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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Lapis lazuli is a semi-precious gemstone that is deep blue in color but with a hint of purple and with flecks of gold pyrite. The first part of the name comes from the Latin word “lapis”, meaning stone. The second part comes from the Persian word “layhward”, which is where the stone was first mined. This word has come to us via the Persian word “lazhward”, meaning blue, or the Arabic word “lazaward”, which in Latin became “lazuli” or blue stone.

The history and significance of lapis lazuli goes back 6,500 years. It was first mined in Badakhshan province, Afghanistan, and was traded quite widely from early times.  The stone has been found at a number of pre-dynastic Egyptian sites, as well as Mesopotamian, Indus Valley, Greek and Roman sites, and as far away as the Caucasus region and Mauritania.

The ancient Egyptians used it as an amulet, or ornament, worn to fend off evil. They also used it as a cosmetic by crushing the stone and using it to make a paste like eye shadow. Queen Cleopatra herself, as well as aristocrats and priests, had their eyelids painted with this substance.

Egyptians buried their dead with a lapis lazuli scarab, or gemstone cut in the form of a beetle, to provide protection and guidance in the afterlife. Inlays of the stone were found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Eye-shaped lapis lazuli amulets set in gold held enormous power. These were used on the last day of the month to make an offering to the supreme being, who was believed to place an image of one on his head on this day. The Egyptians also used it as a symbol of truth. The stone was of such significance that they believed they could touch God’s robes by meditating about the stone’s color.

The Persians believed that the reason the sky is blue is because the earth sat on a huge slab of lapis lazuli. In ancient Sumeria, more than 6,000 quality statuettes of animals and birds, and also beads, seals and dishes of lapis lazuli, were found in the royal tombs. It is thought that the lapis came from Badakhshan. Sumerian poetry refers to lapis lazuli as appropriate for royalty. The Babylonians also used it as jewelry for royalty. People in ancient Rome used lapis to make jewelry and amulets. The Romans also regarded it as a potent aphrodisiac.

Lapis lazuli was sometimes called sapphire in ancient times. For example, the ancient Greeks told of a sapphire that included gold, but it was thought to be lapis lazuli. Pliny mentions “sapphirus” as a stone with flecks of gold, which fits the description of lapis. Job 28:6 in the Hebrew Bible has a similar reference. People in the Middle Ages believed it helped them to maintain healthy limbs. They also felt that it rid the soul of envy, error and fear. Lapis was once used as a medicine. Ground to a powder and mixed with milk, it was used as a dressing on ulcers and boils.

Lapis lazuli was used in medieval painting. A bright blue pigment called ultramarine was produced by crushing the stone to a powder and removing its impurities. Many works of art from this period used ultramarine. With the introduction of oil painting in the Renaissance, ultramarine’s brilliant color was reduced. Also, ultramarine was expensive. For these reasons, it declined in popularity. It was still used until the early 19th century when a synthetic version was available.

It was used in commesso, or florentine mosaic work, developed in late 16th century Florence. This art form involved making pictures out of thin, stylized pieces of semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli among others. The pictures appear on tabletops and wall panels. The range of subjects included emblems, floral patterns and landscapes.

Lapis lazuli inlay was used in church murals and wall panels, and in palaces. It was favored for churches because it doesn’t fade, unlike many blue dyes and paints. Gemstone cutters use it for rings, beads and cameos. It is quite a soft gemstone, is suitable for carving, and is often used in sculpturing and for jewelry, boxes, vases and ornaments. It can be sensitive to pressure or high temperature.

It is September’s birth stone, and is associated with seventh and ninth wedding anniversary jewelry gifts. As well as warding off evil, it encourages harmony, friendship, and peace of mind. Sometime lapis was more highly valued and sought after than gold. It was felt that dreaming of lapis would help find everlasting love, and that thinking about the stone would help clarify matters. The stone is regarded as among the most powerful gemstones and to be used carefully.

It is thought that lapis lazuli has healing properties and can be used with other stones to help cleanse and purify the body. Lapis can activate the body’s seven major chakra or energy centers of crown, brow, throat, heart, solar plexus, hara (just below the navel) and root (at the perineum).

Lapis is sometimes called the “balance stone” and can change negative views to positive ones. It is supposed to be a stone of meditation and contemplation, and of friendship. It also signifies power and wisdom as well as inner strength. Lapis lazuli is supposed to promote psychic abilities, insight and good decision making. It can help creativity and result in an expansive mind, tapping on one’s inner ability.

In the 1980s, Afghan fighters against the USSR carefully pulled apart unexploded landmines and ordnance, using the actual explosive to mine lapis lazuli. They would then sell it to help fund further resistance to the Soviets.

Today, the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan remain the best source of lapis lazuli. Other countries with deposits include Angola, Burma, Canada, Chile, Pakistan, Russia, the United States, and also Argentina where its quality is regarded as second only to Afghanistan.