Magic and Whitby jet
Alongside its use in personal adornment, Whitby jet has long-held magical properties and as a result has been used for banishing, purification protection, divination and shamanic practices since prehistory.
Jet has been buried with the dead since the Neolithic in the British Isle. In mainland Europe, we can trace this practise as far back as the Upper palaeolithic some 26,000 years ago. It’s primarily due to this funerary custom that we know anything about the usage of jet in the past. Whereas some of these jet grave goods are undoubtedly concerned with jewellery fashions of the time, other objects are more difficult to interpret as they seem to not be jewellery but are placed on specific areas of the graves in a ritualistic manner. Its believed that these objects are amulets, the purpose of which is unclear but probably offers protection to the inhabitant of the grave in the afterlife. Alongside the wonderful jet archaeological finds, we have almost 2500 years of literary evidence in relation to jet. Its unusual properties, especially in relation to combustion, became of interest to Greek philosophers in C4th BC. The dialogue continues into the Roman Period with Pliny the Elder commonly quoted as the first author on the subject. Pliny wasn’t however describing British jet (although it was widely used during his lifetime) but was, in fact, describing a material from Lycia which is modern-day Turkey. This source has never been found and there is some question as to whether Pliny was actually describing asphalt rather than jet. Solinus writing in the C3rd AD is the first to document British jet although he draws heavily on Pliny’s description for its attributes. Perhaps the Venerable Bede writing in C7th is a more reliable early source of information. Other writers have continued to reference jet in their works over the centuries perhaps the most well know of which are William Shakespeare and later Bram Stoker who, in channelling the language of stones created Whitby’s most iconic son in the form of Count Dracula.
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