StarStone is a monthly glimpse into the fabulous world of birthstones and the stories which have accompanied them for thousands of years into the modern day.
Each month and zodiac sign is celebrated with at least one gemstone, varying by period, context and culture. While these designations are far from an exact science, exploring the historical narrative of your birthstone may serve as a window into revealing self-knowledge. And, offer yet another great reason to buy yourself an amazing precious gem.
Approaching the new year, January is crowned with the goat’s horns of Capricorn, and gorgeous Garnets.
The word “Garnet” probably brings to mind a glossy stone that’s the deep purply-red of a pomegranate seed. And no wonder: the words “pomegranate” and “Garnet” are probably related. Another possibility is “granum,” which technically means grain, but was used centuries ago to identify dried cochineal, the scale-insect which was the source to the most vivid, stable red dye of the pre-industrial world (the famous “red coats” of the British and the astonishing berry hues of antique Persian, Turkish and Chinese rugs are but a few examples of where cochineal was used).
The pomegranate is irresistibly woven into the mythos of how we regard the dance of dark and light, and new beginnings, especially at the year’s end.
The Jewish New Year is often celebrated with images of pomegranates as symbols of the promising sweetness of another year. In fact, Jewish tradition even calculates the number of jeweled seeds in a pomegranate at 613, one of each of the Mitzvoht (commandments or laws) which must be obeyed by observant Jews throughout the year. When the digits are added up: 6+1+3, we get 10. When those digits are added together, 1+0 , we get 1, the One standing for the one G-d, the Almighty YHWH. L’Chaim!
In Greece, where the juicy, gemmy fruit also has a long tradition, pomegranates are often hung in doorways during the 12 days of Christmas. Right before midnight strikes on New Year’s Eve, all family members and party-goers take down the pomegranate, exit the house and shut off all the lights, signaling the death of the old year. Then the pomegranate is tossed to the ground and everyone enters the house, right foot first, to assure good fortune in the emerging new year. OPA !
Jewelers call the familiar wine-color Almandine and “pigeon’s blood,” and we’ll take their word for that descriptor. But what’s most surprising about Garnet as the birthstone for January and Capricorn is that it can do an abrupt about-face. Fitting, since January is named for the Roman god Janus, who literally had two faces: one looking backward into the retreating year, the other looking forward into the new.
Capricorn is one of the more odd-looking characters in the zodiac pantheon, with a goat’s head and forelimbs, and whirly, twirly fish tail. Capricorn is an Earth sign, which typically signifies a nature that’s stable to the point of being sluggish. But Capricorn is far more surprising than luxury-loving Taurus, or excruciatingly tidy Virgo. The duality of Capricorn is perfectly symbolized by this icon of a curious creature with a split identity.
The Capricorn name and our words “capricious” and “caper”—the sudden, jerky, in-reverse movement, not the salty-seeded bagel garnish—share a linguistic link with the idyllic isle of Capri, where goats frolicked in the sunshine for literally millennia before the arrival of the sign’s most famous Birthday Boy: Jesus Christ.
This ability to turn on a dime in some ways resembles the quicksilver energy of mercurial Gemini. In Capricorn, this tendency may express itself in flashes of anger—like that incident we all remember with the money-changers in the Temple.
This evidences itself in regard to Garnet in that, although the pomegranate-wine-jam color is now synonymous with the stone, Garnet can in fact occur in several spectacular colors, including honey-orange (called Spessartine), mint jelly green (called Grossular, as well as Demantoid and Tsavorite), violet (called Pyrope), purple (called Rhodolite), and myriad in-between shades of yellow-green, dusky fawns and subtle taupes, whiskied yellows and candy-pinks. For the past few decades, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mali, Tanzania and other areas of Africa have produced some of the world’s most remarkable Garnets of outstanding color and clarity.
Because the pigeon’s blood variety of Garnet is common, we may have the mistaken idea that Garnet is not a fine or precious gemstone. This most certainly is not the case.
It is true that it’s possible to buy a piece of silver jewelry set with unremarkable Garnets for just a few bucks. But gem-grade Garnets in an array of colors are valuable, with dazzling luster, and excellent hardness (6.5 to 7.5 on the Mohs scale), making this a highly durable gem that’s sturdy enough to enjoy wearing every day. Large, perfect Garnets in the red palette may rival the far more costly Ruby in beauty and brilliance. And the Green Demantoid Garnet has a dispersion of 0.057—referring to the gem’s ability to produce flashing sparks of color—which even exceeds that of a Diamond at 0.044.
A less glamorous but telling aside on the value of Garnets is that this gem is used to make sandpaper. Crushed Garnet granules (incidentally another word from the Latin “granum”) are highly abrasive, making them ideal for rasping and polishing: the sharp fragments continue to fracture under pressure, exposing new buffing surfaces. These micro-shards may also be used in sand-blasting metal, brick and stone, as well as wood.
Capricorn energy engages immediately after the Winter Solstice, taking place on December 21. This is the shortest day of the year, and in many ancient cultures considered that cosmic occasion the most significant of the solar cycle. Not coincidentally, the turn into the deep of winter resonates with the pomegranate-Garnet connection. In the Greek myths, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, snatched the virgin Persephone from a sunny field where she was gathering flowers with her mother. Persephone’s father, the all-powerful Zeus, demands that she be set free, and Hades grudgingly releases her—but not until he secretly pops a pomegranate seed in her mouth. The seed is an enchantment, and so Persephone returns to the Underworld each year to rule beside Lord Hades as its queen, and her absence from the earth initiates the winter season.
Like Persephone, Capricorn pivots the year from autumn into winter, and like Persephone, the Sea-Goat also carries the promise of renewal. After the solstice, the days slowly, slowly begin to grow longer. In this sense, Capricorn represents new beginnings and rebirth, as well as the absolute end, the lowest, darkest nadir of the dying year.
Like all Earth-signs, Capricorns keep score, tallying up hits and misses, slights, demerits, and favors owed. The caprine aspect of the sign equates to authority, and Capricorn loves to be the boss. If your employer is a Capricorn, be forewarned that the slightest trespass, like disagreeing with him (especially in a meeting!), will be construed as insubordination. And this willful, sometimes impulsive boss will have zero problem head-butting you into instant unemployment!
Capricorn is ruled by Saturn, arguably the hardest to love of the ruling planets. Saturn is often depicted as Old Man Time, scything away the centuries. The Greek name for this Titan, the race of giant deities which gave rise to the Olympian pantheon of Zeus and Hera, is Kronos, from which we derive our words “chronology,” “synchronize,” and “anachronism.”
From a metaphysical point of view, Saturn is not only the timekeeper, but also the reckoner and astral accountant. The sum value of our lives is scrutinized by Father Saturn, who delights in strewing our path with obstacles. Anyone struggling with the twists and turns of the personal journey is being toyed with by this mighty ringed planet for whom Saturday is named.
Saturn also imparts a judgmental, even critical streak in Capricorn, a trait consistently shared with the other two Earth signs. Because Capricorn is hard-working and is sometimes the only adult in the room, the Sea-Goat forms swift, often harsh opinions of those who don’t appear to be pulling their weight, or not doing their share. This frustration is the primary cause of the little kicks, bucks and head-butts for which Capricorn is known. When this happens, the Cap is often just trying to push the other person in the right direction.
Cap’s fishy back half is key to understanding this sign: achievement-minded Capricorn is deathly afraid of backsliding. The symbol provides this insight: Capricorn crawled out the sea to live on land as a high-energy rock-climber, but the regressive fish-half remains. This surf-and-turf contradiction causes the sign tremendous anxiety when the Sea-Goat faces a challenge of willpower, such as weight-loss and fitness goals, conquering addictions or breaking bad habits of any kind, sticking with a financial saving and investment plan, or pulling out of a bad relationship. This also applies to keeping those New Year’s resolution goals for 2022!
Capricorn worries that the fish-to-goat transformation may not be complete, and often feels the tug of the tides on its latent scales and fins. Saturn stands for restraint and restriction, which is the front-loaded half of Capricorn. Because the head and seat of reason are caprine (i.e., of the goat), the cognitive function of the brain reflects Cap’s basic practicality and stability. But then there’s that other half.
Fellow Earth signs Taurus and Virgo, fully mammalian, have no such conflict: they are earthly through and through, with no desire to slip back into the primeval ooze. In the conscious and rational realm, Capricorn agrees, but this sign’s evolution is always a work in progress. Cap is uncomfortable with the uncharted depths of Water’s emotions—this sign is one of those types that always needs to have its feet (hooves) touching the sea bottom while body-surfing. While Capricorn seems stubborn (true) and fearless (well…not so much), the truth is that this sign is terrified of being swept away and pulled under by strong emotional currents. Capricorns don’t relish intense feelings, and so are always working to haul their back end out of the seductive, dissolving waves. And this is why, when confronted by uncomfortable feelings, Caps will rear up, give a little kick, and bolt off in the opposite direction, literally jumping away from any sensation of vulnerability.
We get even more insight to Capricorn’s nature when we realize that for centuries, this sign was symbolized by Pan, the funky-smelling, pipes-tootling, hoofed and horned half-man, half goat who was always bursting in on nymphs and goddesses as they bathed or slept, accosting them with waves of pungent woodland horniness (pun intended).
Further associations unfold as we dig deeper into the iconography of this sign. In ancient Greece, goats are associated with the theatrical expression of tragedy. The word “tragedy” comes to us from the Greek, “tragos.” The first Greek plays were onstage readings and dance movements by pointy-eared, goat-footed satyrs, offered to the crowds which had come to make burnt offerings to Dionysius. The Romans did the same for their later counterpart, Bacchus. In both cultures centuries apart, mayhem ensued at intermission.
Goats were sacrificed to this powerful party-hearty god who loved wine the color of a pigeon’s blood Garnet. Tragedies told by verse, song and postures were not merely sad. What defines tragedy in the true (Greek) sense is that the hero, who always dies a horrible death, was once noble. When an ordinary schnook meets a painful end, as Jerry Seinfeld has often said, “Oh, that’s a shame.” But a tragic hero must first be noble, almost godlike, brought to ruin by one thing: hubris. Unredeemed pride.
This is a prickly but accurate needed insight into Capricorn. This sign is often a self-aggrandizing diva who constantly compares herself and himself with others, and is always pleased by the comparison. Capricorn holds everyone to impossibly high standards: think of a teacher of ballet, barking out orders in French, insisting on perfect form, casting a scornful eye over an improperly laced shoe or a pudgy mid-section.
Capricorn often has a long, sleek body of a prima ballerina or yogini, fencer or toreador, and rules the spine and skeletal system. Cap indeed stands tall and shoots straight. But in the end, Caps may become rigid as the result of making sure that their heads are held higher than anyone else’s (status and prestige are everything to Capricorn), and their justifiably high opinion of themselves can backfire.
This is why merciless Saturn steps in to rule this sign with an iron fist. Saturn’s unflinching leveling and parsing action says to even the haughtiest Cap: get over yourself. Every so often, Saturn will deliver a humbling blow, and in those moments, the Sea-Goat would love nothing more than to slip beneath the waves and hide in the kelp-beds far from the glare of daylight. This is the zoological riddle of Capricorn, who is always at risk of slip-sliding away to a more primitive, cold-blooded state. Beneath their strut, Caps are almost always deeply insecure about being loved for their authentic selves.
In this sense, Capricorn represents a being who is always evolving, always morphing into something new. So this split-sign which ushers in the New Year can be understood as a challenge to push forward, to move, to grow, and to leave one’s watery past behind.
And can’t we all relate? Our “best selves”, leading our “best lives”, requires being a sure-footed, quick-witted, agile, hot-blooded, terrestrial acrobat. But we’re still dragging around our previous self that’s basically a cold, slimy, dead mackerel. This is no more true of Cap than of any other sign, but Capricorn’s well-articulated struggle to reconcile contradictions in the form of goat and fish is a succinct metaphor for the universal journey into the development of self.
Saturn keeps Capricorn honest and on edge, because the sign is always hearing the sound of the sea which is indeed a siren-song that invites chaos (just ask Odysseus). Luckily, Capricorn accepts the need for discipline and sacrifice, allowing this headstrong sign to keep its precarious footing on terra firma.
This backstory explains why Garnet is so important for Capricorn. Because the first Garnets cherished by humans were of the pomegranate-wine color, they were associated with blood in ancient times. In various cultures, wounds were treated by laying Garnets on the area to stop bleeding, and the gem was also worn by women giving birth. Warriors wore Garnet talismans over their hearts to magically deflect the swords and spears and arrows of their enemies, and to give their heart’s blood courage.
Because Capricorn can be conflicted, fickle, and arbitrary, wearing Garnets may be useful in balancing that “capering” aspect with the steadiness and loyalty for which Earth signs are best known.
In this way, Garnet-power may resolve the identity-crisis – hooves or fins? – that bedevils Capricorn. When Cap’s Saturnian energies are centered and in synch, then this sign becomes one of the most delightful in the Zodiac, coupling the rambunctious, earthy vigor of the goat with the fluid sensitivity of a deep-sea swimmer.
Happy New Year, star-crossed readers!
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