Accounts of Cleopatra VII’s (69-30 BCE) enchanting life story abound, but the story most likely to pique the interest of jewelry lovers involves a rather large and valuable pearl that the beautiful queen apparently drank!
According to the story, Cleopatra bet her lover Marc Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces on one meal. To prove herself (while showing off her opulence), she removed one of her earrings, which apparently contained one of two of the largest pearls known in the land, dissolved it in vinegar, and then drank it.
In the words of Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 A.D.), “She ordered the second course to be served. In accordance with previous instructions, the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar. She took one earring off, and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was wasted away, swallowed it.” And the bet was won.
Until recently, this story was thought to be mere myth, but research indicates that this trick is actually possible.
"All you need is vinegar and a pearl. In my experiments, I used a white vinegar sold in supermarkets. Wine vinegar was most common in the Greco-Roman world, so it is likely that's what Cleopatra used," classicist Prudence Jones of Montclair State University explained to Discovery News. The acetic acid in the vinegar reacts with the calcium carbonate in the pearl and produces calcium acetate, water, and carbon dioxide. Interestingly, the cocktail wouldn’t taste as acidic as straight vinegar because the calcium carbonate somewhat neutralizes the acid in the vinegar.
The effect isn’t instantaneous, however. It takes roughly “24 to 36 hours to dissolve a pearl weighing approximately one gram.” The end result is a translucent gel-like substance.
Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University's Departments of Classics and History of Science, suggests that the myth—and its plausibility—may give us insight into the kind of clever character Cleopatra was:
“I think this research has convincingly demonstrated the technique that Cleopatra could have used to dissolve a pearl. We already know that this curious, intelligent queen carried out toxicological experiments," Mayor told Discovery News. "It's likely she softened the pearl in advance, then crushed it and placed it in a goblet to dazzle Marc Antony with her wealth and arcane scientific expertise.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Crystal lore and the belief in crystal healing is likely as old as the human race. Although beliefs about particular stones and the power attributed to them have evolved over time and between cultures, crystal mysticism seems to be here to stay. Indeed, crystals are becoming increasingly mainstream and may even crop up at your favorite spa or natural beauty shop if they haven’t already!
Many modern proponents of crystal therapy believe that crystals are conduits of healing, allowing positive energy to reach the user while relieving the user of negative energy that may contribute to anything ranging from a passing malaise to serious illness. Most medical professionals deem crystal therapy a pseudoscience, citing that at best, crystal healing serves as a placebo to make the user feel better and at worst, a distraction from scientifically-verified medical treatment. Nonetheless, crystals continue to grow in popularity despite the skepticism of the medical community—a theme that’s repeated in the history.
From the Dawn of Time…
Although we may never have proof that the lost city of Atlantis operated machines powered by crystals (or so the myth goes), we do know that talismans and amulets have been treasured by various cultures for millennia. Beads of mammoth ivory dating back 60,000 years (circa the Upper Paleolithic Period) were discovered in present-day Russia. Some 30,000 years later, jet beads used in bracelets were left in Paleolithic gravesite.
Much later in the course of human history, the ancient Egyptians used lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian, emerald, and clear quartz in jewelry and grave amulets. These stones were believed to bestow protection and health to the wearer. Meanwhile, topaz and peridot were used to purge evil spirits and ward off night terrors, and green stones served to represent the heart of a deceased individual and were included in burial ceremonies. It's rumored that Cleopatra surrounding herself with rose quartz and even bathed with them as an anti-aging measure.
Crystals were also valued by the ancient Greeks. In fact, “crystal” is the Greek word for “ice.” The ancient Greeks believed that clear quartz was indefinitely frozen. “Amethyst” meant “not drunken” and was used to prevent drunkenness and hangovers. The Greeks also relied on crystals during war times. Soldiers would rub hematite on their bodies before battle as a way of connecting with Aries, the god of war.
Jade was the stone of choice in ancient China. Jade was believed to heal kidneys. Chinese emperors were sometimes even buried in jade armor. Jade was also valued by the Maoris in 18th-century New Zealand. There, jade pendants were used to represent the spirits of ancestors.
The Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Even though the Christian church had banned amulets in 355 AD, by the time the 11th century rolled around, certain gems played important roles in church services. Sapphires, for example, were featured in ecclesiastical rings while agate was believed to make the wear more agreeable to others and more favorable in the eyes of God.
During the Renaissance, various medical treatises promoted the belief that particular precious and semi-precious stones could cure certain ailments. In medical settings, crystal therapy was often accompanied by herbal remedies.
Despite the popularity of crystal healing, skeptics were concerned that some gems were corrupted by the original sin and could be possessed by demons. In 1609, Anselmus de Boot, court physician to Rudolf II of Germany, asserted that angels (both good and bad) were present in stones. Good angels in stones would grace the possessor with well-being while bad angels in stones would persuade the wearer to believe in the stone rather than God. This spiritual concern coupled with the lack scientific proof in the healing power of stones caused crystal therapy to fall out of favor during the Enlightenment. But crystals would make a come back.
The New-Age 1980s and Beyond
In the advent of New Age spiritual practices in the 1980s, crystals emerged as an alternative healing method thanks to books by Katrina Raphaell and Melody and Michael Gienger. Presently, even though crystal healing is continually met with skepticism from the medical community, it continues to have a presence in alternative and increasingly mainstream therapies. Current crystal therapy methods include both ancient practices as well as new ones that have been “divined” or intuited by healers.