Hello again intrepid readers, I hope that you are not afflicted with the dread sickness known as ‘monday-itis’. I myself rolled out of bed this morning with all the energy of a particularly lazy tree sloth, and am only just beginning to feel the vibe at 7pm. However, perusing some of my Honours research in search of material for a talk I have to give on Wednesday has raised an interesting question in my mind. If, as discussed in my previous post, water is symbolically linked to knowledge, then what are the various goodies carried by the waters?
The answer came to me (partially) while reading about the treasures of the rivers of paradise described in the 14th century Travels of Sir John Mandeville, that oft-quoted but never dull treasure trove of medieval thought. In the Travels, the water of Eden flowed into the kingdom of Prester John (the mythical potentate of the far east), carrying with it “the greatest abundance of precious stones,” that the inhabitants of the kingdom gathered and carried away. The stones came from a river “flowing out of Paradise,” in which were found “natural gems, emeralds, sapphires, carbuncles, topazes, chrysolites, onyx, beryls, amethysts, sardonyxes and many other precious gems”.
Having started pondering the nature of these stones, I found this absolutely perfect reference in Steven Darian’s The Ganges in Myth and History, referring to the river long thought to flow from paradise into the lands of India:
“St Ambrose mentions that the Phison, “so called by the Hebrews but named Ganges by the Greeks, flows in the direction of India.” Guided by the figurative interpretations of Philo, he explains that the word Phison “stands for prudence. Hence it has pure gold, brilliant rubies, and topaz stones. We often refer to wise discoveries as gold; as the Lord says, speaking through the prophet: ‘I gave them gold and silver.’ “
It seems that treasure and knowledge are indeed symbolic representations of the ‘wise discoveries’ generated by knowledge. Aha, the plot thickens! In the 12th century Letter of Prester John, miraculous gemstones called Midriosi are one of the fruits of this divine river.
“If someone should wear one on his finger, his sight would not fail, and if his sight diminishes, it is restored, and the more he uses his eyes, the sharper his sight becomes. Blessed by the proper charm, it renders a man invisible, banishes hatred, forges friendship and drives away envy”
In my honours research, I wrote that “On a literal level, the midriosi had magical effects on the human body, yet it was a metaphor for a deeper, spiritual effect. The ‘knowledge’ of the gemstone, carried by water, prevents the sight of the wearer from failing providing them with divine insight to restore and enhance sight. This knowledge rewards the knower, sharpening the clarity of their vision, and allowing them to enhance their spiritual understanding. This in turn improves their virtue, allowing them to banish wrath, promote virtue and avoid envy, all of which are requirements of good Christian behaviour.”
I still think that this is the case, and that gemstones are a symbol of the spiritual benefits gained from knowledge, and also the pitfalls of knowledge. In Mandeville’s Travels, the Snake-Eaters of Tracota also have a favourite gemstone:
“[they] care nothing for gold, silver, or other worldly goods, only for one precious stone, which has sixty colours. It is called Traconite after the country. They love this stone very much indeed, even though they do not know its properties; they desire it simply for its beauty”
So this gemstone is mighty pretty, but has no utility to the admirer. If the Midriosi are the useful blessings of knowledge, then Traconite may be the ultimate intellectual ‘fools gold,’ a treasure of beauty sought for purely greedy purposes, and with no goal of spiritual edification.
In the draft of his new article ‘Stories of Stone’ posted on his blog, Jeffrey Cohen asks us “If stone could speak, what would it say about us?” It seems to me that these stones are speaking in a language of signs as they appear in medieval literature. Within the intellectual context of the Middle Ages, there can only be one reason for these stones to speak: God has something to say. If you haven’t read the draft of Cohen’s article, then I highly suggest that you do so. It discusses other wondrous stones and their intriguing benefits, and I am really looking forward to reading the whole article when it is published.