Magic and Whitby jet
For thousands of years people have believed in the magical properties of Whitby jet. These long-held magical beliefs have resulted in jet having been used for banishing, purification, protection, divination and shamanic practices since prehistory.
Whitby Jet has been used since the Neolithic!
Whitby jet has been buried with the dead since the Neolithic in the British Isles. In mainland Europe, we can trace this jet practice as far back as the Upper palaeolithic some 26,000 years ago. In fact it’s primarily due to this funerary custom that we know anything at all about the usage of jet and jet magic in the past. Jet is a fragile gemstone so if it had not been buried, and therefore protected, it would be unlikely to survive for thousands of years.
Whitby jet grave goods
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, seemingly for purposes of jet magic. This ritualistic practice is often suggested by archaeologists to indicate magical thinking in past populations.
Is Whitby jet talismanic?
Whitby jet as a material is believed to have talismanic properties. What does this mean? Well, a talismanic material like jet is believed to have magical agency. This agency may give the owner special powers or protection. The jet is believed to be magically infused with energy to draw, attract, increase, enhance, and amplify other energies and influences. My Ph.D Whitby jet research at Durham University is concerned with establishing what exactly makes people believe that jet is a talismanic material.
Whitby Jet amulets
Amulets are closely linked to talismans but ‘amulet’ is generally used to refer to any object which has the power to avert evil influences or bad luck. A jet amulet is therefore generally worn for protection. In the case of Whitby jet amulets, they are usually concerned with protection against the evil eye. Its believed that these jet objects also offer protection to the inhabitant of the grave in the afterlife. There is an interesting paper by Adam Parker on the wonderful examples of jet amulets in the form of Jet gorgoneia or ‘Medusa’s heads’ on display at The Yorkshire Museum
Medusa also represents life after death, following her decapitation her powers did not dwindle!
Amulets are usually considered outside of the normal sphere of religious experience in the Roman tradition, though associations between certain gemstones and gods have been suggested. Jet from a Roman perspective is suggested to be associated with the Cult of Cybele and also the Cult of Isis.
Pliny the Elder and jet magic
Alongside the wonderful jet archaeological finds, we have almost 2500 years of literary evidence in relation to the magical properties of Whitby 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. As well as describing the morphology of jet, Pliny states the following seemingly magical properties,
it is a singular fact, that the application of water ignites it, while that of oil quenches it. The fumes of it, burnt, keep serpents at a distance, and dispel hysterical affections”
Pliny wasn’t however describing the 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. To learn more about the link between jet and asphalt read here Jet and asphalt.
Jet and divination or ‘axiomancy’
Pliny tells us that jet is used by the Magi (or magicians) for axiomancy. Axiomancy is also known as ‘divination by axes’. We know how it was done, an axe head was heated until red hot. A piece of jet was put on the axe and a question was asked, if the jet did not burn what you desired was sure to come true! The patterns made as the jet burnt could also be interpreted to predict the future.
Solinus and Whitby jet
Solinus writing in the C3rd AD, is the earliest writer to document British jet, although he draws heavily on Pliny’s description for its magical attributes.
The Venerable Bede and the magical properties of Whitby jet
Perhaps the Venerable Bede writing in C8th is a more reliable early source of early Whitby jet information. He once again heavily references Pliny’s description of the magical properties of Whitby jet.
Jet magic in Medieval times
In the medieval world, rocks were not merely passive objects. Jet would be considered as a living tree in stone form. Although science was in its infancy materials such as jet, amber and quartz which have attributes which are seemingly contrary to nature would be considered to have magical agency. Albertus Magnus noted that even stones of the same type could differ greatly in the strength of their powers. Moreover, the powers of stones could ‘die’ if for example stones were kept for a long time away from the place they were produced.Jet could perhaps have been considered a ‘figured stone’ containing markings resembling landscapes, animals and fossil imprints. Such items were attributed by Magnus to a ‘hidden’ which in this context meant occult.
Whitby jet and Leechcraft and Wortcunning
Medieval writers documented the magic of jet in texts such as Bald’s Leecraft. Although most of the documented properties of jet fall under the category of ‘natural magic’ and are concerned with medicine, there are other properties of jet which are seen to be amuletic, such as protection against lightning, snakebite and witchcraft.
Whitby Jet and occult magic in the later Medieval world
Christian burials are generally not furnished. Whitby jet however is often found in a Medieval funerary context and therefore regarded as evidence of magical thinking in the Medieval world. This practice of burying dead Christians with Whitby jet can be considered therefore to be an occult or ‘hidden’ practice and attributed to magic.
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.
For everything you ever wanted to know about Whitby jet and magic, check out the video.