The Myth and Lore of Rubies

July's Birthstone

Offer a large ruby to the Hindu deity, Krisna, the eternal child, and you will be reincarnated as an emperor. Offer a smaller ruby and in the next life, you'll be merely a king. If you believe that existence is not cyclical and have figured out who you were before you were born, the thirteenth century physician Naharari of Kashmire has more practical advice: rubies are a cure for flatulence. (Kuntz 186) An ancient Hindu legion tells of a great serpent that laid three eggs-two of which were great rulers and the third, the ruby mines of Burma. (Kuntz 185) In another myth, the demon, Vala, was conquered and dismembered by the gods in the Hindu pantheon. The blood dropped to the earth, forming a deep pool. On the banks of these pools one can find corundum and from one of these pools flows the most sacred river in India, the Ganga.

Corundum is a classification of gemstones that come in virtually every color. Those that are red to reddish purple are considered rubies.

In the east, it is common to find a statue of a Buddha adorned with a ruby on the forehead. It represents in this case reincarnation; but it also symbolizes the omniscient "third eye," the eye of intuition and knowing which penetrates the thought and feelings of others.

The etymology of the word, ruby, comes from the Latin, ruber, which means, "red." But more interesting are the Sanskrit terms for ruby: ratnaraj, king of precious gems; ratnanayadka, leader of gems; padmaraga, red as a lotus. Its association with the lotus ties it to Hindu and Buddhist iconography: the lotus flower represents purity and beauty rising from the mucky pond, symbolic of the capacity of the enlightened ones to transcend the mundane reality.

One of the gemstones of Aaron's breastplate, the source of the original twelve birthstones representing the twelve tribes of Israel, could possibly have been a ruby, known as the stone of Judah, which is the source of Israel's loyalty. Its reference to this line of kings made the ruby a favored gem among the hierarchy of the church. Martin Luther's betrothal ring was said to have been a ruby engraved with scripture. (Kuntz 186).

However, much of the European lore around rubies can be sourced back to India, via early trading of the stone brought during the voyages of Marco Polo in the thirteenth century which was followed by the crusades. Chevaliere Jean de Mandeville, a fourteenth century writer of Lapidaire, a gemology text, wrote that a ruby can, "acquire and maintains the power of rulers, it procures peace and agreements, it makes man devoted to God, it appeases anger and maintains seductions, it makes the person wearing them safe from all dangers." (Kuntz 185) The ruby, similar to other highly regarded gems, also had oracular capacity: it was changed colors to warn the wearer of events or betrayals.

When we consider these stories of rubies, certain themes appear throughout its lore. I would say that one that ties all together is the connection of rubies to blood. In the gem trade, top quality gems are from Burma termed "pigeon blood" color - an odd descriptive color harkening back to times and places in history when people were pigeon killers. Should we conclude that the great egg-laying serpent forgot to make offerings to Krishna and therefore was reincarnated as a pigeon?

Regardless of my profound metaphorical metaphysical insights, I would venture to say that when we wear rubies, we are connected to blood, an essence. Rubies are blood of the demon Vala. We associate blood and the color red with ardor, change, intensity, heart, love and vitality. Vala and the eggs of the serpent represent the cathartic forces, this primordial power of the earth. This is certainly true from a scientific, geologic view point: the geologic pressure and unique chemical conditions it takes over the eons to create the ruby is miraculous.

Lore from India and medieval Christian writers describe rubies as carrying an inextinguishable inner fire so intense it glows through the clothing-- just as one's passion can not be obscured by what one might be wearing. However, the passion contained within rubies can burn both ways. Vala was a demon gold. The serpent in many cultures symbolizes the untamed, cathartic element of the earth. if you are in a position of leadership you can be consumed its power which can lead to insatiable desire-leading to your own destruction. If you can harness it for the greater good, the power can connect you to your deepest passions. No wonder, then, that rubies were favored by kings and those in power. Throughout history, the best and the worst of those have sought their own immortality, using the power of ruby to attach to something beyond the human realm and personal limitations - a stone that seemed to hold the divine fire.

References: Most of the historical content, myth and lore referenced in this article came from two books, both of which are in print and available on line:

George Frederick Kunz, The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, New York; Dover Publications, Inc. 1913, 1971 edition.

Bruce Knuth, Gems In Myth, Legends And Lore, Parachute, Colorado, Jewelers Press, 2007.