AN outstanding fact connected with the traditions of Amazons in South America is that most travellers refer, like Sir Walter Raleigh and de la Condamine, to certain green stones, some form of jade, which the Indians were understood to declare they obtained from “the women who live without husbands.” De la Condamine saw many of these stones in different parts of the country, and always received the same explanation as to their origin. They were either roughly wrought in the shape of birds or beasts, or formed into bead-like cylinders two to three inches long, both smooth and in some cases richly carved with curious designs of the intricate, involved kind we associate with Aztec art. Almost always these were pierced longitudinally with round holes, and were worn pendant from the neck as precious talismans, in the sense mentioned by Raleigh.
These quaint relics, common to the whole of South America and Mexico, and of which the natives gave such a mysterious account, helped to bolster up an elaborate theory, over which archæologists and anthropologists have long wrangled. It was contended that jade was an Oriental stone, and that, moreover, the carvings found on these amulets, cylindrical or otherwise, bore a distinctly Oriental character. Thereupon was built up a voluminous body of evidence tending to show that the Aztecs of Mexico, the mysterious inhabitants of Yucatan, the Incas of Peru, and, we may add, the Amazons of Brazil, came from Asia. This, of course, was backed up by arguments based on the similarity of symbols (such as the cross, the tau, and the cramponed cross or swaticha), the approximation of various customs (human sacrifices to sun and moon, women priests and eunuchs as ministrants in monolithic temples), and certain supposed identical points in anthropology. As a matter of fact, however, the similarity is more apparent than real; there is a certain superficial resemblance, but the divergences as regards the use of symbols and as to the customs appear too great for these to be attributed merely to influences resulting from migrations to new surroundings. Rather does this similarity prove t at after all human nature is very human, and that wants and desires, physical and intellectual, are likely to manifest themselves in ways that approach uniformity in their broad outlines.
As regards the matter immediately under discussion, the greenstones, it is clear that they vary considerably in their substance, the amulets consisting of true jade (a silicate of lime and magnesia), jadeite (a silicate of sodium and aluminium), feldspathic rock, and quartz. In any case, there was no need to go to Asia for the stones, as both jade and jadeite are sufficiently abundant and widely distributed over Central and South America, though, it is true, are not easily found. That the art of polishing and carving such stones, which are usually extremely tough and generally hard enough to resist the file, was a lost one when the Spaniards arrived on the scene, is quite true; but then so much connected with ancient and the comparatively recent civilisation of those countries had so utterly disappeared that we must not be astonished at the loss of this fine phase of the lapidary’s skill. Instances of such losses in arts are only too common in every period and every country. Even to go no farther than Peru, we find that the Incas once possessed the secret of polishing emeralds and piercing them with circular holes without damaging the gems–certainly a more difficult task than dealing with jade or quartz. Many other local examples of this passing away of specialised skill could be enumerated.
It is apparent, from what Sir Walter Raleigh and others say, that these shaped, and mostly graven, greenstones were looked upon as talismans of fertility, just in the same light as flint arrow-heads were practical all the world over, not only from China to Peru but from the African forests to the dales of Cumberland. But while flints–held to be thunderbolts, and therefore associated with storm-clouds and the life-giving showers accompanying them, the fertilising gifts of the gods–had a general application to vegetation, and usually also to cattle, the greenstones were particularly connected with child-bearing. There is a great deal of most fascinating, even instructive, mythology attached to all this (instructive, because not altogether devoid of a foundation based on observed fact), which was far spread over the face of the inhabited globe.
It was generally recognised that the showers accompanying thunderstorms were most beneficial to vegetation, though it was reserved for the nineteenth century to find at least a partial explanation for the fact that a discharge of electricity in the air has the effect of fixing free nitrogen, which is washed down by the rain to form plant food. No doubt jade is held in exceptionally high honour in every part of the East, though perhaps most markedly so in China, but the cult for this stone and its congeners extended far beyond the Orient. Personal ornaments made of them are still largely worn by women, in the form of bracelets, necklets, and pendant-amulets. By a not very recondite association of ideas we find such stones also appreciated by men–the Turks, for instance, being fond of having their sword hilts (and the sword is the professional fighter’s alta ego, the symbol of his strength, even his representative, as we see in so many forms of ceremonial) made of jade. In other directions the stones, by an equally comprehensible association of ideas, were worn as amulets against painful renal disorders.
In New Zealand, the Maoris place great store on their grotesquely carved breast greenstone pendants, which are like those of Brazil, made of jade, jadeite, or other similarly coloured stones. In various parts of Europe, too, especially in France and Switzerland, jade amulets and arrowheads have been found, to a large extent among remains connected with the lacustrine races. As was the case with the American amulets, it was long held that these European ornaments must have come from Asia, because no natural deposits of the stone had been traced; but closer investigation has resulted in the recognition of jadeite, and perhaps also jade, pebbles in the Swiss rivers, which must have been washed down from hidden sources, while Saussure, and others after him, discovered a variety of jade, which has been named saussurite, in situ among the Swiss Alps. More generous deposits of true nephrite have also come to light in North-Eastern Europe. All these stones are of a yellowish green hue, are semi-transparent, and have a greasy feel: it was these characteristics that made them particularly prized. But the same circle of ideas is associated with most green and blue stones. Indeed, green and blue are the symbolic colours in this respect. Blue represents the vault of heaven, the world beyond–therefore faith; green stands for deep water, vegetation, spring–therefore life and hope. This pertains to the universals of symbolism. In Central America they are connected with the “Feathered Serpent,” the “Engendering” manifestation of the Supreme Being, who is enveloped in blue and green (the sky and vegetation), and is called the Heart of the Lake, the Master of the Blue Depths–which is particularly significant when we come to consider how the Amazons are said to have obtained the fertilising amulets by diving into moonlit lakes.
In the Bible this colour symbolism, and often associated with precious stones, is general. Both in Exodus and Ezekiel the foundation of God’s throne rests on the dark blue firmament with its golden stars, which is compared to a floor inlaid with sapphires. In this connection the sapphire must be translated as lapis-lazuli, a deep blue stone sprinkled with spots of iron pyrites which glitter like the twinkling of stars. The rainbow about the throne is compared to an emerald. In the prophetic description of the New Jerusalem of the twelve encircling walls the fifth is founded on beryl, the sixth on turquoise, the eighth on sapphire, the ninth on emerald, the tenth on chrysolite, the eleventh on topaz, and the twelfth on amethyst. The gates are made of sapphire. Then again, the sapphire is used figuratively in the description of the human body, and probably referred to the blue veins. Of the twelve stones in the breastplate of the High Priest, two-thirds are either blue or green: there is the pale yellow-green topaz, the green emerald, the blue gold-splashed lapis-lazuli, the red-green yashefeh, the sky-blue agate, the bluish violet amethyst, the bright green malachite, the yellowish verging to dark blue yahalom. It is curious to note that the Cabalists held the sapphire to be fatal to serpents while the Talmudists declared that the sapphire on the High Priest’s breastplate was engraved by a worm.
According to the Talmudists, the Tables of the Law were of sapphire, which probably also means lapis-lazuli. Many of the temple dedication inscriptions from Asia Minor are of this beautiful stone. The true sapphire is “the stone of chastity,” which dispelled bad dreams, preserved the sight; while in China the star variety is regarded as a love charm. In India, the star sapphire is said to be the daughter of Brahma’s tears. This is all the more interesting as it is connected with the universal belief in the necessity of suffering and sacrifice for the redemption of mankind. Legend says that Brahma the Creator, being anxious to sympathise with a man and to set an example of self-sacrifice, sinned; and so bitter was his feeling thereupon that a tear gathered in his eye and fell to the earth in the form of a star sapphire. Thus, the gem is the symbol of the repentant sinner, of sacrifice, hallowed. The amethyst was “the maid stone”; it possessed the virtue of detecting poisons, and therefore the cups out of which mythical god-heroes drank was carved out of amethyst. When engraved with symbols of the moon and tied round the neck by the hair, the stones became talismans against witchcraft. The turquoise brought good luck. So did the emerald, especially in love affairs: it changed colour if the donor proved false, detected treachery generally, restored the sight, cured epilepsy, and was the great amulet for procuring easy childbirth.
Generally speaking, the sapphire symbolises the azure of the sky therefore religious hope; the emerald, vegetation, spring, Venus, love. 1 So we find, according to tradition, Pope Innocent III. sending to King John of England four rings: the sapphire to represent hope; the emerald, faith; the garnet, charity; and the topaz, good works–of all of which he stood much in need. The Cabalists prepared planetary rings as follows: for Mars, the emerald set in iron; for Venus, the amethyst set in copper; for Saturn, the turquoise set in lead; for the sun, the sapphire set in gold. Their special symbolism was probably derived from the Arabian authors.
Jade itself derives its name of nephrite from its supposed beneficial influence on renal diseases, so that the Spaniards, doubtless in this following the Indians, called the South America cylinders piedras hijados or loin stones. A Cabalistic formula for the use of jade, coming to us by way of Egypt, says that the stone should be formed into a perfect square, marked with the numerals 1. 8. 1. 1, set in pure gold, and then breathed upon three times at dawn and sunset, repeating the word “Thoth” five hundred times, and finally the whole has to be tied round with a red thread (the thread of life). The result was a talisman which ensured to the possessor success in all things, for nobody could say him “Nay,” no matter what favour or service he might crave. Thoth, of course, is the great ibis-headed moon-god of the Upper Nile, who was adorned with a crescent, and recorded the judgements given in the Nether World by Osiris. Hence, those who possessed “Words of Power” could convert certain bones of the sacred ibis into “wish-bones,” by holding which any strong desire would be fulfilled. Thoth was in a sense the Mercury of the Egyptian gods, the inventor of letters, and, by reason of his assistance to widowed Isis and orphaned Horus the Younger from the persecution of the elder or Solar Horus, became the protector of infants. He was the god amidst the rushes, where he hid Horus; and so the ibis may be compared to the baby-bringing storks of folklore.
Now, in the Aztec heavenly economy, Tlaloc is “The Wine of the Earth,” a powerful god whose consort, Chalchihuitlicue, “She of the Emerald Robes,” is protectress of lakes and running water. Her symbols are the green jade and the emerald, hence called chalchihuitl. This reminds us of the Hindu goddess Durga, also a fertility divinity, “Granter of Boons,” “Giver of Victory in Battle,” who is invoked as “Wearer of Bangles of Emeralds and Sapphires,” “Resplendent with Peacocks’ Feathers erect on the Head.” The son of Tlaloc and Chalchihuitlicue is Quetzalcoatl, a most austere member of the pantheon, yet to whom thanksgiving was offered on the birth of any child, such child being acclaimed in the religious invocation as “Precious gem, emerald, sapphire, beauteous feather . . . formed in the ninth heaven where his divine majesty fashioned you in a mould, as one fashions a ball of gold; you have been chiselled as a precious stone.”
Of course, this beautiful idea of a babe being fashioned in heaven is not peculiar to Central America any more than is connecting green and blue stones with love and child-bearing, but it will be seen that in the Mexico of the Aztecs every child was indeed Dieudonné. Quetzalcoatl was regarded as the inventor of the art of cutting and polishing precious stones and was the patron of lapidaries as well as protector of all new-born babies. Now, the Indians of Brazil declared that the Amazons obtained their treasured amulets from a lake close to Jamuna, a high mountain near the supposed original site of Manoa del Dorado. The Amazons gathered together by night, and, having ceremonially purified themselves, worshipped the moon, invocating her as the Mother of the Greenstones. Then, when the moon was reflected on the waters, they plunged into the lake and received the stones from the goddess. Moon-worship was general in the plains of the Amazon. She was the creator of all plants, especially of maize; her subject gods were the increscent and decrescent moons, each of which ruled over minor gods, who were the geni loci of woods, glens, mountains, streams, and lakes, which is the crude form of the belief we have seen existed in Mexico. A curious variant of the story of the capture of the greenstones says that these were alive, swimming about in the lake like fishes, and could not be caught until the Amazons had made personal sacrifice by cutting themselves, when a drop of blood falling over the wriggling green jade acted magically, the stones remaining quiet and allowing themselves to be caught. At this stage they were said to be soft and plastic; the Amazons took them and with their hands shaped them in the rays of the moon, after which they gradually hardened. These stories, while they connect the green stones with the heavenly queen, who sent down the vivifying dew and soft light, also seem to bear witness to the difficulty of securing jade or jadeite, which was perhaps but rarely discovered in situ, being mostly derived from erratic blocks and water-borne pebbles.
As regards the malleability of stones, it is interesting to find traditions in Peru that the Incas possessed the secret of softening stones with some potent herbal preparation, facilitating the moulding of huge blocks and quaint carvings characteristic of their great buildings, often erected on high and almost inaccessible mountains. Some stones are soft and easily worked when freshly extracted from deep quarries, while lava from active volcanoes is capable of being cut and even moulded; but the stones under discussion, the huge monoliths of the Inca buildings, do not belong to either of these classes. On the other hand, it is probable that jade is really softer when freshly mined, gradually hardening on exposure: several recent observers in Eastern Europe have declared this to be a fact. Then de la Condamine, reporting the traditions of the Brazilian natives, says: “It is seriously asserted that this stone was nothing else than the mud of the river, which, when recently taken from the bed, might be moulded into any form, and which obtained its extreme hardness by exposure to the air.” The association of ideas running through these myths and legends is certainly remarkable. That the greenstones had been formed by pressing ooze from river-beds was a belief quite commonly held, and, of course, the mere failure to reproduce the miracle was no proof of error to the native mind, the essential something, the magic touch and incantations, being absent in the case of the experimenters. Digging up of ooze from beneath the waters in order to obtain life is a widespread belief, and may be compared with the Greek legends and the theories of modern evolutionists. The Algonkins, to mention one among many instances, say that in the beginning of things the world was a waste of waters, and thereon floated a raft loaded with animals, the king of whom was the Great White Rabbit (or the Hare). There was no place whereon these animals could rest their feet in comfort, and the Great White Rabbit called upon the amphibious creatures to dive in search of earth. Down went the beaver, but he came up after a long time exhausted and unsuccessful. Then the otter dived, with no better result. So the musk-rat offered her services. Though the probability of succour from so insignificant a creature seemed small, she was allowed to try. The musk-rat disappeared and remained underwater for so long that she was mourned as dead. Suddenly she floated up, apparently lifeless, but in one of her tiny paws was a little mud. This the Great White Rabbit proceeded to mould, and as he worked it grew in volume. A great island was formed, with its plains and mountains, which continued to increase as the White Rabbit walked round and round, pressing and shaping. The land grew so much that it afforded a home for the animals, but it was quite barren. Then the Great White Rabbit shot flints into the earth, and these sprouted into trees and brought forth vegetation of every description. Still there was no human life, but the White Rabbit created men and women from dead animals. Hence, according to many, arose the complicated law of totems, which on the one hand touches universalism, uniting humanity with the whole animate and inanimate world, and on the other leads to endless differentiation.
A similar idea was at the back of the Hebrew tradition relating to the creation of Adam. The Talmudists say that God sent Gabriel, Michael, and Israfel to fetch seven separate handfuls of earth for the formation of the first man, the earth to be from different depths and of different colours (hence, say some, the origin of the various races and their distinctive hues); but the Earth, fearing that man would be bad and bring disgrace upon her, pleaded against the Divine design, and each angel, touched by her arguments, returned empty-handed. Then Asrael descended and performed the task, and was commanded henceforth to separate the souls from the bodies, so he was called the Angel of Death. The Hebrew Doctors add that of the seven handfuls that taken from Babylonia went to form the most honoured parts of Adam.
Thus do we see the Indians of the North and the South, the Aztecs of Mexico, and the wonderful Semitic “Chosen People” bringing the vasty deep, the earth, and the limitless heavens together, and finding a place for man in their cosmogonies. One dominant fact in all this is that Nature is nothing without the creative power of the Spirit. Water and earth bring forth, but they are only fruitful through the intervention of the spiritual, manifested in certain cases by such forces as the sun, moon, and wind, which animate indeed, but merely as the instruments of a Creative Force outside of Nature. The whole range of the symbolism of colour and gems illustrates the belief in this great unfathomable secret of life.
In heraldry azure is represented by the sapphire or by the zodiacal sign for Jupiter; vert (green) by the emerald, or the sign of Venus; purpure (purple) by the amethyst, or the sign of Mercury.