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Crystals - who are we fooling?

By Rowan

Published Samhain 1994

Am I the only pagan who feels a need to heal other people's crystals? I ask this because I have become increasingly concerned over the past few years at the (as I see it) unwarranted prominence given to crystals in so many new age and "pagan" publications. They seem to have become a sort of sacred cow of neo paganism. You know - the "a real pagan has shelves full of crystals" or "crystals were the secret power source of Atlantis" approaches. Well, sorry, but this is a load of crap. Let us stop for a moment and compare the romantic fantasy about crystals with the oh-so-unromantic reality.

The fantasy appears to work upon the sad belief that all crystals which are sold in new age shops, whether in their rough or polished state, have been collected from the banks of some long lost river in an untouched-by-Western-"civilisation" Amazonian rain forest paradise by a native shaman (what's one of those when he's at home?) in a between-the-worlds trance - which is about as realistic as the plot of a Barbara Cartland "novel".

The reality is that of a multinational mining company descending on the hitherto unspoilt Amazonian paradise, coercing the natives into cheap bonded labour and blasting "crystals" out of the earth with dynamite or high-pressure water hoses. These sad rock fragments are then transported down to the seaports, loaded in bulk onto a freighter, shipped to wholesalers in the western world, bought in bulk by the proprietors of new age shops and end up being plonked in to a box on the counter under the glare of spot lights. And then what happens? Some Sad Case of a new ager or neo-pagan comes into the shop, rummages through the box to find the prettiest bit of rock, takes it home, plonks it onto the table and demands "Heal me!!" Poor little bugger!

Let us get one thing straight. The widespread availability and use of "crystals" has only become possible because of mass-mining methods derived from industrialisation during the past couple of centuries, the exploitation of natural resources, the oppression of native peoples who have been driven from their ancestral lands - and the gullibility of those who should know better. Meanwhile a lot of people have made a lot of money out of peddling a fantasy.

Crystal Madness on the present scale is, in this country at least, a relatively modern phenomenon. This becomes all too apparent when you look to the accounts of the use of crystals by our ancestors. For example, one of the most famous healing talismans of Scotland was a small sphere of rock crystal (in other words - quartz) which had been hand ground into a near-perfect sphere and set in a claw mount. During the Middle Ages it developed a formidable reputation as a healing talisman throughout Scotland and was even "borrowed" by the city of Newcastle during the 1665 plague at a surety of £6,000 - an enormous sum of money for those days. I think the modern equivalent would be about £750,000. The stone was dipped in water and the water drunk by the person or animal concerned. Unfortunately the talisman appears to have been lost in recent centuries.

The surviving accounts which describe the practices and beliefs which surrounded this handful of early crystal talismans tell us that, far from being common, they were regarded as so precious and rare that those seeking a cure for their troubles or diseases would travel vast distances to touch the stone or to drink a few mouthfuls of the water in which it had been dipped. If any old bit of quartz would have done, people would not have walked from one end of Scotland to another for the sake of a particular stone.

So what would our pagan ancestors in this country have used? One thing seems certain - although a few individuals may have possessed an exotic crystal it would have been because they brought it back from foreign wars (several legends about healing crystals and other talismans of the middle ages tell of their having been brought back from the Crusades) or because they were rich enough to pay a high price for a rare and valuable item.

Of course there are native crystals - fluourite octohedrons for example, which are a byproduct of lead mining in the north Pennines, calcite from Cumberland, carnelian from the Yorkshire coast and cuprite from Cornwall - but those crystals and minerals which are most avidly collected by New Ages and neo-pagans are exotic imports which would have been completely alien, indeed unrecognisable, to our ancestors. Some of the tribes which have invaded these islands over the ages may have brought with them their tribal healing stones or talismans. While the Romans and Egyptians did have an extensive belief system about the powers and efficacy of crystals, believing that amethyst could prevent drunkenness, for example, the beliefs which surrounded such stones were imported along with the stones themselves.

Virtually all writers, whether from a pagan or from high magick background, are agreed that magick is an act of Will and intent. It should therefore be immaterial what we choose to use as a focus for our Will; we should be able to work with a lump of dogshit as happily as with the prettiest bit of amethyst or turquoise. More to the point, is it usually agreed that magick requires effort on the part of the magickian and I would suggest therefore that one of the key factors in using a physical focus for our Will is that we should have found the object ourselves. Scavenging and beach-combing are excellent ways of becoming sensitive to a natural environment and of becoming more perceptive.

When I lived in Norfolk I had the enviable choice of several substantial areas of post-glacial woodland (from which I managed to collect wonderfully twisted bits of wood, feathers, the tip of a squirrel's tail and various animal bones and skulls) and a number of remote and unspoiled beaches; one of the the latter presented me with a beautiful, though worn, neolithic flint arrowhead ("elf-shot" as our ancestors calledit) which goes everywhere with me. You also find, if you haunt a particular site, that the powers of that place become more trusting and giving when they realise that you are prepared to make the effort to develop a relationship with the place and are not motivated by an idle curiousity; when that happens there is no telling what they may share with you.

The folklore of the ordinary people of former centuries, who were the pagan ancestors of most of us who are native to these islands, is full of mentions of hagstones, pieces of the wood from a tree chosen for a given magickal purpose, native herbs and plants or dried bits of animals. It is this almost-lost knowledge of our ancestors which we should seek to reclaim - paganism is much more to do with finding our roots and developing a relationship with the sacred landscape than with collecting pretty bits of rock brought to us by multinational corporations.

And yes (before anyone accuses me of living in a glass house) I too have a few crystals - a small quartz cluster, a few fluorite octohedrans, a small cluster of sulphur crystals bought many years ago because it "looked nice". However I look upon them with shame and embarrassment when I think of how I too helped to foster that immoral trade and supported the multinational mining conglomorates. I keep them as a reminder of my thoughtlessness and, frankly, stupidity.