Lapis, Symbol of Truth and Virture

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Lapis Lazuli uncut

       Lapis Lazuli is a rich blue stone which sometimes shows sparkling, golden flecks of iron pyrites. It is opaque and in composition and structure is very similar to the turquoise. Like the turquoise it is one of the most ancient gems, references to it dating back prior to 4500 B. C.

       As lapis lazuli is comparatively soft it was easily worked into many forms by the ancients. For this reason it held the highest place in their estimation, being considered a gem of greatest value by the Babylonians and the Egyptians. It abundantly occurs in their jewelry that has come into our hands, worked into signets, tablets, pendants, and charms. Lapis lazuli was also particularly valued by the ancients for the fine dye that it yielded when ground to a powder, and indeed, many of the beautiful, permanent blues which are seen in the canvasses of the old masters, owe their beauty to the use of this material.

       Originally coming from Afghanistan and Egypt alone, lapis lazuli is now found in several other localities, very good specimens being produced by Siberia and certain parts of South America. The varieties coming from Egypt are not of the best, being pale or chalky in color. It is of interest to note in this connection that the finest gems still come from the first known mines (visited by Marco Polo in 1271), which are over 6500 years old.


       That the sapphire of the ancients was our lapis lazuli is evident. Theophrastus and Pliny describe the Sapphirus as a stone with golden spots, and Epiphanius, writing about 400 A. D., states – 

“The stone Sapphirus is purple in color like that of a dark blue beetle. Of this there are many kinds, for there is the Royal, spotted with gold, yet this is not so much esteemed as the sort that is altogether blue. And this is reported to be found in India and Ethiopia, wherefore they pretend that the sacred place of Bacchus among the Indians has a flight of three hundred sixty five steps made out of the Sapphirus, – though most people think this story incredible.”

Lapis lazuli through a microscope

       Lapis lazuli, known as chesbet by the Egyptians, was regarded from the earliest times as an object Scarabs and seals taken from Egyptian tombs of religious veneration for the same reason that the turquoise was thus esteemed. Its color suggested the heavens with their myriad stars. Lapis lazuli often appears as an important item in the lists of tribute paid to Egypt and among the gifts sent by Babylonia to the Egyptian monarchs. The Egyptian high-priest is said to have worn, suspended from his neck, an image of Mat (goddess of Truth), made from lapis lazuli.
       In Egypt it appears to have been the rule to engrave certain chapters of the Book of the Dead upon particular stones. For this reason the twenty-sixth chapter is often found engraved upon the very old specimens of lapis lazuli which have come into our hands from Egyptian sources. These specimens are generally in the forms of amulets, often scarabs, which were placed upon the mummy to afford protection from the malign influence of evil spirits, or perhaps, by some strange occult powers, to guard the soul of the departed in the under or upper world whither it had journeyed.


       One who is interested in the various medicinal virtues which were supposed to be possessed by stones, soon discovers that there was, from an early period, a tendency to attribute the virtues of one gem to another. This was probably due to the commercial instinct which urged the dealer to praise his wares in every possible way so that no part of his stock should fail to find a purchaser.
       We learn, however, that lapis lazuli was supposed to exert a tonic influence, and to counteract the
wiles of the spirits of darkness and procure the aid of the spirits of light and wisdom. It was looked upon as an emblem of chastity. We also discover that it was given internally as a cure for certain ills, such as melancholy, and the ‘quartern fever’, an intermittent fever returning each third day, or each fourth day counting in the previous attack.


       One of the finest specimens of lapis lazuli extant is found in the figure of an owl, eight inches high and exquisitely carved, which has descended to us from ancient Grecian times. This, no doubt, originally accompanied a statue of Athena.


       Lapis lazuli is today an inexpensive gem, but one which is constantly growing rarer and more valuable. It lends itself beautifully to use in many modern gem-pieces, particularly harmonizing with gold. It has always been held in high esteem, and in recent years it has fully regained the rightful favor with which it was regarded in the days of old Egypt. It is the most popular, opaque, semi-precious stone.

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