing reference to Damigeron in his discussion of the soul in relation to necromancy (Tertullian, De anima, 57):
"Either it is excellent to be kept here with the 'dead-by-violence', to employ the terms now voiced by the source of such beliefs, namely magic - Ostanes, Typhon, Dardanus, Damigeron, Nectabis, and Berenice."
Apuleius, a writer who was accused of bewitching his wife by her children made reference to Damigeron in his published defence against the charge (Apuleius, Apologia, 90.5-6):
"...if a single reason can be found, however slight, why I should have tried to marry Prudentilla for some advantage to myself, then call me the famous Carmendas or Damigeron, or their predecessors Moses, Johannes, Apollobex, Dardanus himself, or any celebrated magus since Zoroaster and Ostanes."
Apuleius' reference to Damigeron is especially informative because it shows that despite how little he was referred to, he was abviously a well known magical figure in antiquity. People could drop his name and his audience could be expected to know enough about him to understand their point.
These two references tell us little about Damigeron himself, so everything else about him has been derived by looking at the text of On the Virtues of Stones and as a result is open to debate. I have read people suggest that Damigeron was actually Persian, while others state he was Egyptian, but his name is Greek. People studying the text state that it was written in the style of the Hellenistic period, drawing on both Greek and Egyptian traditions. Indeed Egypt is referred to fairly often in the text, but that might have been an attempt to imbue the work with authority as a magical text. People who discuss the text also cannot agree as to whether it was written in the second or first century BCE, but it is agreed that it was originally written in Greek and later translated into Latin, possibly in the fifth century CE. While the Latin text is published attributing the work to Damigeron, I am not completely convinced; at one point it reads "Damigeron scribit:" ("Damigeron writes:") half way through a discussion of a stone. That suggests to me that this is not a complete work of Damigeron. 
We know that the very beginning of the published Latin text is not meant to have been written by Damigeron. As a prologue to the text there is a letter which claims to have been written by one King Evax of Arabia to the Roman emperor Tiberius. Evax seems to be a fictitious character whose only other appearance is ain a medieval interpolation in a couple of the poorer manuscripts of Pliny's Natural History. The inclusion of this letter means that this text is similar to other medico-magical texts like the "Vulture Epistles" for which we have both Greek and Latin copies surviving. The use of a letter format to famous historical figures was another attempt to imbue the text with authority. I find these attempts to create authority in relation to magical texts highly amusing because these kinds of texts are now used by people promoting New Age medical "treatments" to provide authority.
In addition to providing advice on the magical use of fifty stones, this text has been described as the earliest text discussing stones in relation to astrology. After the greeting from Evax to Tiberius, the introductory letter outlines the association between seven stones which cure men by preventing disease, and associates them with individual constellations: chrisolithus to Leo; astroselinus to Cancer; haematitus to Aries; ceraunius to Sagittarius; demos to Taurus; arabicus to Virgo; and ostracites to Capricorn. I have left the names of these stones as they were written in the Latin text because identifying ancient stones is terribly fraught; look up any of these names with the exception of haematitus, haematite, in a Greek or Latin dictionary and prepare to be bamboozled (King, whose text I've provided a link to below is quite questionable). This is quite problematic when viewing ancient astrology; the number seven normally related to the "planets" (sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), not the zodiac constellations of which there were twelve, just like today. A writer who fully understood ancient astrology would not have made that error. It is even more curious that the seven stones listed there were not all included in among the fifty stones discussed under headings in the body of the text. In addition to this, the discussion of those fifty stones do not touch on astrology. This disconnect between the introductory letter and the body of the text suggests at least two different authors.
I haven't read the entire text closely, but I have three segments from it: those on "swallow stone" lapis chelidonius (no. 10), "wolf's tooth stone" lapis odontolycius (no. 18), and "cock's stone" lapis alectorius (no. 19). 
While all three of these include explicitly magical effects which aren't described elsewhere in ancient literature (they will make you charming, women will love you, you'll be eloquent and successful in business or in sport are all promised), there is some crossover between medical texts and this work, especially the use of swallow stones in the treatment of epilepsy in ancient times. This use seems to have come from a Greek tradition which supports the idea that this was originally a Greek text. Dioscorides, a first century CE medical writer, described the use of swallow stones taken from the gullet of swallow chicks as an amulet to treat epilepsy (Materia Medica 2.56.1). Rather than describing them as a black and a red stone, he differentiated between them as mottled and plain. Pliny, likely using Dioscorides as his source, also recommended their use, but did not differentiate between them and described it as recommended by the Magi (Nat. Hist. 30.27.91). Cassius Felix (71), a Latin medical writer who derived his material from Greek texts, also recommended their use, but he described the stones as well-formed and malformed. Damigeron actually stated that the red stone was used to heal "lunatics, the insane, and invalids", and in late Latin texts, lunaticus was used as a term for epileptics (see Isidore of Seville, Etymology, 4.7.6). When you consider the likely Greek origin of this treatment and Pliny's reference to the Magi, which he tended to use indiscriminately when referencing magic cures, this fits well within the Graeco-Egyptian origins of the text.
In relation to "wolf's tooth stone", the first sentence devoted to its description is a statement that it is actually a wolf's tooth. While this could still be a stone (fossilised teeth generally are not uncommon), the only other reference I could find was a similar use of wolf's teeth in Pliny in relation to children. Damigeron's discussion is fairly short:
"Odontolycii: they are the teeth of a wolf; they are lucky and useful for soldiers and hunters and those wanting to seize something, and for divining water or for sensing the divine, having been placed under the base of a cup. It provides constant protection for the support of children. However, there were especially worn by thieves who wanted to plunder other's property." (This is my translation, and I'm not sure what this says about children.)
Pliny described the use of a wolf's tooth as an amulet to keep away childish terrors and teething ailments in babies (Nat. Hist. 28.78.257), and that the right canine was held to have magic power (Nat. Hist. 11.63.166). I truly wonder whether this use of a wolf's tooth for babies was a Roman tradition, building on the myth of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf. This inclusion in Pliny also makes me question the likelihood that Damigeron was literally referencing a tooth, and not a fossilised tooth.
As for "cock-stones", they too are rarely referenced. Once again, the only comparable text I could find comes from Pliny. Damigeron (19) wrote:
"The Alectorius stone is found in the gullets of cocks, the size of a bean, crystal-like or clear as water. Whoever wears this stone will not be overcome by anyone, though he will be tried and tested by many. ... Milo of Croton was never beaten when carrying this stone."
By comparison, Pliny (Nat. Hist. 37.54.144) wrote:
"Found in the gullet of cocks, they are called alectoriae, crystal-like, the size of a bean; it is claimed that Milo of Croton owes his reputation as one who was unbeaten to his use of it."
The idea that Milo of Croton, the greatest athlete at the ancient Olympic Games, used a magic stone to seemingly cheat seems a very odd idea. A wrestler who one first as a child, and then a further five times as an adult during the 6th century BCE, Milo was celebrated by Greek authors especially. Apart from the later Latin writer Solinus (1.77), who derived most of his work from Pliny, nowhere else is this idea written in antiquity. While referencing Milo was a great way to "prove" the stone's efficacy, this is not something I imagine a Greek author would have written.
While the swallow stones do appear to be a truly Greek tradition, its popularity among Latin authors, combined with the hints of Latin traditions in relation to wolves' teeth and cock stones, I truly question the purely Greek credentials of this text as the theory that this is just a later Latin translation of Damigeron's text suggests. That said, I would need to look at the rest of the other 47 stones to say this with complete confidence.
This Latin text became quite popular in the Middle Ages, with numerous lapidaries (this is the technical term for texts devoted to stones) throughout that period of time drawing on its text. Marbodus of Rennes who wrote a Latin poem, De Lapidibus, especially drew upon it, even referring to Evax in his work. While Damigeron is little known among classicists and ancient historians, his influence on later works devoted to stones and natural philosophy was considerable. It is quite possible that the New Age ideas of crystal healing developed from this unusual Latin text. So-called New Age crystal healing, might not be that "new" after all.
Further reading:
Tahil, Patricia (translator), 1989, Damigeron [De Virtutibus Lapidum] The Virtue of Stones, Seattle: Ars Obscura Press. This seems to have been written more for the New Age crowd, rather than ancient historians.
Duffin, Chistopher John. 2007, "Alectorius: The Cock Stone", Folklore, vol. 118, pp. 325-341.
Duffin, Christopher John. 2013, "Chelidonius: The Swallow Stone", Folklore, vol. 124, pp. 81-103.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, books 36-7

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