The lapidary of Alfonso X the Wise: minerals and astrology in the Hispanic Middle Ages


King Alfonso X of Castile (1221 - 1284) was a successful man in politics and state affairs, although that does not mean that he was equally admired by everyone. However, his humanistic facet led him to surround himself with scholars of the three great religions, getting translation and compilation jobs that would have been unthinkable without their sponsorship. Hence he was nicknamed "the Wise". The lapidary is not the only work with an astrological-magical theme, also highlighting the translation of the Arabic grimoire Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, better known as Picatrix, whose Latin text spread rapidly throughout Europe, but the original Spanish translation has been lost. There were also numerous treatises on precious stones and minerals in the Arab world: we find texts indicating their place of origin, their correct treatment and embellishment, or their properties for aesthetic and pharmacological use, as well as other symbolisms. Although there were also lapidaries in the classical world, it was the lapidary of this Castilian king who compiled and cataloged all these Arab studies and also added the corresponding astrological and esoteric link in relation to the knowledge of the Hellenistic world. Undoubtedly, for the time, it was a complex and complete mineralogical study, scientific in nature due to the way in which the analysis was carried out.

-Alfonso X and astrology.

The patronage of King Alfonso X promoted the famous School of Translators of Toledo, and even the astronomical observatory of the Castle of San Servando and its instruments. Astrology and astronomy are two overlapping sciences in this historical period, but it should be noted that in Las Siete Partidas (The Seven Splits, a book of law), Alfonso X indicated:

(English below)

<<Adivinanza tanto quiere decir como querer tomar poder de Dios para saber las cosas que son por venir. Y hay dos maneras de adivinanza: la primera es la que se hace por arte de astronomía que es una de las siete artes liberales. Y esta, según el fuero de las leyes, nos e prohíbe usarla a los que son en ella maestros y la entienden verdaderamente, porque los juicios y estimaciones que se dan por esta arte, son sacadas del curso natural de los planetas y de las otras estrellas , y tomados de los libros de Tolomeo y de los otros sabios que se afanaron en esta ciencia (...) La segunda manera de la adivinanza es la de los agoreros y de los sorteros y de los hechiceros que sacan el agüero de aves o estornudos o de palabras, a las que llaman proverbios, o echan las suertes o miran en agua o en cristal o en espejo o en espada o en otra cosa luciente, o adivinan en cabeza de hombre muerto o de bestia o de perro, o en palma de niño o mujer virgen. Y estos truhanes y todos los otros semejantes a ellos, porque son hombres dañosos y engañadores, y nacen de sus hechos muy grandes daños y males a la tierra, prohibimos que ninguno de ellos no more en nuestro señorío ni use ni allí de estas cosas, y otrosí que ninguno sea osado de acogerlos en sus casas. >>

<<Riddle/Divination as much means as wanting to take power from God to know the things that are to come. And there are two ways of riddles: the first is the one that is done by the art of astronomy, which is one of the seven liberal arts. And this, according to the jurisdiction of the laws, is prohibited from using it by those who are masters in it and truly understand it, because the judgments and estimates that are given by this art are taken from the natural course of the planets and other stars, and taken from the books of Ptolemy and other wise men who worked in this science (...) The second way of riddles is that of fortune tellers and sorters and sorcerers who draw the omen of birds or sneezes or of words, which they call proverbs, or they cast lots or look into water or crystal or a mirror or a sword or something else shiny, or divine in the head of a dead man or beast or dog, or in the palm of a child or a virgin woman. And these scoundrels and all the others similar to them, because they are mischievous and deceitful men, and great damage and harm to the earth are born from their deeds, we forbid that any of them not dwell in our dominion or use these things even there, and furthermore that no one dares to welcome them into their homes. >>

Astrology conforms, therefore, as the only viable, fair and certain form of divination. It goes without saying that other types of magic, such as necromancy, spells, herbs, and concoctions, were strictly prohibited due to the dangers they entail.

Because of this and from the fact that he surrounded himself with a whole court of wise men and astrologers, it can be deduced that what the king sought, above all, was security, well-being and control over events. Melotesia, that is, the consideration that there is a macrocosm connected to a microcosm that continuously influences each other, was a common thought at the time, and defended by theological thoughts in which God, in his perfection, has arranged everything. Many believe that all the works related to astrology that he had translated were in his own interest, to know when to carry out each action and decision as a monarch. The so-called Libro de las Cruces (Book of Crosses) carries out an astrological analysis of the heavens in subsequent years, and specifically, with an added chapter on stellar incidence in the Iberian Peninsula, in the same way that all celestial movements are recorded in the Alfonsíes Tables. The aforementioned Picatrix, a grimoire of talismanic magic, is characterized by defining the different possibilities of the magician to redirect the influence of the stars. From the Book of Astrological Knowledge (or Astronomical, as many modern versions have been presented to avoid its presentation within esoteric environments, and to value the work only in its most scientific facet) focuses on the eighth sphere, where it was believed that the stars, and the instruments for their measurements. It is said of many of these books that they were started at ungodly hours on specific days, because they are astrologically indicated as suitable and successful moments.

-Composition of the lapidary

Given all this, it is possible to understand that the attractive minerals, among all the things of the earth and nature, enjoyed the attention of those who considered them imbued with energy or essence of the stars, and therefore, with certain added capacities. It was not possible to deny them curative powers, if one thinks that the herbs also showed medicinal possibilities. The value of the lapidary does not stop at the impressive 360 references (not descriptions) of stones in total -one for each degree in the zodiacal ecliptic (30x12)- with all the pertinent annotations, but also the original manuscript in which we have been transmitted (Ms. h.l. 15 of the Library of San Lorenzo del Escorial, donated by the ambassador Hurtado de Mendoza to King Felipe II in 1574), is a beautiful work of polychrome illumination, a total of 638 including miniatures and historiated capital letters, which They illustrate about the perception of the zodiacal aspects and minerals at the time, giving through the illustrations data about color, weight or geographical region. It is considered that the lapidary is formally based on two writings: the Pseudo Aristotle, a manuscript from the 9th century of Iranian-Persian origin, and the Medica Materia by Dioscorides, dated from the 1st century. The Lapidary is formally divided into four parts. Two books of stones according to the degrees and phases of the zodiacal signs, a third according to the planetary conjunctions, and arranged alphabetically for their location.

The arduous work of the translation of the Lapidary was carried out, finishing it around 1253, by the translator and doctor Yehuda ben-Moshe (or Mosca), who was at the service of the court in this and many other tasks. Belonging to the Toledo School of Translators and rabbi of the Toledo Synagogue, he is responsible for many other scientific works of the time. In the prologue it is said that the lapidary has its origin in a work of the S. IV a.n.e. of Aristotle, (the apocryphal, mentioned above), and of the studies and translations, for the first two books, of a certain Abolays, who took this work from a Chaldean original (he himself is said to be a North African with Chaldean origins), with the esoteric importance that this entails) and translated it into Arabic, later reaching, hand in hand, as far as Toledo, where Yehua ben-Moshe and the cleric Garçi Pérez used it to create the Lapidary requested by the king. The translations finally had a greater diffusion, beyond the translators and Latinists, and above all, due to the importance of their medicinal characteristics.

In the first part, in the book of degrees, thirty stones and minerals are assigned to each of the zodiac signs, 301 elements in total, of which not all are minerals, but we also find other natural elements such as shells, bones or fossils. A mineral is indicated for each degree they occupy on the ecliptic, except in Leo (1), Aquarius (28) and Pisces, whose texts are incomplete, since some leaves were lost along the way (probably in Italy), leaving only 301 stones of the 360 ordered by the king. We know some of these lost stones from mentions in other signs of them. It must be said that many of the minerals exposed in this work have not been recognized or identified, since they are given modified names from an unknown origin (for example, a Latinized name from an Arabic word that in turn comes from a Hindu name. Reconstructions are not always reliable)

In the second, the same is done with the phases of the signs, that is,

(english below)

<< cuando el sol pasa por las fases de los signos, o alguna de las otras seis planetas, recibe la piedra virtud de los rayos que desciende de las figuras de las estrellas, en cuyo derecho corre la fase de aquel signo, donde según se muda el cambiamiento de las figuras, así se mudan y se cambian todas las cosas que reciben virtud de ellas, tan bien las vivas como las que no han alma>>

<< when the sun passes through the phases of the signs, or one of the other six planets, the stone receives the virtue of the rays that descend from the figures of the stars, on whose right the phase of that sign runs, where according to The change of figures changes, so all things that receive virtue from them change and change, both living things and those that have no soul>>

Understanding in this way that the properties or characteristics that the signs provide to everything that is under their influence, in this case the stones, are altered when the sun passes through those constellations on the celestial map. This is an astrological basis that continues to this day, since when we attribute or attribute a zodiac sign, we are indicating that at the time of our birth, the sun was passing through that sign, and therefore, we are more influenced by it Three minerals are associated with each sign, since there are three phases of 10º each, the so-called decans.

The third lapidary makes a similar connection, but with the influence of the planets, beginning with Saturn, considered the highest or most dignified of the planets, and ending, as he says in the prologue, with the moon, which, let us remember, in astrology is not taken as a simple satellite, but by one more planetary element. But in the text we only have Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun (with the same planetary considerations as the moon), Venus and Mercury. Let's not forget that this influence can be better understood taking into account the medieval geocentric conception, with all the stars revolving around, by and exclusively for the Earth. Here each planet is assigned the stones that are considered to belong to it, there is no set number.

The last book is a lapidary arranged alphabetically, composed by Mahomad Aben Quich, in which the characteristics of each mineral, the planets and their properties are more extensively exposed.

In later studies, it has been verified that throughout the lapidary many stones are repeated, although of varieties that can cause confusion.

-Examples of stones and their properties.

All these properties or "virtues" are not only magical - which are sometimes a more scientific matter - but also medicinal. To cite a few examples, the Arab magnitad or Latin magnetes, that is, the magnet, and its virtue is to "throw the iron", that is, to attract it. Many stones have daily or everyday use, such as talc for moisture or pumice for filings on the skin, or sponges, which continue to this day. Many clays such as beruth or snow from Azuz (China) are attributed healing powers on pus abscesses or wounds, clays being relatively commonly used also in current natural medicine, to treat muscle problems, inflammations and even infections of the the skin.

More doubtful issues from modern medicine we have that mother-of-pearl is said to heal fevers and jaundice when drinking from bottles and glasses made with it, and coral, which constipates. That the bezoar stone, extracted from the entrails of oxen, ground, cure cataracts.

But many others were toxic, and some consciously used as poisons, chalcopyrite or copper, which is said to inflate the legs - the elephant disease, or vermilion sulphur, which caused apoplexy. Likewise the plaster, considered good for humidity, but which should not be drunk under any circumstances. However, many of the minerals that are recommended to be consumed ground and dissolved in water, can become toxic and deadly, as gold instilled value in those who ingested it, as well as it prevented alopecia.

Among the more esoteric properties, but still with medicinal intentions, always influenced by the stars, we find the idea that carrying the gems or tying them near the affected place positively influence what is intended to heal. Thus, the emerald had a protective character against childhood diseases. Marble is good for fevers. Amber, which gives strength, was also hung around the neck of children to strengthen them and to make them endure the wine, which, by the way, was "enhanced" by means of glasses with amber or stones in the jars. Fluorite is good for the eyes. The sea snail (a fossil) was supposed to improve lung capacity. The reddish color of carnelian attributes to the stone powers over blood flow, stopping it if menstruation is exaggerated or painful, and it was also thought to stop gum and nose bleeding. Some of these magical associations are produced by sympathetic magic: the açufaratiz, a concretion (when a mineral contains others within it by amalgamation) can be useful to facilitate both pregnancy and childbirth.

There are many other unknown ones, such as the stone that "pulls into milk", "the one that pulls into wine" whose properties are more esoteric or fanciful, and it is difficult to identify them simply by these characteristics. Others, like the dream stone, have been identified, in this case, with garnet.

The most magical facet, it could be said, would be found in the Book of Stones according to the phases of the signs. It is said that turquoise is not good for merchants; the barite or rose of the desert, makes the men who carry it feared and admired; the coral in a house promotes love between spouses; the ruby gives strength and luck; the sanguine gives victory; the emerald clouds the thought; the jet attracts disputes; pyrite, "fool's gold", removes fear, which is why it is common in amulets for children. There is much relation of the magical function with the associated astrological signs, and their planets and elements. As an example, the crystal/quartz, under the sign of Scorpio, a sign of water, attracts the waters, that is, the rains (again magic by similarity).

But all this will depend on the sign under which this stone is used. Thus, the carnelian under Scorpio produces sadness and anger, but under Sagittarius, the person will be loved and delighted by minstrelsy. The same happens with the ruling planet: under Saturn, this same carnelian will cause disputes, while with the sun it will promote good agreements and wealth.

Lapidaries always had a great influence on all towns, since the stones were used in household items or jewelry, which was not always simply aesthetic. The gems in the crowns or pectorals of royalty have esoteric connotations associated with stability, power and victory. Its medicinal properties, although many minerals, in effect, are used with new and more careful formulas, passed, for sure, to the esoteric world in a more talismanic and ritual way. However, despite the fact that each lapidary and grimoire presents different powers and capacities for the different stones and minerals, and although these have not been able to be verified as it happens with medicinal herbs, we did find certain coincidences in the most common consumption minerals, shared by centuries of traditions.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada -


-Lapidario de Alfonso X (ed. modernizada basada en la edición de Sagrario Rodríguez M. Montalvo (1981) de la Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.

-Evans, Joan. "The 'Lapidary' of Alfonso the Learned." The Modern Language Review 14, no. 4 (1919): 424-26.

-López-Acevedo, V., Goñi, J. y Chicote, J. Las piedras del Zodiaco en el Lapidario de Alfonso X el Sabio. Una selección para "ver con los ojos cerrados" UCM 2018.

- Samsó, J. Alfonso X y los orígenes de la astrología hispánica. Alicante, 2009

Related Posts:

> Western Astrology. Astrology notions (I)

> Christian demonology in Middle Ages

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