The emerald has long been known as the jewel of Kings, its rarity and beauty lending itself well to possession by royalty. As a talisman, it was said to have the ability to sharpen the wits, confer riches and power and to predict future events. It was also thought to strengthen the memory, which is a form of wit sharpening, and to enable the wearer to become an eloquent speaker, a kingly gift indeed. A revealer of truths, it was reputed to cut through all illusions and spells, and was considered to reveal the truth or falsity of a lover’s oath. This is a bit strange because it is also reputed to dampen lust, so perhaps it helped clear the head enough to see the truth of the object of infatuation; another useful property for a King, (or Queen,) with conniving consorts!
The emerald was also used as an antidote for poisons and infected wounds, as well as against possession by demons. The soothing green color of the emerald was thought to be restful to the eyes when they had been under much strain. This was such a common belief that gem workers would keep emeralds on their work bench for the special purpose of resting their eyes upon them after many hours of close work on other gems. The emerald was also reputed to be a good cure for dysentery, and was used to this end by Spanish and Hindu physicians of various eras, as well as a curative to poisonings by some Arabic peoples.
Many mysterious and legendary cities of ancient Hindu and other Indian tales variously contained walls or temples of emerald and other precious stones. Tales of trees and other plants dripping leaves of emeralds and rubies abound, suggesting that these ‘heavenly’ jewels would be the reward for any lucky and virtuous enough to find these palaces, cities and temples. Of course, when the Spaniards conquered the New World and discovered the emeralds and gold abundant there, one may well conclude that some among them thought that they had indeed found the treasure troves of the ancients.
Hindu legends from India indicate that if one made offerings of emeralds to the god Krishna they would be rewarded with Knowledge of the Soul and the Eternal, for “Givers are high in Heaven”. Giving in such a way was a sign of great generosity and was richly rewarded by the gods. The emerald in Hindu teachings was associated with the planet Mercury, whereas in traditions that are more western, it is associated mostly with Venus, though sometimes with Mercury. Perhaps the westerners thought that the sea-green color was an appropriate match for a goddess who emerged from the sea.
The Hindus were not the only ones to offer precious stones to their gods, as Francisco Lopez de Gomara makes mention of the natives of New Granada “burned gold and emeralds” before the images of the sun and moon, their highest divinities. If it’s precious to us, more so to our gods, no?
In the Peruvian city of Manta, about the time of the Spanish Conquest, an emerald the size of an ostrich egg was worshipped and adored as a goddess, bearing the name of Umina. The emerald was only brought out and worshipped on high feast days and, according to her priests, the best way to honor the ‘mother emerald’ was to bring smaller emeralds, or ‘daughters’, to her. An immense store of emeralds was thus built up at the shrine, only to be seized by the Spaniards who overran the city. The priests managed to hide Umina. She was never found by the Spanish, though her daughters fell into the rough hands of the Conquistadors. They wrongly identified them as “like a diamond” and felt the best test of an emerald was to see if it could withstand being smashed on an anvil. Many beautiful stones were thus destroyed by this ‘testing’.
There is some dispute as to whether emerald was included in the breastplate of the high priest, as described in the Old Testament. Several revisions have changed the names and orderings of the stones contained therein. This, along with the difficulties of popular naming conventions changing over the years, of stones being known by several names, as well as one term covering several stones, leads to the difficulties in exactly identifying the stones listed. The term ‘sapphire’, for instance, long meant any blue stone, and did not at all refer to the clear blue stone we call sapphire today. Suffice to say a green stone, (referred to as smaragdus,) WAS included in the breastplate. Whether it was emerald, green feldspar or some other green stone is difficult to say. It would not be unheard of, as emerald was long known to the Egyptians. Several emerald mines where worked in Nubia, before the era when the breastplate was supposed to have been constructed.
“In the emerald is expressed the strength of faith in adversity ” Archbishop Rabanus Maurus of Mainz (786-856) on the significance of the twelve Apocalyptic gems. Along the lines of Christian theology and gems, Andreas, bishop of Caesarea had this to say of the emerald: “The emerald, which is of a green color, is nourished with oil, that its transparency and beauty may not change; we conceive this stone to signify John the Evangelist. He, indeed, soothed the souls dejected by sin with a divine oil, and by the grace of his excellent doctrine lends constant strength to our faith.”
Later writers rejected the assignment of the foundation stones to the apostles, for they held that only Christ himself could be regarded as the foundation of his Church. To this end, one writer established that the transparent green emerald signified the kindness and goodness of Christ.
Whatever the supposed properties of the emerald were, it was highly regarded as a superior jewel of great merit and benefit. Whether the emerald was a stone of a King, a priest, the Son of God, or a Goddess in her own right, the beautiful green color of this lovely gem has given it a place of honor amongst peoples the world over.