Understanding Crystal Energy
The Danger of Pseudoscience
Medicine, Religion, & Healing Crystals
By Julie Abouzelof, November 2021
The first lapidary, a book describing crystals and their powers, was written by a retired army commander of the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elder (23-79) spent most of his spare time studying and writing about the natural world, eventually culminating in his magnum opus Historia Naturalis (Natural History). It was divided into 37 books covering three basic topics: animal, vegetable, and mineral with the latter including geography, metallurgy, minerals, gemstones, and mining. Scattered within those pages are references to healing crystals.
In some cases, Pliny the Elder was dismissive of medicinal claims, while in other passages he recorded that the stones really have healing energy. Historia Naturalis provides the model for both modern encyclopedias as well as modern healing crystal books. Healing traditions like amber being good for the stomach were first recorded here.
Pliny the Elder didn’t invent the concept of crystal healing. He was merely cataloging a much older tradition. Over the next two thousand years, crystal healing would be further explored by Christian bishops, European royalty, scientists, and eventually modern mystics. As each new lapidary was written, another layer was added to an ancient idea. Today healing crystals are a fascinating mishmash of beliefs from all over the world. But where did it all start?
If we wish to explore the origins of crystal healing then we must also explore the history of medicine and religion. Because all three are intimately entwined. In the beginning, the line between science and magic hadn’t yet been drawn. One was not considered “real” while the other was “imaginary.” Modern medicine is only 200 years old. By contrast, human history is 5000 years old and human prehistory stretches back another 300,000+ years. Somewhere in that long stretch of prehistory, special stones began to be perceived as objects of power.
Healing Crystals in Prehistory
For prehistory, we must tread carefully and be conscious of our own biases. The lines between practical, coincidental, and possibly spiritual are not always easy to distinguish in the archaeological record. Is a stone female figurine proof of ancient goddess worship? Perhaps. But it could also be a Stone-age Barbie or pornography. Artifacts tell us about available resources and technical skills, but they rarely give uncontested insight into private beliefs.
Archaeologists who study prehistoric spirituality look to modern hunter-gatherer tribes for analogies in order to understand artifacts. For example, we know that red ochre, a soft clay often used for body decoration and cave drawings, was significant to many prehistoric societies as well as to modern hunter-gatherers. Both groups use the red ochre in similar ways, and so it is theorized that both groups may share some similar beliefs. While we can never know for sure what prehistoric people believed, with careful inductive reasoning, we can arrive at reasonable conclusions.
We know that prehistoric people used stones for tools and jewelry. The earliest stone tools were actually made by other hominid species three million years before our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens (meaning: wise humans), evolved. By the time we arrived, early hominid species had already invented stone axes, knives, and spears. From the very beginning, humans clearly considered stones to be useful objects. But, whether or not that usefulness extended beyond the purely utilitarian and into the spiritual realm is impossible to know.
For jewelry, the earliest known example is a necklace of eagle talons 130,000 years old found in a cave in Croatia. But it was not ours! That necklace belonged to one of our Homo sapiens cousins, a Neanderthal. The second oldest jewelry was most likely ours, it is a handful of shell beads covered in red ochre that would have been strung on a string and possibly worn as a necklace. The shell beads were made 120,000 years ago and found buried in a cave in Israel. The third oldest piece, and first example of stone jewelry, is a fabulous carved bracelet of serpentine (chlorite), a soft, green metamorphic rock. The bracelet was found along with a bone of a young woman who lived in Siberia 40,000 years ago. She was a Homo sapiens cousin too, a Denisovan. These ancient jewelry artifacts may be among the earliest signs of spiritual behavior. However, it’s also possible that early jewelry was simply meant to denote social status or for self-decoration.
Around 40,000 BCE, however, something fascinating begins to change in the archaeological record. There is a creative, and perhaps soulful, awakening. The oldest cave art, a life-size drawing of a warty wild boar, was found in Indonesia and dates to this period. Soon after, caves and rock walls around the world were marked with handprints and decorated with abstract and representational drawings. Then we begin to find the first detailed stone sculptures, including female figurines such as the Venus of Willendorf. All these artifacts indicate something significant was changing in the minds and lives of our ancestors.
Moving closer to our own time, we find the graves of prehistoric “shamans.” For example, there is the grave of an older woman who lived 12,000 years ago near the Sea of Galilee. Her grave goods included a menagerie of animal remains, including an eagle wing, leopard bone, and 50 turtle shells. It is hard to resist the idea that she was a powerful woman, perhaps a spiritual leader during her lifetime.
Most experts agree that ancient jewelry, cave art, sculptures, and certain grave goods indicate that late prehistoric societies had animistic beliefs and shamanic ritual practices. While these are broad concepts, the basic idea is that everything, including rocks, trees, animals, special places, and even abstract concepts like “truth” or “harmony” have a spiritual essence. They are “alive” and have an “energy” that can be felt and perhaps controlled in positive or negative ways. Early spiritual leaders and healers were individuals who had a talent for connecting with these energies.
Many indigenous cultures around the world, including hunter-gatherers, nomadic peoples, and sedentary groups, have similar animistic beliefs. While specific indigenous beliefs are unique to that group, prehistoric animism is a system of beliefs that belongs to all of us. Knowing that, is it surprising that some of us instinctively feel that rocks and crystals have energy? We may be modern people, but our prehistoric spiritual instincts haven’t been entirely lost.
In ca.3400 BCE our ancestors invented writing, and with written records history formally begins. The oldest writing does not represent the most ancient ideas. By the time writing was invented, beliefs and superstitions about life and death, wellness and sickness had already been long established. But with writing, we can begin to track how early people viewed medicine, religion, and healing stones.
Mesopotamia & Egypt
The two earliest civilizations to leave behind medical documents are ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. Both strongly influenced the medicine of neighboring cultures which were eventually inherited by ancient Greece. Greek culture in turn influenced Rome, home to Pliny the Elder, and eventually all of Western civilization.
The oldest medical document in the world is a Sumerian cuneiform tablet, dated to ca.2100 BCE. It is a small clay tablet that provides fifteen medical prescriptions. We don’t know what diseases the prescriptions are supposed to cure or the amount of each ingredient. All we know is the ingredients themselves, which range from salt and turtle shell to fig and beer. It is an intriguing yet frustrating document because it provides data without context. There are approximately 1000 other medical cuneiform tablets and fragments, written over the course of two millennia. Many of them contain references to medical minerals, but they are like pages torn from a book, rather than a comprehensive document. To further complicate matters, the translations are only “probable” rather than certain. In one version a word is translated as “rose” whereas in another translation, it is “mustard.” So extreme care must be taken when attempting to understand ancient medicine in Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamian medical prescriptions reference approximately 120 medical minerals and 250 medicinal herbs. The methods of healing involved both religious ritual and physical treatments. Reading the ancient prescriptions is much like reading a sorcerer’s manual or a witch’s grimoire. It might as well read an eye of newt mixed with hen’s blood and placed on top of a yellow stone… But these prescriptions were very serious. They weren’t a joke or a con. They were the thoughtful ideas of wise men and women, ancient healers who sought to understand, mend, and balance the human body and spirit.
The oldest medical text in Egypt is the Kahun Papyrus, a tattered gynecological manuscript written in ca.1800 BCE. It is a reference guide for midwives. Treatments typically involved massage oil, plant medicines, or smudging the patient with healing smoke. The most unusual remedy is for, “a woman burning…her eyes bleary…wood grated on the left side of the birth brick, sprinkle…4 mornings.“ Birth bricks were used to support women while squatting during labor. But these were no ordinary objects. Birth bricks were a physical object that symbolized the divine power of the goddess Meskhenet. She watched over women during labor and created the ka, the vital essence of life, which she breathed into the infant at the moment of birth. Only one example of a birth brick, made of unfired mud, has ever been found. It was decorated with protective gods on one side and with a mother and infant on the other side. During labor, a birth brick would have offered both physical and psychological comfort. By contrast, the remedy in the Kahun Papyrus seems to rely exclusively on the emotional/spiritual comfort of a ritual.
The most comprehensive medical text in ancient Egypt is the Ebers Papyrus. The copy which has survived was written in ca.1550 BCE, but the original text is likely much older. It is a 68-foot-long (20-meter) scroll and is an eclectic collection of medical folklore and remedies. It is a technical document written in hieratic, the cursive form of hieroglyphics, and is very difficult to translate. Many of the words for specific drugs and diseases are impossible to identify precisely but are hinted at by context. Despite these difficulties, it is clear is that the Ebers Papyrus includes instructions for how to heal everything from skin diseases to depression, and from birth control methods to diabetes management. It has medical advice for handling wasp stings and the bite of a crocodile. It also gives considerable attention to cosmetics and wrinkle-removers. There are recipes for salves, pills, drinks to gargle and powders to sniff. Some of the medical prescriptions are simple and others very complex. It includes 811 magical/medical formulas, including invocations to the gods and spells to cast out demons. Scattered throughout it are references to 12 medical minerals, or “healing stones,” including copper, granite, hematite, lapis lazuli, and opal.
Another Egyptian medical text, the Erman Papyrus, dates to the same time period as the Eber’s Papyrus, and focuses exclusively on labor & delivery and pediatric healthcare. It lists additional medical minerals, including Red Jasper and Malachite. Some of these recommendations have echoed for millennia. For example, Pliny the Elder specifically recommends Malachite for protecting infants. Likewise, many modern crystal books recommend Malachite as a midwife’s stone.
These medical papyri are contemporaries of a more famous Egyptian text: The Book of Coming Forth Into the Day – or as you may know it, The Book of the Dead. There is no single “book,” rather it is diverse collection of religious and magical spells and formulas. They were placed in tombs throughout ancient Egypt. The spells are meant to help the dead travel to the afterlife. Several spells specifically explain how to create magical amulets out of amethyst, red jasper, and amazonite.
So how did the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians use these stones for healing or protection? In some cases, they were pounded into powder and used in a pharmaceutical prescription. At other times, the stones were left whole and used in ways that will seem very familiar to modern-day crystal healers. They were often turned into amulets (magical objects that keep bad energy away) and talismans (magical objects that evoke powerful energy). The stones were often recommended to be placed on specific parts of the body, worn as jewelry, or otherwise kept nearby.
Amethyst amulet: The little child is safe as long as the mother and the nurse are near it. But at night…the child is threatened by dangers… Give me a ball, bring gold and rings of amethyst, a seal, a crocodile and a hand, to fell and drive away these desert dwellers, to warm the body, to fell this foe and this Enemy from the dead. This is the way to be protected!… Mount them on finely woven linen thread and make an amulet. It is placed at the neck of the child. Good!”
Mesopotamia and Egypt were not the only cradles of civilization. Writing was invented independently in several places, most notably in India, China, and South America. What do the early medical documents from these places tell us about healing crystals?
Indian Ayurvedic medicine is almost as old as the Egyptian papyri. The first mention of sickness and healing is in the Rgveda, the oldest of the holy books of Hinduism. The dating of the Rgveda is difficult to determine, but it is generally thought to have been composed in ca.1250 BCE and reflects earlier oral traditions. The Vedas are stories from a late Bronze Age society in the Punjab, a fertile plain and hilly region on the border of modern India and Pakistan. The Vedas describe an early civilization of nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples. Among these people, illnesses were thought to be caused by the wrath of various gods and demons.
Ayurvedic, traditional Indian medicine, originated in ca.1000 BCE in the Atharvaveda, the last of the Vedas. This holy book contains both religious scriptures and advice for daily life, including healthcare. It includes medical prescriptions, similar to those in the Middle East, combining plants, minerals, prayers and rituals. The Atharvaveda recommends a variety of amulets and talismans, mostly made from the wood of specific trees. But there are also two healing stone amulets that are recommended for longevity.
The pearl amulet: Born of the wind, the atmosphere, the lightning and the light…the bone of the gods turned into pearl; that animated, dwells in the water. That do I fasten upon then unto life, luster, strength, longevity, unto a life lasting a hundred autumns. May the amulet of pearl protect thee! 
The gold amulet: The gold which is born from fire, the immortal, they bestowed upon the mortals. He who knows this, deserves it; of old age dies he who wears it…The gold endowed by the sun with beautiful color…may it envelop thee unto long life, unto luster, unto force, and unto strength that thou shalt by the brilliancy of the gold shine forth among people.
Healing stone amulets likely date back to the time of the nomadic and/or semi-nomadic cultures of India. By contrast, it wasn’t until farming communities appeared in the area that that we find records of other spiritual concepts like the chakra system. Chakras are described as psychic energy wheels that affect body and soul. They are first described in another set of Hindu holy texts, the Upanishads, written between 800-300 BCE in northern India. This is the same general time period and location as Gautama Buddha (ca.400 BCE), the founder of Buddhism. Today chakras and crystals are often evoked together. In modern crystal stores, one of the most common “beginner” crystal sets is to get a crystal for each chakra. Likewise, stone sculptures of the Buddha and various Hindu deities, especially the loveable elephant-god Ganesha, are ubiquitous in healing crystal shops.
There is one other Hindu holy book that is of great interest to anyone exploring gem lore, Garunda Purana (ca.900). While it was written more than two millennia after the Vedic texts, it takes a story from the Rgveda and Atharvaveda and adds details. The Vedic texts repeatedly mention the demon-god Vala, who is described as a cave and slain by the god-hero Indra. According to the Garunda Purana, after Vala’s death, his body was torn to pieces and scattered across the world. Where the body-parts fell, certain gemstones appeared, including ruby, emerald, sapphire, cat’s eye, topaz, diamond, bloodstone, and quartz. Each stone was associated with a specific part of Vala, for example ruby was the demon’s blood, blue sapphire his eyes, and yellow topaz his skin.
The Garunda Purana also goes into great detail about the idea that certain stones are endued with the virtue of expiating all sins or of acting as a prophylactic against the effects of poison, snake bites and diseases, while there are others that are possessed by contrary virtues.”  A contrary virtue is the opposite of a negative attribute, for example, humility vs arrogance. An example in the Garunda Purana is that yellow sapphire has the contrary virtue of attracting wealth, glory, friendship, and good luck.
In ancient China, writing was invented in ca.1250 BCE during the Shang Dynasty. The oldest examples of the script are oracle bones which were used for divination purposes. A question would be carved or written onto the bone, usually from an ox or a turtle shell, then the bone would be heated until it cracked, and the sound or lines interpreted by the diviner. One of the oldest examples of an oracle bone asks, “Does the king of Shang [Wu Ding] have plague? Will the plague spread?”
For centuries, a shamanistic view of medicine dominated China, in which sickness was thought to be due to demons or angry ancestors. The main way to placate these forces was through ritual sacrifice, either by killing someone or by using proxy representational objects. Jade and other stones were carved into mingqi, or spirit objects, that could be used to honor the dead and appease the spirits. Minqi were spiritual representations of people, animals or objects. Jade and other stones were likely used for minqi because of their monetary value and/or beauty. It is unclear whether the ancient Chinese also believed the stones had inherent spiritual powers.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was first recorded in the Huangdi neijing, written in ca.220 BCE. It describes an idealized conversation between a good emperor and his advisors in which health is considered a matter of balance. It is one of the primary sources for such spiritual concepts as yin/yang, qi, meridians, and the five elements (fire, water, wood, earth, and metal), as well as for acupuncture.
In the original text, acupuncture is described as a therapy practice involving needles and “pointed stones.” The pointed stones may have been used for bloodletting or otherwise cutting the body. But they were definitely considered to be a medical tool distinct from a regular knife. Today pointed stones are often sold as wands or massage tools in the New Age industry with the intention of being used to direct energy through the body. In some cases, the healer may be a trained acupuncturist, but more often they are crystal healer following a different spiritual tradition. Terms like qi, meridians, and yin/yang are frequently used in crystal healing, alongside Indian chakras and other spiritual traditions from around the world.
The Huangdi neijing makes numerous references to various minerals, particularly jade. In the idealized conversation, the healing wisdom is described as being written on jade tablets and is called the Jade Mechanism. Unsurprisingly, jade is one of the most frequently used healing stones in TCM. Today, TCM has adapted itself to the modern scientific process, including serious scientific studies into the effectiveness of stone healing. For example, in 2020 a clinical trial studied the use of heated jade for knee osteoporosis, showing that it reduced pain without negative side-affects.
One of the most important aspects of TCM is the concept of qi, the vital life force that flows through all things. Qi is thought to flow through animate objects like people, animals, and plants, as well as through inanimate objects such as stones, rivers, mountains, light, sound, and manmade structures. When a person is sick or otherwise disturbed, it is believed that this is due to the qi being disrupted in some way. Fortunately, there are many ways the flow of qi can be restored, including exercise, herbal remedies, or by feng shui.
Feng shui is a metaphysical practice that uses the natural world, manmade objects, and cardinal directions to affect the flow of qi for optimal health. It is closely linked to the five elements, with minerals often being used to harness the powers of earth and metal in particular. The concepts of feng shui is likely as old or older than TCM, perhaps even harkening back to a prehistoric animistic faith. Feng shui is associate with several ancient Chinese philosopher-alchemists, including Zisi (481-408 BCE), the grandson of Confucius. However, the earliest surviving record was written hundreds of years later in The Book of the Burial by Guo Pu, a Chinese historian (276-374). In many ways, Guo Pu was similar to Pliny the Elder, in that they both collected and preserved the beliefs of the natural world that were widely accepted during their lifetimes.
Other Ancient Cultures
It is more difficult to explore the origins of medicine and religion in other ancient cultures. In some locations, people had only spoken languages. In other places, ancient written languages are still fully or mostly indecipherable, just as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. In the worst cases, original documents were purposefully destroyed by newcomers. In all three situations, any attempt to understand ancient medicine and religion must be done cautiously, using a combination of artifacts and archaeological sites, oral traditions, and documents written by conquerors and missionaries.
In the Americas, the ancient Mayan script has been somewhat deciphered, but precious little of it remains. Most of it was intentionally destroyed by Spanish conquistadores because the Mayan texts contained non-Christian beliefs. In a sad twist of fate, the Catholic Bishop who was directly responsible for the destruction of the Mayan documents, is also the primary source for much of what we know about pre-colonial Mayan culture. He traveled extensively in the Yucatan and left detailed records. Without any trace of irony, he wrote, We found a large number of books… as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.
As it is, only four pre-colonial documents known as the Mayan Codex have survived. All other examples of the Mayan script are inscriptions on stone buildings and monuments which were preserved because they couldn’t be thrown on a fire. The Mayan Dresden Codex is the oldest and the only one that provides any insights into pre-colonial Mayan medicine. It is dated to ca.1250, more than two hundred years before Columbus’s journey. The Codex seems to mention the Mayan goddess of medicine and fertility, Ixchel, who is half-human and half-jaguar. We know little about this goddess, beyond what was recorded by the book-burning Bishop. According to him, during the feast of Ixchel, she was worshiped by physicians and shamans. Medicine bundles containing little figurines of the goddess and divination stones would also be brought out. Most likely the divination stones were cast and counted, with predictions based on mathematical equations related to the Mayan calendar. At least some of the divination stones were made of clear quartz.
The one stone that is undeniably linked to spiritual power in the ancient Americas is black obsidian. It was used to make scrying mirrors for shamans and members of the upper class among the Mayans and especially the Aztecs. Obsidian was also closely linked to two of the Aztec gods. Tezcatilopoca, the Aztec jaguar-god, was a powerful deity said to control the night, divination, sorcery, and war. His name translates to “smoking mirror” for the obsidian mirrors that were used in his rituals. Obsidian was also linked to Ixtliton, an Aztec god of healing, dancing, and good luck. Obsidian masks depicting Ixtliton were put in the bedrooms of upper-class children to help them sleep well and stay safe.
While it is slowly improving, indigenous cultures around the world are still systematically oppressed by governments. Among the worst abuses occurred in the 20th century when boarding schools stole children away from their families so they were unable to learn or remember the language, skills, and beliefs of their native culture. Much has been lost. But the past few decades have seen a resurgence in indigenous pride and some of the old ways are once again being taught to new generations. Oral traditions are increasingly being written down, either told to ethnographers or in the best cases preserved by the people themselves. This includes numerous legends about healing stones. While the legends themselves may be very old, the written record for them is quite recent.
One concept that is of interest when exploring the origins of healing crystals is the “medicine bag.” It is most often associated with Native American tribes, but medicine bags are also found in many other parts of the world. The term refers to small bags carrying sacred items meant to protect, heal, bring good luck, or enhance spiritual powers. Each bag might contain a variety of plants, animal parts, or stones, each of which has some significance to the owner. The use of the term “medicine bag” is prolific in the modern New Age healing crystal industry and there are concerns about whether or not this term is cultural appropriation, or if it’s a generic term for an object common among animistic cultures prehistoric, historic, and modern.
The term was first recorded during the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-1806) and was based on items carried by the Ojibwe tribe in the Great Lakes region. As such, the proper name for the original “medicine bag” would be the Ojibwe word midewayaan. In 1805, Lewis wrote about the Ojibwe concept of medicine in his journal. He described medicine as, “whatever is mysterious or unintelligible” and that “Big Medicine” is “the presence of the Great Spirit”.
Hippocrates, known as the Father of Medicine, wrote in ca.400 BCE that, “From the brain only arises our joys, delights, laughter and jest, as well as our sorrows, pains, depression and tears…the brain exercises the greatest power.” Healing crystals can be powerful tools for the brain. They harken back to an older age, to the first religious and medical beliefs of our species. In the ultra-modern 21st century, crystals remain an oddly comforting bit of Old Magic. Crystals are tangible objects we can touch when we want to evoke untouchable concepts like love and peace or when we need to work through emotionally complex topics.
Those of us who feel crystal energy are the spiritual daughters and sons of the prehistoric shamans. We sense power in rocks, trees, and certain places. Some of us follow specific traditions and formally learn from teachers. Others rely on personal instinct. But most of us mix and match ideas from around the world, borrowing whatever feels good to us and ignoring what doesn’t. The wisest among us are the ones who have cultivated a keen sense of emotional intelligence. We know when to treat the body with modern medicine and when to treat the soul with a healing stone.
You may still be wondering, who decides what each stone is good for? Who decides if a stone is good for the stomach or the liver; for unconditional love or for curiosity? Is it all just a bunch of random ideas attached to random stones? The short answer is no, it’s not random. There is a marvelous logic that governs healing crystal energy. Its origin is ancient, but easily adaptable to the modern age. But that’s another story for another day.
– Coming Winter 2022 –
Who decides? Understanding how crystal properties are determined.
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 Michael Balter, “World’s oldest stone tools discovered in Kenya,” Science, April 14, 2015, https://www.science.org/content/article/world-s-oldest-stone-tools-discovered-kenya.
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Numerous sources exist, one example is: Michael Gienger, Crystal Power, Crystal Healing: The Complete Handbook. (Blandford, UK: Cassel Illustrated, 1998), 316.
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