Part of The “New” Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Carnelian has many faces. When it’s brittle and a darker shade of red, it’s known as sard. When it’s any other color besides reddish-orange, it’s chalcedony. When it’s layered with black and white, it’s sardonyx. Sometimes agates are dyed, heat-treated, and sold as carnelian. Sometimes carnelian is classified as jasper.
These are mostly visual and not geological distinctions — all these stones are part of the cryptocrystalline quartz family and colored by iron dioxide. But real carnelian is rare, at once soft and vivid, with a slight translucence that makes it glow. Like a storm on Jupiter. Like a pooled bead of blood.
There’s new interest in the powers of crystals, another crest on a sine wave that can be traced from the mesmerism of the Victorian era, which gave us the image of a woman in a headscarf with a crystal ball, through the séance craze of the 1920s, to the Age of Aquarius. In the 1970s the New Age movement arose to carry the torch of ’60s counterculture and rebellion, morphing from a (sometimes irresponsible) cultural curiosity about what existed outside of white, Christian America into a marketing plan for anything that smacked of foreignness and self-healing.
Now, in a time of political turmoil and rebellion, crystals have woven themselves back into everyday life. The “crystal industry” is booming again, and Google searches for “crystal healing” have skyrocketed in the past few years. And they’ve become even more mainstream. You can buy a glass water bottle with a rose quartz inside to cleanse your water, a jade yoni egg, or just a handful of gems at Urban Outfitters or Target. Once upon a time, you would have had to go to a museum or a New Age store on the edge of town. But now it is not uncommon for someone to know the properties of a few popular crystals the way they might know their zodiac sign.
Crystals may not have carried supernatural energy “since the dawn of time,” but since around then, humans have ascribed meaning, however arbitrary, to objects that appeal to us. And really, there are only a few things these stones ever channel: love, confidence, serenity, the power to receive the good or block out the bad. We assign these properties because they’re the things we wish we had control over.
Carnelian is a stone of optimism and energy. It holds the promise that, with its help, you can make your best self known. The stones of communication promote eloquence and clarity and help timid speakers become bold. They were traditionally used by the Assyrians and the Romans in signet rings and seals, a final blessing on a waxed letter to ensure the message got across. The Prophet Mohammed was said to have worn carnelian set in silver on his right hand to bring him luck and to turn away envy. A few sources say Vikings wore it to ease the stress of sacking villages. (You know how hard that can be). It’s sometimes called the Singer’s Stone, a tool to make one’s voice more precise and beautiful.
There are two ways crystals are said to accomplish their goals: welcoming in the positive or fighting off the negative. Carnelian is a bit of both, doing the latter to invite the former. To make you a powerful public speaker or accomplished singer, it clears away the dirty, raw emotions that inhibit elocution. Carnelian gives you the power to still your anger and jealousy, to dispel apathy, envy, and resentment, and to overcome negative feelings and thoughts so your better feelings can shine and you can live a more positive life.
But the language around carnelian insists that, whatever your problems, surmounting them is a matter of personal action. You are the problem, and if you’re feeling petty or envious, if life seems too hard, it’s because you have the wrong attitude. Saint Hildegard said as much in Physica: “If you’re so sick you’re mad from it, just put a sard on top of your hat and say ‘Just as god threw the first angel into the abyss, so may he cut this illness from you and restore good knowledge.’” It doesn’t matter what’s causing the illness. Pull up those bootstraps, baby, you’re only bringing yourself down.
Americans, with our idea of manifest destiny and our Puritan work ethic, are particularly primed to accept that “I” am the only person who can solve a problem. The New Thought movement, also known as the “mind cure movement,” was founded in America in the 19th century largely on the principle that all sickness originates in the mind, and that the right thinking will heal you. It combined Christian ideas, Emersonian individualism, idealism, and spiritualism — basically any tradition that buttressed their thesis that what goes on in the mind has real-world ramifications.
The movement was founded and influenced by Phineas Quimby, an inventor and mesmerist who believed in the unseen force tying together all living things. The mind, he thought, was just getting in the way, and ultimately, the truth would set us all free. “The trouble is in the mind, for the body is only the house for the mind to dwell in, and we put a value on it according to its worth. Therefore if your mind has been deceived by some invisible enemy into a belief, you have put it into the form of a disease, with or without your knowledge,” he wrote of his treatments. “This I do partly mentally, and partly by talking till I correct the wrong impression and establish the Truth, and the Truth is the cure.”
What he’s basically talking about is the Serenity Prayer — figuring out what your problems are, accepting with grace the things you cannot change, and gaining the power to change the things you can, even if the only thing you can change is your outlook. Quimby acknowledged that thoughts certainly affect how people behave, but also that they are chemical. The brain is just an organ, after all, affected by hormones and vitamins and stimuli as much as the lungs are. Maybe those fickle negative thoughts exist the way a muscle cramp exists, but heavens, don’t give them any power. There are real problems to be dealt with.
Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher who believed deeply in the power of the human mind, spoke of people who can’t shore themselves up against the hardships of life, who don’t keep their “proper character” as they face hardship or depression, as wolves, lions, and foxes — animalistic beings that have lost all their dignity. “See that you don’t turn out like one of those unfortunates,” he warned. When asked how he accepted his own chains and the exile without making an emotional fool of himself, he simply said, “I refuse.”
He had no advice for how to avoid turning into a malicious, wild fox, just the deep knowledge that you should avoid doing so, or you’ll suffer dire philosophical consequences. Just put the carnelian on your head and tell yourself your problems aren’t really problems.
Epictetus influenced everyone from the US military to author Tom Wolfe, and his works were the foundation of rational emotive behavior therapy, an early form of cognitive behavioral therapy that attempted to help patients identify their “irrational” behaviors and move through their feelings toward a more rational state. But without deeper analysis, the call for positive thinking, of lifting oneself out of despair by one’s bootstraps, only works in tautologies.
Some of Quimby’s and Epictetus’s “cures” were more sound than others — it’s a decent idea to try to keep an optimistic attitude in difficult circumstances and to seriously address thoughts of self-harm, less so to assume you can think away a tumor. However, both men acknowledged that patients needed to accept their reality first. Your outlook doesn’t get rid of the problem; it only saves you some misery. Soon after the New Thought movement, though, the idea of maintaining a good attitude was weaponized against itself, leading to the persistent belief that you can see your way out of depression, trauma, and institutionalized oppression through the power of positive thinking.
As Hettie O’Brien writes in a 2019 report on mindfulness for the New Statesman, it is the “perfect coping mechanism for neoliberal capitalism: It privatizes stress and encourages people to locate the root of mental ailments in their own work ethic. As a psychological strategy, it promotes a particular form of revolution, one that takes place within the heads of individuals fixated on self-transformation, rather than as a struggle to overcome collective suffering.” One just has to be confident! And radiate positive vibes! To not only face one’s problems but to obliterate them. No longer is the “cure” merely influenced by one’s attitude; now the assumption is that attitude alone is what’s keeping someone down.
Carnelian is a particularly good stone for stamps. It’s easily carvable, falling somewhere around 7 on the Mohs hardness scale (talc is 1; diamond is 10), and hot wax doesn’t stick to it. Museums are filled with rings and stamps carved with the images of reversed cattle, hollow faces, and backward letters that only make sense if you imagine their imprint. Carving carnelian is not about building an understandable image, but about hollowing the stone so it only exists to give shape to something else. It was also supposedly one of the stones (in some translations the first, in others the sixth) in the breastplate of Aaron, the Jewish high priest of Jerusalem, and represents the blood of the martyrs. To get your message across, all you have to do is sacrifice yourself or carve yourself up, become the inverse so you can make an impression.
Positive thinking seems to demand self-sacrifice, or at least delusion. When it comes to positive thinking, few inspirational guides talk about the most crucial point: how to not feel a negative feeling. Some crystal resources say carnelian can help redirect energy, taking your focus away from the negative, whether that’s an enemy or a part of your own psyche, and aiming it at something more self-serving instead. Like attracts like, after all, so being happy and confident draws more of that toward you.
Negativity is spoken of as a poison to be sucked out, and carnelian can remind you that to a certain extent, you do have a choice to not spend all your time dwelling on the negative. But while varying behavioral therapies encourage looking negativity in the face, carnelian’s powers only show you how to wield a carving knife and cut away the tougher parts of yourself that aren’t serving you.
I have inherited my armor from those who came before me. My mother’s mother, my Amma, called outright displays of negative emotion “ugly.” She always seemed to be living in the tense space between who she once was — a poor, tough farm girl from Virginia — and what she later became: a college-educated woman who socialized with the well-heeled, professionally coiffed, and bejeweled women of Princeton, New Jersey. She contained glorious multitudes, but her upbringing gave her little patience for anyone who got caught up in their emotions.
My other grandmother, my Didu, moved from India to Germany to get a PhD when she was 24, leaving two young sons with her parents to experience deep cold for the first time and study in a language she had to learn simultaneously. She later moved with her boys to America, which hadn’t been introduced to the sitar by the Beatles yet. On her first day as a zoology professor at a private college, she was assumed to be the cleaning woman. My Didu was always underestimated because of her gender and her race, but when she talks about it, she also shrugs it off. It was what it was.
There’s so much unspoken trauma in these stories. I feel it in my bones and have picked up on the whispers and silent nods over the years, even though no one has given me a straight story yet. A straight story would perhaps let me see this inherited pain more clearly, to understand it without the carnelian trick cutting it away entirely. But the options seem to be: carry on, or be dragged down by the weight of generations.
I’ve had fights with every loved one about asking for help. In high school, I refused to let my mom look at my French homework (a language she was fluent in) or edit my essays (her literal job). In relationships — romantic and not — I’m unable to bring up problems as they’re happening, choosing instead to pretend they’re no big deal until I inevitably break down. In each instance, I’ve been asked, why I didn’t ask for help if I was struggling?
Why didn’t I just say something before it got so bad? I don’t have an answer, only that for as long as I can remember, asking for help has felt akin to cheating. I’d be admitting defeat if I acknowledged that I forgot the gender of certain French nouns, much less anything else about my life — that I didn’t know how to properly communicate a problem, that I was sad sometimes when there was nothing obvious causing it, that at some point I lost the ability to even identify when I had a problem because the only direction in my head was “through.” Go through.
The dark promise of carnelian has always made sense to me. Whatever mess I’m in, it’s mine to get out of. I just need to try harder, do better, be happier, and I’ll be known. I was convinced that my force of will was all I needed, and if something was bad, I just had to find a solution, alone. Most of the time, that still feels like the truth.
It took me until I was in my mid-20s to identify as a feminist and a person of color. It’s not that I didn’t think of myself as a woman or as the child of an Indian immigrant. But to acknowledge there are things the world sees as a problem that I can’t fix was not an option.
My ancestors cut out deep parts of themselves. They crossed oceans, forgot languages, dressed to match the world around them, and adopted new prejudices in order to spare me the impact of their otherness. I was, and sometimes am, reluctant to identify with the more marginalized parts of myself, even though they fought so hard to survive. Sometimes, “stay positive” sounds like other things — stay white, stay straight, stay rich, stay sane. Don’t admit there are other parts to you, the parts that we left behind on the carving room floor.
For many people, acknowledging that there are societal structures in place to keep certain people oppressed can be freeing. Not that they’re not worth fighting against, but this acknowledgment is an important explanation for why things are so hard for so many. But for a long time, I only thought of that explanation as an excuse, a cheat code that led everyone who wasn’t a straight white man to develop a horrible victim complex.
Acknowledging that there may be other forces at play making my life difficult felt akin to asking for help on my homework — admitting there’s any problem means admitting you haven’t been able to solve it, that your bootstraps couldn’t take the effort of your hoisting, and that you don’t have as much power as you want.
In 1834, Working Man’s Advocate published a joke about the man who claimed to have invented the perpetual motion machine. “It is conjectured that Mr. Murphee will now be enabled to hand himself over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots,” they wrote, the idea as absurd as a machine that never stops moving. For much of the 19th century, the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was used to illustrate the ridiculousness of thinking one could do the impossible.
It wasn’t until the 1920s (many point to James Joyce’s Ulysses as a turning point) that the idea of hoisting oneself off the ground by one’s bootstraps was not only possible but necessary. That you alone could fix your problems if you were strong enough. Because the other option is that we are powerless, with only our thoughts to give us the illusion of action.
At its worst, carnelian guilts you into thinking it’s all in your head — just leave him, just stop being sad, just do the impossible. But at its best, carnelian can bring us that wisdom. There are days when you can’t give in, and carnelian is alluring because it reminds us that fighting back is possible. No matter the situation, there is always something else we could technically be doing to change it. Carnelian supposedly gives you not just the confidence to act in your best interest, to rip off the Band-Aid and do what’s best, but also the power to ignore the parts of you that are afraid of the consequences. Apply carnelian to everything and the crystal loses its power, but use it in moderation and sometimes it’s right.
Part of carnelian’s powers is fighting against envy. Keep your thoughts on yourself and your situation instead of dwelling on what other people have that you don’t. Positive thinking means worrying only about yourself, while negative thinking means being distracted by the world. But positive thinking can only work when you understand the whole; the world is not a distraction, and allowing yourself to see the negative, the envy, and the abuse means you are seeing the world clearly, for what it is.
There is freedom in integrating the positive with the negative, in acknowledging what you are and what you aren’t, in remaining whole instead of cutting away the undesirable parts of yourself.
I would rather keep myself whole. When I hold my carnelian, I want to invoke all the ways I can keep myself afloat while acknowledging what lurks beneath the surface. I want it to give me the power to turn my positive thoughts into actions, to not mistake my attitude for praxis. But most of all, I want to stay positive while acknowledging the fullness of myself, every problem, every mindset. Nothing deserves to be erased. My carnelian is not set in a ring or etched with new images. It is whole, an image only of itself, and I am reminded that positive thinking doesn’t require that I be hollowed out. I don’t need to be carved to be beautiful.
Jaya Saxena is an author and staff writer at Eater. This piece has been excerpted from her new book, Crystal Clear: Reflections on Extraordinary Talismans for Everyday Life, published by Quirk Books.