Splendor and Magic
Crystal skull from the collection of the British Museum, London (CC0 1.0)
Nature, World + People

Splendor and Magic

The Allure of Rock Crystal
Tomasz Wichrowski
time 10 minutes

The Romans believed in the power of divination dice made of rock crystal. The advisor to the British Queen Elizabeth I consulted important matters of state with a crystal ball. Belief in the extraordinary properties of this variety of quartz has persisted for centuries.

If a modern person could be transported for a moment to ancient Rome, they would be amazed at how much value rock crystal had for its inhabitants. It was considered a jewel worthy of emperors.

According to the Romans, the mineral’s fragility was proof of its uniqueness. A shattered crystal is irretrievably lost; as Pliny the Elder writes, “the precious pieces cannot be put back together by any means whatsoever.” In his Natural History, the historian known for his passion for precious stones devotes the most space to crystals. In two long chapters, he discusses in detail where they can be found, how they are sourced; he describes their structure and form, and reflects on their peculiar, somewhat opaque transparency.

In the same treaty, Pliny describes the largest rock crystal known to him, gifted by Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, to the Capitol—and weighing 150 pounds. The historian also mentions a transaction by a Roman woman who paid the enormous sum of 150,000 sesterces for a single crystal ladle. By comparison, the price of one modius of grain at the time was three sesterces. Pliny also recounts the fate of an unusual stone, an opal, which Mark Antony wanted to buy from the senator Nonius for his mistress, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. The dignitary, however, preferred to renounce his family and flee the country with the gem rather than


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Crystal Fortune-Telling
Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Humor + Variety, Variety

Crystal Fortune-Telling

The Mystical Allure of Quartz
Paweł Janiszewski

The ancients believed that it contained a fragment of creative divine fire, and that the sun was made out of it. It’s no wonder that they used it to craft protective amulets, for this life and the next. Paweł Janiszewski writes about the ancient fascination with crystal.

Expert literature explains that those vases adorning cabinet shelves aren’t crystal at all, but lead glass, which, in what is fortunately a bygone era, was used to make such little monstrosities. Real crystal – that is, the mineral commonly known as mountain crystal – is a colourless quartz. Next come the complicated chemical diagrams and scholarly geological explanations that can put off practically anyone. Studying it all makes you yearn for the days when chemistry, still firmly within the clutches of alchemy, labelled stones as the Green Lion, the Red Dragon, the White Swan or the Snow Maiden. They might be rather vague descriptions, but they certainly fire up the imagination.

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