I don’t normally post on stones or gems, as they aren’t a major component of historic folk magic in North America, but some stones do appear and are extremely important. Sometimes the stones in question will be a generic type of stone—one with a natural hole worn in it or sea glass of some kind—but every once in a while we find a North American magical practice which makes specific use of a particular type of mineral.
Today I want to briefly look at the dark, beautiful volcanic glass known as obsidian. It is a very special sort of mineral, because its edge can be sharpened finer than surgical steel and cuts incredibly smoothly, and its glassy black surface seems to be endlessly deep. Both of these attributes have influenced obsidian’s place in folk magic.
Blades made of obsidian have been around for a very long time. They were used as part of Aztec sacrificial rituals as well as implements of war, as you can see from this fragment of Aztec poetry glorifying the role of the sacrificial offering/victim:
O Giver of Life!
Your sacrifice is like emeralds and turquoises.
It is the happiness and wealth of princes
To die at the edge of the obsidian,
To die in war (Kelly 525)
Obsidian was sometimes carved into funerary ornaments as well, and placed with corpses along with other grave goods. The precedents set by native ancestors has translated into the use of obsidian in Hispanic magical work today, such as the practices of curanderos and brujos. The cutting edge of the stone has kept its significance, albeit adapted to an era in which human sacrifice is not common practice.
Dr. Timothy Knab’s War of the Witches mentions flaked obsidian blades as something used for protection:
As soon as the door was closed, we barred it, and then Rubia opened her reed box. Inside, wrapped in an embroidered cloth, were the same dozens of parches of fur, buzzard beaks, and claws from different animals, but there wer also some flakes of obsidian and potsherds that I hadn’t seen in Inocente’s bag. I asked her about those objects first, and she told me they were from the ancestors and that they would help me see and talk with those who still lived in the world of darkeness (Knab 91)
Knab also notes that Rubia told him to use an obsidian blade to help locate his friend in the Otherworld. The ancestral connection and the link to the dead is important. Obsidian is not typically used as a gravestone by itself, yet its dark color and the ease with which it can be used to kill (not to mention that some obsidian even has blood-red flecks and streaks in it) seem to tie it to the realm of death.
A chapbook on prayers to the Holy Death (Santa Muerte) also has a specialized spell focusing on blessing obsidian blades to be placed over the doorways to the home (razor blades or knives can also be used, but it seems obsidian was the original form):
To Protect the Home (Shielding Blades)
Lady of the darkness
Watch over the space and destiny,
For your humble servant and keep the
Loved ones away from those of evil will,
Let them change their ways to please your will,
Let the light come after the dark
So that your kingdom is before us all day long.
Bless these blades,
Allow them to cut the evil winds before they eneter,
To give advice on how to push enemies away,
To keep away the fury of the elements,
Repel negative intentions
And fill my home with joy,
For all this is not possible without you.
(Place blades in the high parts of the doors and windows in places where they will not fall nor be reached by underaged kids. Every full moon they must be replaced. These blades can be small obsidian edges or shaving blades) (Casa 32)
Of course, if you’re using obsidian blades, throwing them away every month is wasteful—so is throwing away a shaving blade, really—so I would be interested to see if some lore may yet surface about recharging the existing blades, perhaps blessing and cleansing them prior to a second use.
While much of the lore of obsidian in magic ties it to Central American and Latin American cultures, I have been able to find it in other places and among other groups as well. One source notes that a California tribe called the Wiyot performed a jumping-dance while holding blades of obsidian (Sparkman 38). The Pacific Northwest, which has its share of obsidian scattered across the region, also has some Native lore about the ink-dark mineral. The Hoh and Quileute tribes of Washington state have a folktale about “Obsidian Boy,” whose body is so hard it breaks the hands, feet, and heads of those who attempt to strike him (Reagan 333).
When I visited the British Museum a decade or so ago, I got to glimpse Dr. John Dee’s famed magic mirror, which is also said to be made of obsidian taken from the New World. He used it to communicate through his compatriot, Edward Kelley, with angels and discovered Enochian magic. I am not sure of how widespread obsidian’s use might have been in Europe, but Dee clearly valued it highly enough to make one of his primary tools out of the substance.
Obsidian’s sharpness and hardness make it symbolically very powerful for protection, and its murky luster adds to the sense of holiness and mystery. I can very well imagine that it might be used for all its purposes simultaneously, acting as a defensive weapon during shamanistic trance states. Obsidian is still easily found, and some surgeons even use it in place of steel due to its keen edge. Within modern contexts it has become a popular New Age stone, although I couldn’t begin to tell you what its applications are in modern metaphysics. Obsidian, born of fire and earth, used to sacrifice and protect, sacred and mysterious, certainly captures the imagination. If you have any lore regarding its use or meaning, I’d love to hear it!
Thanks for reading,
- Casa, Calli. The Magical Powers of the Holy Death, 2010.
- Kelley, Patricia Fernandez. “Death in Mexican Folk Culture,” American Quarterly, Dec. 1974.
- Knab, Timothy J. A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of Contemporary Aztecs, 1997.
- Reagan, Albert B., and L. V. Walters. “Tales from the Hoh and Quileute,” Journal of American Folklore, Winter 1933.
- Sparkman, P.S., et. al. “Notes on California Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore, Spring 1908.