The gold and garnet cloisonné Anglo-Saxon jewellery in the Staffordshire Hoard and from Sutton-Hoo etc. is stunning in its beauty. Red and gold is a particularly attractive combination aesthetically but could there have been more to this use of red gemstones than pure beauty ?
Did our ancestors believe that there was special ‘magical’ virtue in these shining red stones? Of course, we will never know for certain but it is worth examining some of the folklore concerning the garnet.
The name "garnet" comes from the 14th century Middle English word gernet meaning 'dark red', from the Latin granatus. This derives from granum (grain, seed) + suffix "atus", possibly a reference to "pomum granatum" ("pomegranate" Punica granatum, a plant whose fleshy red seeds resemble garnet crystals.
Some items from the Staffordshire Hoard were analysed at the Louvre, Paris, recently. Garnets were there subjected to particle-induced X-ray emission, Raman spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence in order to determine their origins.
Chemical composition of the garnets indicated that most of the small deep-red garnets came from the mountains of Bohemia (in the modern Czech republic) and the large cabochons (from the crosses and pendants) had come from India. This suggests that the large cabochon garnets had been imported from India by Rome and recycled by the English.
The Old English term for garnets is not known. Perhaps it was merely Bæmisc /Syndonisc gimstanas (Bohemian / Indian gemstones).
Garnets have been used in jewellery for thousands of years. They have been found in jewellery from the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman eras. It is said that folk wore such jewels for protection; for they were considered to have talismanic apotropaic qualities; warding of the ‘evil eye’.
|Raw garnet crystal (metal aluminium silicate)|
Garnet has long been regarded as the warriors stone, as soldiers the world over wore or carried this gem as a talisman against death and injury. It was also said to bring victory, peace and tranquillity, as well as healing injuries by stopping the flow of blood.
When given as a gift, the garnet was said to grant loyalty and affection. A stolen garnet was said to bring misfortune to the thief until returned to its rightful owner. The garnet was also an ancient symbol of friendship, being exchanged between parting friends to symbolise their affection and to ensure that they meet again.
In ancient and medieval times, the symbolism of colour played a very important part in recommending the use of particular stones for special diseases. In the case of red stones, they were thought to be remedies for haemorrhage, as well as for inflammatory diseases. In Ancient Rome, Garnet was worn by pregnant women as protection against death form post-partum haemorrhage. Whereas in the Middle Ages, it was worn by me to ward off death from bleeding wounds.
In antiquity Garnet was said to aid the healing of wounds. It was said to improve the circulation of the blood and the functioning of the heart, to promote regeneration of damaged organs and tissues, and to help to fight fever and hepatitis. Garnets were worn to enhance bodily strength, endurance and vigour, particularly sexual vigour.
Artist's impression of Þunor
There is little doubt that the English and Scandinavians regarded the colour red as protective. It was the colour of the Thunder God with his magnificent red beard. The idea of its being beneficial to health with regarding to staunching bleeding, however, may date from no earlier than the 10th-11th Century C.E. It must be based on the Magical Principle of Similarity : blood is red, garnets are red, thus one can influence the other.
Early Anglo-Saxon Medicine, as evidenced in the Leechbooks written down during the great flowering of Anglo-Saxon learning during the reign of Ælfred the Great, had not yet been contaminated by the erroneous ideas of the Greeks. There is no evidence that the author of the Leech Book of Bald, although he knew of the Humoural Theory, gave it much credence. He was much more likely to treat wound and bleeding with styptic herbal preparations such as Yarrow or Plantain than tie an amulet around his patient’s neck. Unfortunately, native English medical thought did not survive the Norman Conquest and with the invader came much of the mistaken beliefs of the European Continent.
Although our Anglo-Saxon warrior-lord may possibly have been aware of Roman folklore regarding the shiny red garnet, he would have primarily have been attracted to the jewellery for its ‘wow-factor' rather than any mystical protection it might give him.