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30 May 2015

Amethyst

Once upon a time, Bacchus, the louche Greek god of wine and debauchery, was pursuing a fair young maiden named Amethyste, who had caught his beer-goggled eye. Amethyste, however, was sober as a judge and had no intention of giving in to Bacchus’s bleary advances, so she fell to her knees and prayed to the gods themselves to keep her chaste. 

The gods, in their infinite wisdom, responded by keeping Amethyste safe in the only sensible way they knew how—namely by transforming her into a large slab of white quartz. (This is fiction, remember.) 

But Bacchus had had such a skinful back at the grape harvest that even a bare slab of white quartz still looked pretty alluring, so in one final attempt to woo Amethyste—and in a perfect demonstration of the kind of thinking that seems utterly logical when you’re drunk—he poured his wine all over the quartz. 

Unfortunately that had no effect at all other than to stain the quartz a deep, rich purple colour, and he was forced to retire, frustrated and unsatisfied. Amethyste’s chastity, meanwhile, remained in tact. (Well, it would do wouldn’t it, because she was now made entirely of quartz.) But, anyway—THE END.

The story of Bacchus and Amethyste, of which this is a fairly accurate précis, was written in the sixteenth century by the French Renaissance poet Rémy Belleau. Although Bellaeu’s tale is not an original Greek myth, it’s nevertheless inspired by an Ancient Greek belief that amethyst stones could prevent drunkenness; drinking from a cup made from or decorated with amethyst, you would simply never get drunk. 


I could have done with one of these at New Year

This peculiar belief was even reflected in the word amethyst itself:
Etymologically, amethyst comes from the Greek word amethystos, which is in turn based around the Greek word for “wine”, methys. The initial a– of amethyst is a negative- or opposite-forming suffix (like un- or non- in English today), and so altogether amethyst effectively means “not drunk” or “not intoxicated”.

But where did this superstition come from? Well, admittedly, no one is entirely sure, but it’s probably the amethyst’s rich, wine-like purple colour that first led to its association with booze, and from there it’s just a quick hop, stagger and jump to the idea that such a dazzling precious stone could have corresponding magic powers. 

Versions of this superstition are found dotted throughout Greek literature, with even Plato seeming to get in on the act in one of his Epigrams:
The stone is an amethyst: but I, the tippler Dionysus, say, “Let it either persuade me to be sober, or let it learn to get drunk.”
But even by the days of the great Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, this idea was already ancient history: in his Natural History, Pliny dismissively states that “the falsehoods of the magicians would persuade us that these stones are preventative of inebriety.” After all, it’s an easy enough hypothesis to test out. And here at HaggardHawks HQ, we’d be more than happy to volunteer. 


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