Famous as being a girl’s best friend, diamonds are ingrained in modern culture as symbols of affluence, power and integrity. However, take a look back through the gem’s history and you will find that it has not always been thought of in these ways. Diamonds have enjoyed a long and varied mythology, although some of the legends surrounding its lustre are not as palatable as you might first think.
Diamonds were first discovered in India, over 3,000 years ago. They feature heavily in Hindu mythology, which purports that diamonds were formed when lightning struck rocks. The diamond historian, J Willard Hersey noted that devout Hindus referred to ordinary stones as ‘unripe diamonds’ and the gems themselves as being ‘ripe.’ In the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, the word ‘diamond’ is derived from two others: ‘vajira,’ meaning ‘thunderbolt’ and ‘indrayudha,’ which refers to a weapon carried by the warrior god, Indra. Diamonds were thought to be able to ward off or reflect evil and were often worn as talismans by those going into battle or even placed into the eyes of particularly highly revered statues.
Because of their beauty and durability, many cultures have attributed diamonds with some divine origin. The Ancient Greeks believed that they were the tears of the gods, while the Romans thought that they were the splinters from stars that Eros, the god of love, fashioned into arrow tips. Even the word ‘diamond’ speaks of its enduring nature. It comes from the Greek word, ‘adamas,’ meaning ‘unconquerable.’
However, their value soon rocketed and diamonds were coveted and stolen. An Ancient Asian legend tells of a valley of diamonds, protected by snakes and birds of prey, while the Chinese took advantage of its toughness, employing them to cut jade. During the Middle Ages, diamonds were believed to hold curative properties and a remedy for stomach ailments was to swallow one of the gems.
Stones of Power
Such was the belief in the powers of these brilliant stones that it was thought that they had the power to change astrological events. They were believed to have the ability to drive away nightmares of savage beasts and animals, to protect against storms and lightning and to bring good luck. Such was their association with courage, strength and invincibility that, in the 14th Century, a law was passed in Britain forbidding anyone to wear them save for kings and queens. It may also be that the belief that diamonds would change colour in the presence of poison meant that they were worn by heads of state as a defensive measure against assassination attempts.
J Willard Hersey also discovered diamond mythology in the early Persian cultures, particularly in the story of creation. In summarising that myth Hersey says: “when God created the world, he had no need for diamonds, gold or other precious metals and gems. But Satan noticed that Eve loved the brightly coloured flowers in the Garden of Eden and created gemstones in the same seductive hues to tempt humans.” As a result, Persian mythology tends to feature diamonds as the cause of greed and consequent suffering. Even the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that diamonds were more than just glittering gems. He saw them as living creatures with malevolent intentions.
One particular myth may have been started in the mines themselves. At one point in their history, diamonds were thought to be poisonous. However, modern historians attribute the origin of this story to mine owners trying to prevent their workers from swallowing them and smuggling them out.
The Hope Diamond
One particular story attributes the Hope Diamond with a curse. It was stolen from the statue of the Hindu goddess, Sita, by a man called Tavernier. After selling the diamond to King Louis XIV of France, Tavernier was torn apart by a pack of wild dogs. The diamond remained with King Louis until his death and it was ultimately inherited by Louis XVI, who met a grisly end at the guillotine during the French Revolution. Shortly after, the diamond was stolen from the crown jewels and eventually bought by the Hope family.
Unfortunately, it had to be sold when their business went bankrupt. The new owner of the diamond, Evalyn McLean, was said to have worn the diamond constantly and reported no ill effects, appearing to break the diamond’s run of bad luck. However, over time, a series of tragedies befell the family. Her son was killed in a car crash, her daughter committed suicide and her husband was sectioned and subsequently committed to an institution on grounds of insanity.
Evalyn died owing huge debts and her surviving children sold the diamond to the Smithsonian Institute. The final part of the story involves the postman who actually delivered the diamond to its final resting place. James Todd had his leg crushed in a road accident shortly after and then a severe head injury in a separate incident. If that wasn’t enough, his house burnt down sometime later.
Black and Blood Diamonds
If ‘ordinary’ diamonds have a mixed mythology, the beliefs surrounding black diamonds are even more extreme. In Ancient India, they were considered to be cursed, resembling the eyes of a spider or a snake. As a result, they have developed an enduring association with Yama, the god of death. However, in Italian cultures, black diamonds are seen as having the ability to bring good fortune and to help out an ailing marriage. They believe that touching the stone would draw the ill-fortunes from the couple and pass straight into the diamond itself.
The mythology of diamonds now takes second place to the furore surrounding their mining. ‘Blood Diamonds’ or ‘Conflict Diamonds’ are now carefully avoided by those in the trade and the practice of mining the stones from war zones and using their sale to finance wars and the purchase of weapons is being made more difficult. Directives such as the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme are slowly phasing out these types of diamond, preventing them entering the market. However, since the myths began, man has always been fascinated by this most brilliant of gemstones and is likely to be for centuries to come.