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 every zodiac sign is celebrated with several gemstones, varying by period, context and culture. While these designations are far from an exact science, exploring the historical context of your birthstones can serve as a window into revealing self-knowledge. And, yet another reason to buy yourself an amazing piece of jewelry.
Hello darkness, my old friend. November is the most fascinating month of the year if you’re even slightly inclined toward the metaphysical. Typically, we start with the birthstones, but November requires special handling.
Ancient cultures from the Celts to the Aztecs acknowledged this month as a unique moment of reckoning in the year—in Ireland, they call it a “thin” place, meaning that the membrane between the worlds both seen and unseen, upper and lower, becomes temporarily permeable. This permeability means that the dead and living can pass freely between the two during this specific period between the Autumnal Equinox (which took place on September 22) and the Winter Solstice, which will occur on December 21.
Rituals around the world recognize this super-charged period, and humans wishing to travel into the underworld to deliver a message or conduct other business receive the same universal advice: wear a disguise, and be prepared to bribe the undead with sweets and trinkets. This advice persists in our modern Halloween traditions of costumes, pranks and trick-or-treating. The original reasoning was that many of the undead are not at peace and want to return with any human visitor back to the realm of the living, so they tend to cling to us mortals who can’t wait to get back up into the fading autumnal sunlight. Dia de Los Muertos and the Roman Catholic observance of All Soul’s Day are even richer with these associations.
Although the harvest of fruits and ripening of pomegranates symbolize the sweetness of Jewish New Year, in the pagan Mediterranean, the pomegranate summons up the layered story of Persephone, the nubile virgin who was snatched up by Lord Hades while picking flowers in a sunlit meadow, and forced down into the underworld to rule beside him for half the year as his Queen. Because she tasted just a few pomegranate seeds from Hades’ orchards, her fate was sealed. Not coincidentally, another name for Hades is Pluto, planetary ruler of the zodiac’s most notorious sign, Scorpio (Oct 23–Nov 21).
It isn’t difficult to see the alignment of the Scorpion with the chthonic aspect of November, although cheery Sagittarius does tag on at the end of the month, just in time for solstice.
But November truly belongs to Scorpio, often called astrology’s most misunderstood sign (and my personal favorite, shout-out to my long-lost, newly-rediscovered sister Ellen M., Monique, Carol, Aimee, Dorraine and Ashley!). Until the Vernal Equinox in spring, the constellation Scorpius will battle the mighty hunter Orion and his dog Sirius across the freezing reaches of the winter night-sky. The original emo-Goth, Scorpio exudes mystery, danger, and dark power. This sign is the black leather jacket and the wickedest stiletto heel in the zodiac wardrobe, a bass-ass to the bone, post-apocalyptic survivor who’s licensed to thrill. A red-dagger manicure and sharply winged eyeliner echo the arachnid’s telson, or nasty stinger. Scorpions, like spiders, belong to the group of arachnids called chelicerates, and their dexterous appendages—always fiddling about in front—hint at their ability to manipulate (people). Hooked, pointed feet and clasping claws represent the ability to hang onto a grudge for…see timeline below.
Scorpio is a Water sign, signifying profound emotional intelligence, and placing this creature in the deepest, coldest, pitch-black depths. But no worries: Scorpio rules the genitals and the realm of sex, and has no problem bringing even the iciest surf to a steamy boil. Scorpio is also a fixed sign, meaning she likes things Her Way.
The depths of the sea where no sunlight ever reaches symbolize the vast space of the Unconscious, home to reflexive instincts and forbidden desires that can never see the light of day. This uncharted terrain is Scorpio’s home, similar to the kingdom of Hades and Persephone.
The fossil record places the first scorpions on earth between 436.5 and 437.5 million years ago, noting that their anatomy is virtually unchanged today, except in size. Fossils of those ancestral sea-scorpions measure about 8 feet in length! The newest findings about scorpions: they were initially aquatic, then transitioned to land, living in both environments successfully. Researchers now conjecture that this adaptability may have laid the template for later vertebrate development. Maybe we all have a little Scorpio in our DNA or genetic memory, and so the sign of Scorpio may represent our Shadow—that unfathomable, perhaps repellant part of ourselves that we don’t want to own, don’t understand, won’t admit to, and may wish to deny.
For instance, when you “accidentally” have your friend’s car towed from your parking spot, because you “forgot” your friend drives a red Prius and needs to park there sometimes. Really, Britney? Oops, I did it again: Scorpio calling.
Deny it all you want. Scorpio waits. Hidden under the waves, holding fast to the ocean floor, wedged between the rocks, in the bark of midnight trees, under the dark leaf litter, in the shadows, knowing. Ruled by Pluto, the planet of transformation, we all may feel our most scorpion-like during November, when the worlds molt and shed old skins, preparing to enter the new dimension.
Scorpio is often criticized for being calculating, vindictive, ruthless and hard-hearted. But consider this from the science files: scorpions engage in what is called matriphagia, literally meaning the devouring of the mother. When times are tough and a mama scorpion can’t locate enough food for her scorplings (which are born perfectly formed, rather than hatching from eggs), she sacrifices herself. Scorpions can’t “hear” per se, but they are masters at sending and receiving silent vibrations across vast distances—just like people born under the sign of Scorpio. When there’s no food in sight and she determines that her scorplings are in danger of starving, the mother scorpion begins to quiver, sending out a signal equivalent to a dinner-bell to her brood. The young scorpions pile onto her and insert their mouthparts between the hard plates of her exoskeleton. She allows them to extract her life-juices, and the youngsters literally suck her dry. This chilling example of maternal martyrdom best symbolizes Scorpio’s will and drive to persevere at any cost, in this case sacrificing her own life for the survival of the line.
Small wonder that desert-dwellers from the sub-Sahara to the American Southwest both fear and revere the scorpion as big medicine, often weaving scorpion symbols into their rugs and other textiles for protection. Like these stylized scorpions from traditional Kilims.
But let’s talk gemstones!
The Imperial Topaz, one of the most gorgeous rocks on earth, is the most popular November birthstone. How, you may ask, did this sunny, pink-to-golden gemstone hook up with the smoky, scary November vibes of Scorpio?
Fair question. It’s called marketing. It’s pretty much an accepted fact that many modern birthstones were dreamed up by jewelers, Tiffany & Company being the case with November. The Scorpios I know love to wear Black Onyx, Obsidian, Jet, rock crystal, Rutilated Quartz with lots of spooky inclusions, Star Rubies and red Star Sapphires…but no one will turn down an Imperial Topaz, especially in that iconic robin’s egg blue box!
Imperial Topaz is so named (according to Tiffany) because the Tzars jealously guarded the first known deposits in the formidable Ural Mountains, and no one other than Russia’s royal family was permitted to wear the gem.
Come to think of it, that “jealously guarded” part DOES sound like Scorpio.
The Imperial Topaz is a sublime shade of amber-honey blushed with sunset-pink. The most spectacular specimen in current circulation is the 97.45 carat Blaze Imperial Topaz, in the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History.
Topaz is one of the last minerals to form in an igneous rock (formed from hot, molten rock near “hot spots” or active plate boundaries deep in the earth) as it cools. Again, maybe there IS a Scorpio link here.
History’s first recorded Topaz gems were found on an island in the Red Sea which the locals named Topazios. Turns out the golden-green rocks they found were really Peridot, and these jewels also confused the Queen of the Nile herself. Cleopatra was famously proud of her “Emerald’ collection, which experts now believe were Peridot found on this same island!
The island is now called Zabargad, also called St. John’s Island, and today, Topaz is mined around the world, with Blue Topaz being the most common and most popular. Imperial Topaz, often mined in Brazil today, makes perfect sense for a late-autumn birthday, with leaves turning their fieriest shades, and pumpkins dotting the fields and city doorsteps.
Pliny the Elder ( 23-79 C.E.) wrote in this book of Natural History, credited as the first encyclopedia, that the gem’s name arises from the Greek word meaning “to seek.” Other scholars trace the name Topaz back to the Sanskrit, where tapaz means “fire,” a comforting thought as the nights grow longer and the snow falls in the Western hemisphere.
Topaz is identified as one of the 12 Biblical stones adorning the breastplate of Aaron, the High Priest of Israel. In classical Greece, the stone was worn as a talisman to fight insomnia, and the Romans believed that Topaz could protect the wearer from poison by changing its color as a warning. In ancient Egypt, the amber-yellow Topaz was linked with the all-powerful sun god Ra, and Egyptians believed that the gem had the power to make the wearer invisible, and therefore impossible to defeat in battle. During the Middle Ages in Europe, many believed that Topaz worn over the heart could protect the wearer against curses, and even undo bewitchery. (Scorpio, now we’re getting somewhere!)
Topaz registers an 8 on the Mohs Hardness Scale, meaning that the stone is durable. However, gemologists distinguish between hardness and toughness, and here at last is a lapidary link to Scorpio’s nature. Topaz is hard, but it’s not tough. The stone’s structure lacks elasticity and flexibility, and so the gem is brittle and prone to fracture. This irony throws light onto the key to understanding a Scorpio: snapping, poisonous stinger and sharp claws aside, Scorpio is emotionally retentive and deeply sensitive. Once hurt, she will hold onto a wound forever, brooding and stewing over every detail, picking at it with her pointy pincers (this trait is common to all three Water signs). Scorpio has difficulty forgiving anyone, especially herself, and never, ever forgets a single failure, betrayal, insult, injury or disappointment (check the fossil record).
So, to create a lasting bond with a Scorp, look deeper than that well-armored, nonchalant, Mean Girl swagger, and remember that this sign is more of a soft-shell crab than even fellow Water-sign, Cancer, who’s surprisingly resilient when dropped into boiling water.
And Scorpio, here’s a bit of consolation. Gem-cutters are challenged by the way that Topaz forms in the earth, citing a feature that leads to fracturing and crumbling. The problem: “perfect cleavage.”
Photo: Blaze Imperial Topaz, Wikimedia Commons. All other images courtesy of unsplash.com and pexels.com