The Magic of Jewels and Charms
The Curious Lore of Precious Stones
By George Fedrick Kunz
On the Virtues of Fabulous Stones, Concretions, and Fossils
NOT only precious or semi-precious stones were used as charms or talismans and for curative purposes; a large number of animal concretions also were and are still somewhat in favor. These concretions, variously composed
but usually containing a quantity of carbonate of lime, are found in different parts of animals' bodies, and they were
believed to contain a sort of quintessence of the nature of the animal in which they occurred. For this reason the
alectorius, from the body of the cook, one of the most widely-known of the animal stones in ancient times, was
thought to confer valor upon the wearer, and is said to have been worn by athletes in their contests.
In the case of venomous, or supposedly venomous, creatures, such as the toad and certain snakes, the stone was
used as an antidote for poisons. This virtue was thought to be notably present in the so-called bezoar stone, taken
from the stomach of a species of goat, as well as from some other animals. As we shall see, legend sought to
account for the peculiar qualities of the bezoar by the tale that the animals in whose bodies the stones were formed
had been bitten by serpents. Indeed, it seems not unlikely that the belief in the curative properties of the bezoar
stone originally owed its existence to the finding of some such concretion in the body of an animal that had died
from the effects of snake-bite.
As is well known, certain pathological conditions induce the formation of stones of various kinds and shapes in the
human body also. Here the tendency has been to use these stones to counteract the ' disease which produced them.
Renal or vesical calculi, for instance, were recommended for diseases of the kidneys and bladder, a treatment quite
in accord with the popular idea of the homeopathic theory.
Another class of animal substances, namely, the fossil teeth of the shark, enjoyed a tremendous vogue at one time,
and were known by the name of glossopetrae. These were usually regarded as stones, and because of their peculiar
form were frequently assimilated to the belemnites and even to the flint arrow-heads and other prehistoric flint instruments, which were dug up in many places. All these flint artefacts were believed to have been precipitated to
the earth by the discharge of electricity during a thunder-storm; in other words, they were "thunder-bolts."1 The
same idea was frequently held as to the origin of the glossopetrae, and those found on the island of Malta were
brought into connection with an incident of St. Paul's visit to that island.
In many different countries, especially in the north of Europe, these flint arrow-heads and the fossil remains of
similar form, were called fairy-darts or elf-shots, and were believed to be the enchanted weapons of the elves and fairies, who, in the old folklore, are represented as beings of a very different quality from the fairies and elves of
the tales of our childhood. In some parts of Europe at the present day, for example in Ireland, the peasantry talk
with bated breath of the doings of the "good people," for they shrink from using the word ''fairy'' lest it might
offend these mysterious and generally malevolent beings. The designation "good people" is therefore used to
placate and flatter them.
Various shell fossils were also used as talismans. Here the form generally determined the virtues they were
sup- posed to possess. Some of these strange forms lent them-
1 See Chapter II, pp. 106-116. 11
selves to an interpretation in line with the primitive adoration of the life-giving forces of nature, and suggested the
use of such fossils to cure certain special diseases. Other of these petrifactions retaining the form of the enclosing
shell, especially those of circular shape, and with concentric rings, were believed to be of meteoric origin and to
have fallen during thunder or rain; hence the names of brontia and
ombria. A certain class of these fossils, with convolutions on the surface resembling the form of a snake, were called snake-eggs (ova anguina),
and, very naturally, enjoyed the repute of preserving the wearer from
poisons. All these varieties will be described in this and the following
"While some believed that the toad-stone was vomited by the animal,
others held that it constituted a part of the toad's head. That this was the popular belief in (Shakespeare's time is shown by the well-known lines in
his "As You Like It" (Act II, sc. 1):
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
De Boot, whose treatise was published about the time that Shakespeare
wrote these lines, gives the following account of the result of his efforts to obtain a toad-stone according to the prescribed method: 2
1 remember that, when a boy, I took an old toad and set it upon a red cloth that I might secure a toadstone; for they
say that it will not give up its stone unless it sits upon a red cloth. However, although I watched the
2 Anselmi Boetii de Boodt, "Gemmarmn historia,'' Hanovise, 1609, p. 52.
toad for a -whole night, it did not eject anything, and from this time I became convinced all the tales concerning this stone were merely fond imaginings.
A stone called simply the "Indian Stone," and said to be light and porous, is noted by pseudo-Aristotle, and to it
is attributed the power to relieve those suffering from dropsy, by drawing the water to itself. If weighed after
having been applied to the patient, the stone was found to have increased in weight in proportion to the amount of
water absorbed, and when it was placed in the sun, water of a yellowish hue exuded,, until, finally, the stone
its original appearance and weight.3 Another and perhaps earlier authority gives the name "toad-stone" to this
The toad-stone was not only an antidote for poisons, but was also thought to give warning of their presence by
becoming very hot. To fully profit by this strange quality, the wearer of such a stone was advised to have it so set
in a ring that it would touch the skin ; in this way he would be
3 Rose, "Ariatoteles de lapidibus und Arnoldus Saxo," Zeitschr. fur d. Alt., New Series, vol. vi, 1875, pp. 373, 374.
4 Petra, "Specilegium Solesmense," Parisiis, 1855, p. 370.
sure to have timely notice, if any poisoned food or drink were offered to him.5 The writer who mentions this adds
the following tale of the discovery of a toad-stone:
A clerk once found a toad which had a round knob on its head, wherefore he thought that there must be a
toad-stone. So he took up the toad and tied it firmly in the sleeve of his coat. When he returned from the fields and searched for the toad he found it not, although the sleeve of his coat was tightly bound below and he could not
discover any opening through which the creature could have passed. This shows us that it is a great help to
prisoners in jail.
Another early authority, Thomas de Cautimpre, says of the toad-stone:
If one take the stone from a living and still quivering toad a little eye can be seen in the substance; but if it be
taken from a toad that has been some time dead, the poison of the creature will have already destroyed this little
eye and spoiled the stone.
If the toad-stone be swallowed at meal-time it passes through the system and carries off all impurities.6 Here the
substance may have been one of many concretionary materials, — bauxite, impure pearls, concretionary
limestone, stalagmite, or even the eye-stones from the crawfish; indeed, any material, white or gray, that had a semblance to a toad color, and was then sold by the vendor of charm stones as coming from a toad's head.
The great Erasmus (1465-1536) made a pilgrimage to the famous shrine of the Virgin in the church at Walsinghafia,
in Kent. In his description of what he saw there he expressly notes a wonderful toad-stone:
At the feet of the Virgin is a gem for which there is as yet no Latin or Greek name. The French have named it after
the toad [erapaudine], because it represents so perfectly the figure of a toad that no art could do this
5 Le Grand Lapidaire de Jean de Mandeville." From the edition of 1561, ed. by J. S. del Sotto, Vienne, 1862, p. 90.
6 In Konrad von Megenberg's "Buch der Natur," ed. by Dr. Franz Pfeiffer, Stuttgart, 1861, p. 437.
so well. The miracle is all the greater that the stone is so small, and that the exterior surface has not the form of
a toad, the image showing through it as though inclosed within.7
As we see, the stone of Erasmus contained the form or image of a toad. This was not usually the case with the
concretions that bore this name, and it appears probable that the "crapaudine" of the shrine at Walsingham owed
its peculiarity rather to art than to nature. A rather far-fetched explanation of the origin of these substances is
given by Ambrosianus, who relates that, in order to investigate the quality and character of toad-stones, he killed
a number of toads and took out their brains. Although these were not hard when extracted, they became, in time, as hard as stones.8
A toad-stone which appeared to represent the form of this animal was preserved as an heirloom in the Lemnian
family. It exceeded the size of a walnut and was often seen to dissipate the swelling caused by the bite of a
venomous creature in any part of the body, if it were rubbed quickly over the swelling. It, therefore, seemed to
possess the same quality as was attributed to the animal from which it was taken, namely, to draw out and annul all poisons. If any neighbor of the Lemnian family were bitten by a mouse, a spider, a dormouse, a wasp, a beetle, or
any such creature, he soon sought the aid of this stone.9
We have noted De Boot's unsuccessful attempt to secure a toad-stone, but he does not seem to have used the
orthodox method for obtaining it. According to one authority," the creature should be placed in a cage covered with a red cloth
6 Erasml, " CoUoquia," Lipsiae, 1713, p. 596.
7 Aldrovandi, "Museum metallicum," BononisB, 1648, p. 814.
8 Lemnii, " De miraculis occultis naturae," Francofurti, 1611, pp. 212, 213.
9 Mizauld, "Hundert curieuse Kunst-stucke," in Martius' "Unterricht von ddr Magiae Natural!," Leipzig, 1717,
and then set in the hot sunshine for several days, until thirst forced the poor toad to eject his precious stone, which
was to be removed as soon as possible lest it should be swallowed again. Another method proposed is so cruel that
it is a comfort to know that the whole matter is little more than a fanciful conceit. In this case, the toad was to be enclosed in a pot with many perforations, and the vessel with its unlucky inmate was then to be placed in an ant-hill
and left there until nothing remained of the toad except his bones and the coveted stone. It is quite probable that
any stone found in an ant-hill after this procedure would be termed a "toad-stone," since the toad was put away in
order to find one. In some instances they may have been bony concretions from the head of the toad, or even
pebbles that the toad had swallowed.
While it is quite possible that some of the so-called toad-stones may really have been concretions found in the
head of the toad, by far the greater part were probably small pebbles sold as "toad-stones" to those who believed
in the magic virtues of such a stone and were ready to pay a good price for one. Where there is a demand there
will always be a supply, and the rarer the genuine article is, the greater is the incentive to imitation or substitution.
In the case of some of these "toad-stones" set in rings to serve as amulets, the material has been found to be the
fossil palatal tooth of the ray, a species of fish.11
The small share of material prosperity that fell to the lot of wits and literary men in the England of the sixteenth
century, even in the age of Elizabeth, induced Thomas Nash (1567-1601) to liken the fate of the wit to that of the
toad-stone, or, as he writes, of "the pearl," which was said to be in the head of the toad, this "being of exceeding
virtue, is enclosed with poison ; the other, of no less value, compassed
11 Smith, "Jewellery," London, 1908, p. 151.
about with poverty. 12 A writer of the same period affirms that if the toad-stone were touched to any part,
''envenomed, hurt, or stung with rat, spider, wasp, or any other venomous beast," the swelling and pain were diminished.13
The bones of the lizard were supposed to have medicinal virtues similar to those attributed to various "stones"
found in animals. The following directions are given by Eneelius for securing these bones: "Put a green lizard,
while still alive, in a closed vessel filled with the best quality of salt. In a few days the salt will have consumed the
flesh and the intestines, and you can easily gather up the bones. 14 These were used as remedies for epilepsy and
were considered to be as efficacious as the hoofs of lie elk, a recommendation which seems to have been regarded
as sufficient to convince the most sceptical of the remedial virtues of the lizard's bones.
The crab furnished the stone called the crab's-eye, because in form it resembled an eye. Like almost all the
animal concretions, it was principally used as a remedy for those suffering from vesical calculi, and no other
concretion was believed to be so efficacious in breaking up or dissolving the calculi in the case of those who had
long been afflicted with them. Those referred to by Eneelius were from the crawfish and are often used as
In the last joint of a crab's claw was sometimes found a small concretion closely resembling in size and appearance
a grain of millet-seed; it was in no wise like the "lapillus" found in crab's eyes. 'We have the testimony of
Cardanus that he had preserved two such concretions, one of which he had himself come across, while the other
had been found
12 Anatomy of absurditie," 1589; p. 40 of Collier's reprint. Lean's Collectanea, vol. ii, Pt II. Bristol, 1903, p. 643.
13 Lupton, "One Thousand Xotable Things."
14 Encelii, "De re metallica," Francofurti, 1557, pp. 219, 220.
15 Idem, pp. 21S. 219. See also p. 121 of the present book.
by a colleague. They were smooth and light, and of a reddish-white color. Because they were very rarely met with,
the circumstance was regarded as of good augury for the finder.16
A round concretion (a calculus) from the liver of the ox is described by Ibn Al-Beithar as being of a yellowish color
and composed of successive superimposed layers. If secured at the time of the full moon it was believed to promote embonpoint, and was much prized by the Egyptian women for this virtue. The effect was to be attained by taking
two grains of the pulverized concretion, either with the bath or directly after bathing, and thereupon a "fat hen"
was to be eaten.17 The latter prescription, if regularly and frequently administered, might be thought to suffice
without the powdered calculus.
From the second stomach of heifers was sometimes obtained a dark brown or blackish concretion of very light
weight and as round as a ball. This was credited with great remedial virtues provided it had not fallen to the
There seems to have been a belief that the curative or talismanic properties of animal concretions, or of the teeth
of animals, were weakened, or destroyed, if these objects came in contact with the earth. This belief was perhaps
due to the idea that the mysterious power of the substance was originally derived from earth currents, or
emanations, and that the active principle would return to the earth if the object came in contact with it.
The lapis carpionis or carp-stone, a triangular mass, was taken from the jaws of the carp. It was smaller or larger according to the size of the fish. The principal reme- dial use was against calculi, or for the cure of bilious dis-
16 Cardani, " De subtilitate," BasilsE, 1554; lib. vii, p. 211.
17 Traite des Simples of Ibn Al-Beithar in "Notices et Extraits des Manuscrits de la BibliothSque Nationale," vol.
xxiii, pp. 416-417; Paris, 1877.
18 Plinii, " Naturalis historia," lib. xi, cap. 79.
eases and colic.19 These are bony plates from the upper part of the mouth of the carp. Such so-called ''stones''
were also said to check bleeding of the nose, a quality they owed to their astringent properties, quite noticeable if anyone tasted the powder made from them.20
The cincaedias, a white and oblong concretion, had in Pliny's time the reputation of possessing extraordinary
powers, announcing beforehand whether the sea would be clear or stormy. 21 In what way this weather prediction
was manifested we are not told; perhaps the surface of the concretion may have become dull or grayish when there
was much humidity in the air. The cinaedia were said to be found in pairs in the fish of that name ; one pair being
taken from the head of the fish and another pair from the two dorsal fins. Power to cure diseases of the eye was
conferred upon these concretions by putting nine of them, duly numbered, in an earthen jar together with a green
Each day one of the "stones" was taken from the vessel in the numerical order, and on the ninth day the lizard was
liberated. Evidently it was thought that to kill the animal would interfere with the transmission of its virtue to the
The eye of the hyena was supposed to furnish a stone called hyaenia and Pliny writes that these animals were
hunted to secure possession of it. Like rock-crystal and many other decorative stones, this hyaenia was thought to
give the power to foretell the future, if it were placed beneath the tongue.23 Because of the hyena's uncanny habit
of feeding on carrion, and unear thing dead bodies from
19 Encelii, " De re metallica," Francofurti, 1557, p. 218.
20 Lemnii, " De miraculis naturae," Francofurti, 1611, p. 213.
21 Ibid., lib. xxxvii, cap. 56.
22 Ibid., lib. xxix, cap. 38.
23 Ibid., lib. xxxvii, cap. 60.
graves, it has often been associated with necromancy and with evil spirits.
The lacrima cervi, or "stag's tear," is not to be confounded with the bezoar stone according to Scaliger, who
maintains that it was a bony concretion that formed in the corner of a stag's eye only after the animal had passed
its hundredth year; as the stag never attains this age he might as well have said that the existence of this "tear"
was a fable. However, he describes it as though he had carefully inspected a specimen, saying that it was so smooth
and light that it would almost slip through the fingers of anyone who held it in his hand. It had similar powers to
those of the bezoar, being a powerful antidote to poisons and a cure for the plague if powdered and given with wine; these good effects resulting from the excessively profuse perspiration that followed the administration of the
These fabled stag's tears, though often praised as substitutes for the bezoar, were not believed in by all the early
writers, one of them, Copenhagen, giving expression to a caustic opinion that might do credit to a writer of our own
day. Alluding to the many reports of the existence of such "tears," shed by the animals because of the pains they
suffered after indulging in a diet of serpents, he notes that all those who make these statements are careful to
place the habitat of these eccentric stags as far away from their own land as possible, always "somewhere in the Orient," probably at "Nowheretown," as he adds.25
The chelonia is said by Pliny to have been the eye of the Indian tortoise. The magicians asserted that this was the
most marvellous of all "stones"; for if bathed in honey and then placed in the mouth, when the moon was either
24 Daniclis Sennarti, "Epitome naturalia scientiae," Francofurti, 1650, lib. V, cap. 4, pp. 438, 439; citing Scaliger, Exercit. 112.
25 G. Rollenhagen, "Wahrhaffte Lugen von Geistlichen und Naturalichen Dingen," Wahrenberg, 1680, p. 93.
or new, it conferred the power of divination, and this power lasted for one entire day.26 This virtue was not,
however, altogether peculiar to the chelonia, for it was shared by several other substances; in each case the stone
was to be placed in the mouth, thus coming into more immediate contact with the organs of speech, and stimulating
to prophetic utterance. A later writer states that it was the uterine stone
from the tortoise that gave the gift of prophecy. That from the head
cured headaches and averted lightning, while the stone taken from the
liver, if administered in solution, was a remedy for ague.27
The wild ass was another of the animals that furnished concretions
prized for their talismanic and medicinal powers. That taken from the
animal's head cured headache and epilepsy; that from the jaw made the
owner indefatigable, so that he yielded to none in battle. It was also a
remedy for ague and for the bites of venomous creatures, as well as a
marvellously efficacious vermifuge for children.28
Very likely the story of Samson, who wrought such slaughter
26 Plinii, " Naturalis historia," lib. xxxvli, cap. 56.
27 Leonard!, " Speculum lapidum," Venetia, 1502, fol. xxviii.
28 Ibid., fol. xxiv.
among the Philistines when armed with the jawbone of an ass, may have suggested the fancy that the concretion
from the ass's jaw would give victory to the wearer.
Pliny notes the opinion that a stone taken from the body of a young swallow, if worn attached to the human body,
helps to strengthen the brain, and he adds that the stone is said to be found in the young bird even when it has just
broken the shell.29 According to Thomas de Cantimpre the swallow-stone
is a talisman for merchants and tradesmen.30 The merits of the
chelidonius, as this stone was called, were fully recognized in Saxon
England and are given due prominence in an Anglo-Saxon medical treatise, dating from the first half of the tenth century. When these "swallow-
stones" had been obtained they were to be carefully protected from
contact with water, earth, or other stones. To secure the best results three
of them were to be applied to the person who stood in need of their
remedial effects. Not only did they cure headache and eye-smart, but they banished the dreaded nightmare, rendered futile the wiles of goblin
visitors, and dissolved all fascinations and enchantments. The seekers
after these wonderful stones are stoutly assured that they can only be
found in "big nestlings. 31
29 C. Plinii Secundi, " Naturalis historia," ed. Janus, Lipaiee, 1880,
p. 249, lib. XXX, cap. 1 1 .
30 In Konrad von Megenberg's version "Buch der Natur," ed. Pfeiffer, Stuttgart, 1861, p. 440.
31 Eev. Oswald Cockayne, " Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England," London, 1865, vol. ii, p. 307 (Bk. iii, cap. i, of