By Yaĝé Enigmus
Perhaps one of the oldest and most well known gems, amethyst has been valued by human beings from countless cultures and civilizations throughout history. Amethyst was historically revered as much as ruby, sapphire, and emerald, holding a seat as a member of what were called “the cardinal gems”. The cardinal gems were considered to be the most valuable gems of antiquity, and although some documents suggest this list of stones varied by culture, such as the inclusion of diamond and pearl by some eastern cultures or the inclusion of opal by some western cultures, amethyst was almost always included in this list.
The oldest known records of humans using amethyst or seeking it out can be found in ancient Egypt. It is extremely likely that amethyst was known to human beings living on the African continent prior to the birth of ancient Egypt, but to date no explicit description of the stone has been found from an earlier time period.
The oldest definitive evidence in Egypt of amethyst’s use as a gemstone was found in the tomb of the 1st Dynasty pharaoh, Djer (also known as Sekhty), dating to circa 3000 B.C.E. Beaded amethyst bracelets were discovered in the pharaoh's tomb, indicating that even during this early period in Egyptian history, amethyst gems were already in use and highly valued. Amethyst had become widely popular in Egyptian culture by the time of what is known as the “middle kingdom”, a period that stretched from circa 2050 B.C.E. to circa 1750 B.C.E., beginning with the reign of Mentuhotep II (also known as Nephepetre) in the 11th Dynasty and lasting until the end of the 12th Dynasty.
During this time a suitable location for mining amethyst had been found at Wadi el-Hudi far to the south of central Egypt. Inscriptions found at Wadi el-Hudi suggest that the amethyst mines began operating with an expedition that occurred during the reign of Mentuhotep IV (circa 2000 B.C.E to circa 1900 B.C.E), the last pharaoh of the 11th Dynasty. A number of expeditions to Wadi el-Hudi occurred in the 12th Dynasty to gather amethyst, not only led by pharaohs but in some cases led by members of Egyptian aristocracy, and expeditions to the mine continued into the 13th Dynasty.
Amethyst was mined extensively at Wadi el-Hudi and brought back to central Egypt for use in jewellery and other high valued objects. Much of the amethyst that was brought back from these mines was sought after by members of royal households, and the cultural impact of these behaviours potentially helped solidify the association between amethyst and royalty that can be seen in later periods of human history.
Here are some of our favourite amethyst gemstones:
Eastern cultures have also exhibited a desire for amethyst for millenia. Amethyst appears in early texts of ancient India as one of the ayurvedic birthstones for the ancient Hindu calendar (corresponding to the contemporary Gregorian month of February) and as one of the ‘uparatna’, or secondary stones, associated with the celestial body of Saturn. Clear mention of amethyst can be found in Indian texts dating to around 1500 B.C.E. but it is likely that the stone was known in southern Asian since before the dawn of the Indus Valley Civilization (circa 1750 B.C.E). Amethyst also makes an appearance in ancient China not only as the birthstone associated with the Dragon sign of the Chinese zodiac, but also as a powerful tool for use in the art of feng shui. Evidence suggests that amethyst may have been known to the Chinese people since the beginning of written Chinese history (circa 1250 B.C.E)
Amethyst was well known during the time of ancient Greece (circa 1200 B.C.E to circa 600 C.E.) and was coveted not only for its beauty, but also for its use in the crafting of drinking vessels. The word “amethyst” derives from the Greek word “amethystos” (ἀμέθυστος), which translates as “sober”, or more literally as “not drunk”, and the ancient Greeks believed that close contact with the stone could protect one from the effects of alcohol.
Come the time of the first Jerusalem temple (circa 1000 B.C.E), amethyst had made an appearance in the high priest’s breastplate of ancient Jerusalem, as is described in the Book of Exodus (28:19 and 39:18). Amethyst was one of the twelve stones mounted in the breastplate and was known in Hebrew by the name “aḥlamah” (אַחְלָמָה), which is thought to be associated with the ancient hebrew word for “dreams”.
Ancient Romans adopted the beliefs held by Greeks about the powers of amethyst, and the gemstone was widely known during the roman empire (circa 27 B.C.E. to circa 476 C.E.). By this time amethyst had become a popular material to use for intaglios, which were gems that had images carved into them. Evidence at Wadi el-Hudi in southern Egypt indicates that the Egyptian amethyst mines became active again during this period of Roman occupation, suggesting that the Romans sought out the ancient amethyst mines in order to better meet their culture’s demand for the material.
During the 1st century C.E. the historian Titus Flavius Josephus drew a connection between the stones of the high priest’s breastplate, the twelve months of the year, and the signs of the Greco-Roman zodiac, beginning the story of what are now called “birthstones”. Amethyst was of course featured on that first biblical birthstone list as the birthstone for February. Shortly after this point, amethyst re-enters the Judeao-Christian dialogue with another biblical mention. In the Book of Revelation (21:19), amethyst is listed as one of the twelve foundation stones of New Jerusalem. Saint Jerome of Stridon, the 5th century Christian philosopher, drew a link between these stones, the twelve jewels of the high priest’s breastplate, and the twelve apostles of Christ. Amethyst consequently became associated with Saint Matthias in the years following. The deep purple gem also appears in Christian practices as a stone commonly set in the episcopal rings sometimes worn by Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, potentially in reference to Acts of the Apostles (2:15) where the apostles are described as “not drunk”, a Christian concept that was likely adopted from Roman beliefs.
In the second part of this series, learn about the history of amethyst from the dark ages to today.
Read more: A Brief History of Amethyst, Part 2: From Regal Gem to Pervasive Treasure
© 2020 Yaĝé Enigmus a.k.a. Kevin Back