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Lapis lazuli is one of the traditional birthstones for the month of December.
The mineral lazurite is the main component in lapis lazuli and accounts for the stone's intense blue color, although lapis lazuli also contains pyrite and calcite, and usually some sodalite and hauyne, too. Lazurite itself, a sodium calcium aluminosilicate sulfate, forms distinct crystals; it should not be confused with phosphate lazulite. In lapis lazuli, lazurite is well dispersed. Distinct crystals were thought to be very rare until large numbers were brought out of the mines of Badakhshan, Afghanistan, in the 1990s.
The best quality lapis lazuli is intense dark blue, with minor patches of white calcite and brassy yellow pyrite. Historians believe the link between humans and lapis lazuli stretches back more than 6,500 years. The gem was treasured by the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome. They valued it for its vivid, exquisite color, and prized it as much as they prized other blue gems like sapphire and turquoise. Lapis lazuli was used as a gemstone for millennia by the Egyptians: the mask of Tutankhamun, for example, has lapis lazuli inlays. Other objects containing lapis lazuli, including scarabs, pendants, and beads date from much earlier, at least 3100 BC. Powdered lapis lazuli was also used as a cosmetic (the first eyeshadow), as a pigment, and as a medicine. In Sumeria, the tomb of Queen Pu-abi (2500 BC) contained numerous gold and silver jewelry pieces richly adorned with lapis lazuli. In the 4th century BC, both the Chines and the Greeks carved various lapis lazuli artifacts. Ancient references to "sapphire", the sapphirus of the Romans, usually, in fact, refer to lapis lazuli. Its modern name originates in the Persian word lazhuward, meaning "blue", and the Arabic word lazaward, meaning"heaven" or "sky", and came into use in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Lapis lazuli is relatively rare and commonly forms in crystalline limestone as a product of contact metamorphism. The mines in Afghanistan remain a major source. Lighter blue material comes from Chile, and some lapis lazuli is found in Italy, Argentina, the US, and Tajikistan. Diopside, amphibole, feldspar, mica, apatite, titanite (sphene), and zircon may also occur in lapis lazuli, depending on its origin.
Much of the historical lore of lapis lazuli is difficult to untangle from the lore of other blue stones because of the problem of knowing exactly which blue stone was being referred to. In ancient Greece and Rome, there was a belief that sapphirus, probably lapis lazuli, cured eye diseases and set prisoners free. It was ground into powder and mixed with liquids to be used as a compress in order to relieve negative emotions and energize the throat chakra. Creating a poultice out of lapis lazuli was used to draw out spiritual impurities. It was noted by the Greek physician Dioscorides, around AD 55, that it was an antidote for snake venom; it was an even older Assyrian cure for melancholy.
It was commonly employed in exorcisms. The stone was pulverized and mixed with gold and the mixture was then placed on the head of the afflicted individual. As the poultice dried, it would draw out the demons. Lapis lazuli was also a highly popular material for amulets. The image of Truth was always inscribed on lapis lazuli, which was worn around the neck of the Egyptian High Priest. The Egyptian Book of the Dead describes in detail the importance of lapis lazuli in funeral rituals. Lapis lazuli amulets were used to protect the deceased from evil spirits by placing amulets of the blue stone on the person’s body.
One famous legend states that King Solomon was given possession of a lapis lazuli ring by an angel. This ring allowed him to control an army of demons, which he used to build his temple. Lapis lazuli is described as a stone of great power and an ornament of the Gods in Assyrian texts.
Another widespread ancient belief was that it protected the wearer from the evil eye--possibly because its blue color flecked with gold pyrite resembled the night sky, the dwelling place of God. Similarly, a medieval treatise suggests that "meditation upon the stone carries the soul to heavenly contemplation". To the Buddhists of antiquity, lapis lazuli brought peace of mind and equanimity and was good for dispelling evil thoughts.