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A Tryst with Amethyst

Oh, what stories a geode can tell.

An attractive amethyst geode sits on my desk. Geodes are rocks with an internal cavity that is filled with crystals of a mineral. In the case of amethyst that mineral is quartz, tainted with iron and manganese impurities that colour it an eye-catching purple. The geode has no function except to satisfy my, some would say peculiar, passion for collecting objects that have stories to tell. With “amethyst” the story is about its name, derived from the Greek for “wine” and traces to an ancient belief that wine-coloured crystals can ward off drunkenness.

The notion that amethyst is an antidote for intoxication is of course a myth, but the ancient Greeks, as we well know, were deeply into myths. Life was thought to be controlled by their many gods, each of whom had specialties. Dionysus was the god of wine and intoxication. And what did he have to do with amethyst? Here the story becomes a bit complicated.

It seems that Dionysus’ affections were not limited to wine. He had a taste for mortal ladies as well! A particular subject of his affections was a maiden who just happened to be named Amethystos. Since the ancient Greek word for drunkenness is “methyl” and the prefix “a” can be translated as “not,” one might surmise that Amethystos was not into partaking of wine. And that she was not into those who favoured wine partaking of her.

The girl presented a challenge, which is what may have excited Dionysus. She, however, was not interested in his advances and prayed to the goddess Artemis, to remain chaste. Artemis seems to have been blessed with somewhat of a whimsical nature and answered Amethystos’ prayer by turning her into a white stone. That put a quick end to Dionysus’ chase, at which point the frustrated god poured wine on the white stone, dyeing the crystals purple. The purple stone became known as “amethyst” after the name of the maiden who had successfully resisted Dionysus’ amorous advances by turning into stone. One wonders if she would have reconsidered her prayers had she known the outcome. Perhaps a little tryst with the god of wine may have been preferable to being turned into stone.

In any case, the myth of Amethystos was transformed into the belief that amethyst had the ability to counter the effects of alcohol intoxication, and the Greeks, as well as later the Romans, made cups out of the stone. If wine were to be consumed from these, its intoxicating effects would be neutralized! Just to be on the safe side, the power of the cups was boosted by wearing amulets made of amethyst. The gemstone, however, didn’t seem to have much of an impact on the legendary drunken feasts of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Chemically speaking, this is not surprising. Amethyst is just a form of silicon dioxide and does not react with alcohol in any fashion. In spite of this, it is considered to be the stone of abstinence and is often present in the rings worn by bishops and cardinals.

In recent years, the balderdash about amethyst offering protection against drunkenness has been replaced by some more modern claptrap. Inventive marketers now sell “metaphysical jewelry.” One beguiling item is made from a mineral that features whitish veins, supposedly the result of having captured lightning. We’re told that it can “direct energy towards the fortification of one’s weaknesses and create instantly noticeable healing.” Also available is version of amethyst called “Merlinite,” an allusion to its supposed magical properties. It is a remarkable gem indeed. Meditating with Merlinite “can assist one in contacting souls of the deceased who wish to give a message to the living.” It is also said to “open psychic channels for intuitive understanding and also attracts teachers from other planes to assist in one’s studies during the dream state and in meditation.”

And leave it to modern day mountebanks to keep up with modern technology. Instead of hawking amethyst as an antidote to alcohol, they now promote it as a substance that can protect against electromagnetic radiation from devices such as cell phones. The “Bioelectric Shield,” a pendant containing amethyst along with other minerals in a specific pattern, will “shield the wearer from harmful radiofrequencies, such as those generated by cell phones.” As an added feature, it will also enhance personal energy. It does come with a reasonable disclaimer. Some people, the ad cautions, feel a difference, others feel nothing. No doubt.

I said my geode had a story to tell.


@JoeSchwarcz

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