Agate History & Folk-lore

by steve breeson

Modern reference materials document that agate was found and the name derived from the river Achates in Sicily and that Theophrastus (Greek philosopher) commented on it in 300BC however early research material states that the Sumerians (2900 BC and earlier) an ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia (region incorporating modern day Iraq) had utilised the stone as a precious material and were well versed in stone cutting and the making of jewellery.

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Objects created at that time also included signet rings, cylinder seals, beads and agate axe heads. Discovered items of note include an agate, lapis lazuli and gold foil cylinder bead necklace.

Roman Pliny (AD23 - AD79) mentions agate in his natural history works referencing iaspachates (jasperlike agate), smaragdacates (emerald agate), haemachates (blood agate), leucachates (white agate) dendrachtes (tree agate) & corollachates (coralline agate) spotted with drops of gold found in Crete also known as sacred agate. This form was reputed to heal wounds from spiders and scorpions bites however Pliny thought this to only relate to agates from Sicily due to Sicilian scorpions having lost their venom.

Egyptian and Cyprian agates also had the same properties also mentioned by the Magi of Persia, Persians also used agates to arrest storms, hurricanes and alter the course of rivers.
If the stone tossed into boiling water turning the water cold then it was deemed real.

Physiologus a Greek natural history reference (possibly dated to 2nd or 3rd century) has an interesting tale of agate being used by pearl divers, the stone is fastened to a rope and lowered into the sea, the agate then turns and indicates the direction of where a pearl is hidden. Cut agates gems have been dated to the Mycenaean age which is approximately 600-1100 BC. Agate was also used to create magnificent cups, bowls, and bottles, notably a 28 inch bowl in Vienna brought to Europe by the crusaders, another iconic piece being a two handed cup given to the Abbey of St. Denis by Charles the Bald in the ninth century.

In early times little differentiation was made between agate, carnelian and chalcedony, a prized possession of the time was agate from the Yemen carved into a ring with either a sacred figure or verse from the Koran referred to as a 'yamani'. Wearers could be sure that the power of the ring would protect them from being injured by falling masonry.

Pliny made reference to the prized agates of India which would show images of animals, plants and landscapes, he remarked that the stone was used for grinding drugs and improving eye sight, sucking an agate would also relieve thirst.
From the sixteenth century Gujarat became the 'agate' centre where the stone was cut, polished and even heated to produced enhanced colours before being traded along the red sea coast and on to Egypt. This agate industry continued to expand and move to Khambhat.
Portuguese settlers in the area refer to the red stone cut into circles or ovals as a 'cats eye' in appearance, in many areas this was the sole form of currency for the locals to trade. Agates that were collected had to be sorted into those that would change colour by being heated and those that would not, the deeper the colour the more valuable. Pre-heated flawless White stones being more prized.

Being white the stones were thought to help lactating women increase milk supply often called milk stones, whilst the red agates had the power to stop blood. The Chinese who also had a supply of agate refer to a type of white agate which when viewed from one angle but red when viewed from another this they named 'double foetus agate'. The ancient Chinese also believed that materials transformed and that white rock crystals was once very old water that had initially become frozen and agate was once blood of departed spirits.

An agate of note in 662AD was a 3ft tree shape with the branches adapted to act as light holders, sent to the Chinese emperor from a region north of today's Afghanistan. There’s even reference to agate being used in an airship from text dated to 1709 in Vienna, the flying craft had been invented by a Brazilian priest.

In later times amulets from agate were in high demand and famed stone cutting areas in Germany were busy with satisfying the market, the stone was to neutralise the power of the evil eye and be a symbol of the guardian spirit, although not so sought after today areas of Africa still prize these agate amulets.

With the availability of agate being more widespread the stone became less prized and outside of the collector market who still search for stunning patterned and colourful examples from locations all over the world the mineral is most know for it's coloured garish slices in pinks, greens, blues and purple that are manufactured into all sorts of products from bookends to T-light holders.

Gem cut agates to look out for are light cream clear colours with letters created from the natural markings by clever stone cutters (lapidarists).

So please don't think oh just another agate the next time you see these remarkable stones.

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