Carnelian Symbolism


carnelian symbolism - Sassanid era seal
“Carnelian Bull seal AO7121-2,” 3rd century CE, Sassanid Era, from the collection of the Louvre, Paris, photo by Rama. Licensed under CC By-SA 2.0 FR.

Like lapis lazuli, carnelian was one of the earliest favored gems. All over the world, ancient peoples used both these stones for jewelry, seals, and talismans due to their beautiful colors and easy working. Interestingly, the blue lapis became commonly associated with spirituality and priests. The warmer reddish carnelian, in contrast, became associated with kings. Carnelian symbolism also touches on health and luck. Perhaps due to its blood-like color, healers often prescribed wearing it as a general invigorator for the blood. Some wore it for problems such as nosebleeds, skin diseases, and PMS. Others carried it to stimulate sexual impulses.

Carnelian Symbolism and Gem Language

Since ancient times, many people have considered the carnelian a lucky stone. Over the centuries, this belief has grown elaborately. The English and French royal courts of the 18th century used a symbolic “gem language” to convey messages discreetly. The first letters of the gems set in brooches and other jewelry pieces conveyed a motto or sentiment. Thus, with the correct acrostic placement, wearing a carnelian brooch to dinner could mean you wish everyone “Good Luck.”

carnelian symbolism - necklace
“Agate + Carnelian + Amber Statement Necklace” by Honey+Venom. Licensed under CC By-ND 2.0.

Arab Traditions and Carnelian Symbolism

The Arab peoples consider the carnelian one of the stones of kings. The stone’s rich, warm color often links it to projective, proactive energies associated with lions and fire. Traditionally, the stone lends courage to those in need and helps with public speaking. It would certainly benefit a king to speak like a lion, boldly roaring, and with fiery passion.

The Prophet Mohammed was said to have worn a carnelian seal set in silver on the little finger of his right hand. This may help explain the appeal of carnelian in the Arab and Muslim world. Gem cutters often engrave carnelians with small prayers for luck or to turn away envy. In Egypt, people wear carnelian to ward off the Evil Eye and instill peace.

Lost in Translation: Gem Carvings

In the Middle Ages, some scholars mistakenly believed carved gems were natural wonders. In the 13th century CE work, The Book of Wings, Ragiel gives these traits to carnelians found with these inscriptions:

A man with a sword in his hand, on a carnelian, preserves the place where it may be from lightning and tempest, and guards the wearer from vices and enchantments.

Earlier magicians and alchemists wrote about the powers stones received from certain engraved designs. They often went into great detail over how to place the appropriate image on the correct stone for maximum results. Over the centuries, these practices declined, but would-be practitioners took these writings so literally some humorous translations took hold. In The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, George Kunz offers this example of a 15th century French translation boondoggle.

“If you find a dromedary (one humped camel) engraved on a stone with hair flowing over its shoulders, this stone will bring peace and concord between man and wife.” The original Latin text read, “If you find Andromeda on a stone with hair flowing over her shoulders, etc.”

carnelian symbolism - carvings
“Ancient Carved Carnelian on String” by denise carbonell. Licensed under CC By 2.0.

The Perils of Wearing Gemstones You Don’t Believe In

During Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (1798-1799), he acquired an octagonal, inscribed carnelian seal. Both Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew Napoleon III held this talisman in high, even superstitious, regard. Napoleon III wore the seal on his watch chain. He gave it to his son, the Prince Imperial, Louis-Napoleon, and instructed him to wear it. However, the Prince Imperial merely followed orders while wearing this piece. Obviously, his faith in this talisman didn’t run as deep as the faith the Zulus put into their weapons. When they slew him in South Africa in 1879, they took it from him.

So, be you Prince Imperial or alchemist extraordinaire, you must believe in the gems before they’ll work.

Properly wearing an engraved stone like a carnelian can have very deep meaning for those inclined to study them. These gems certainly have a rich history. You can take it seriously or simply wish your dinner host and hostess “Good Luck” with carnelian jewelry.

I’ll leave you with “Pledges of Blessing” a poem by Goethe from his work, West-Eastern Diwan, Book of the Singer.

Carnelian is a Talisman,

It brings good luck to child and man;

If resting on an onyx ground,

A sacred kiss imprint when found.

It drives away all evil things;

To thee and thine protection brings.

The Name of Allah, king of kings,

If graven on this stone, indeed,

will move to love and doughty deed.

From such a gem a woman gains

Sweet hope and comfort in her pains.

carnelian symbolism - polished stone
“Carnelian” by Jarno. Licensed under CC By 2.0.