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Connotations of Carbuncles

The origins of Faith, Belief, Superstition and Symbolism are obscure and the lines between them are ill-defined. Since ancient times we have prized gems and used them to adorn possessions not only because of their beauty but in the belief or hope they will alter the properties of the item and to convey meaning through the item.  Even today we assign birthstones to each month of the year and use the significance of the gemstones in gifts or by wearing precious items to convey a message. In a way they have a kind of language.

Garnets have had great significance throughout human history. Historical texts often refer to them as carbuncles which denotes a red stone, often polished without facets.  Since they are found worldwide, a variety of  stories and myths involving garnets persist to this day. They were worn in Ancient Greece and the Roman empire. Highborn Romans used impressive garnet signet rings as seals on documents. As early as 3000 BCE, Egyptian used garnets as inlays in jewellery and carving and Pharaohs were often buried wearing garnet amulets to honour Sekhmet, goddess of war. For them the garnet represented life and also a deep and long lasting friendship. Jewellery featuring garnets has also been found in Saxon treasure hordes such as the Sutton Hoo Burial ship and is also associated with Celtic nobility.

The belief that garnets offer protection to their the wearer widespread. It is said that one of the precious stones given to King Solomon by God was a carbuncle and that he subsequently wore garnets into battle. Similarly, Medieval Christian and Muslim warriors set garnets into their body armour for protection. Saxon and Celtic Kings  wore jewellery inlaid with garnets for the same reason, while tribes in North America and Northern India /Pakistan believed garnets increased their force. Since red garnets resemble droplets of blood,  Christians in the Middle Ages valued them as representing Christ’s blood and sacrifice. To this day they are associated with blood and heart. Islamic tradition tells us that the sixth heaven where Moses can be found is made of garnets and rubies.

One of the persistent themes in fiction is of the carbuncle with magical properties for example the stone which brings illumination to a dark room. Legend has it that there was a large garnet on a pedestal on Noah’s ark which allowed safe travel at night. Medieval romances tell of Charlemagne’s bedchamber in Emperor Hugo’s palace in Constantinople being illuminated by a carbuncle and the mythical Priest-King Prester John describes similar stones which illuminated palaces “as the world is illuminated by the sun”.

Garnets are durable stones so many garnet artefacts have been recovered from archaeological sites. The deep red colour is most common. Large deposits of red garnet were uncovered in Bohemia (present day Czech Republic) which remains a major producer. Often the clusters of garnets resemble pomegranate seeds … and the symbolism of the fruit often overlaps with the myths associated with the garnet.

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