In search of sandastros

About a week ago, I wrote to ICANN asking for a list of all the .com domains that were still available. After I received the file a few days later, I used two pieces of code to extract all the single-word entries on the list and subsequently all the words that were listed in a dictionary. The idea and the instructions came from Derek Sivers. Finally, I randomly picked a letter – ‘s’, it turned out – and began googling all those words whose meanings I didn’t know. I like doing this because sometimes new words can tell you what to think or to write, instead of the convention of what you write determining what words you wield. That’s how I discovered ‘sandastros’.

When I googled it, I found that the word comes from chapter 28, book 37 of Natural History, an ancient encyclopaedia put together in the first century AD by the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder. Its contents (as translated by John Bostock) are available to read, book- and chapter-wise, here; the text is also available on a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. It’s a fascinating text throughout, including book 37, which is dedicated to what was known about precious stones in Pliny’s time. To quote at length from chapter 28:

Of a kindred nature, too, is sandastros,1 known as “garamantites” by some: it is found in India, at a place of that name, and is a product also of the southern parts of Arabia. The great recommendation of it is, that it has all the appearance of fire placed behind a transparent substance, it burning with star-like scintillations within, that resemble drops of gold, and 2 are always to be seen in the body of the stone, and never upon the surface. There are certain religious associations, too, connected with this stone, in consequence of the affinity which it is supposed to bear with the stars; these scintillations being mostly, in number and arrangement, like the constellations of the Pleiades and Hyades; a circumstance which had led to the use of it by the Chaldæi in the ceremonials which they practise.

Here, too, the male stones are distinguished from the female, by their comparative depth of colour and the vigorousness of the tints which they impart to objects near them: indeed the stones of India, it is said, quite dim the sight by their brilliancy. The flame of the female sandastros is of a more softened nature, and may be pronounced to be lustrous rather than brilliant. Some prefer the stone of Arabia to that of India, and say that this last bears a considerable resemblance to a smoke-coloured chrysolithos. Ismenias asserts that sandastros, in consequence of its extreme softness, will not admit of being polished, a circumstance which makes it sell all3 the dearer: other writers, again, call these stones “sandrisitæ.” One point upon which all the authorities are agreed is, that the greater the number of stars upon the stone, the more costly it is in price.

The similarity of the name has sometimes caused this stone to be confounded with that known as “sandaresos,” and which Nicander calls “sandaserion,” and others “sandaseron.” Some, again, call this last-mentioned stone “sandastros,” and the former one “sandaresos.” The stone4 that is thus mentioned by Nicander, is a native of India as well as the other, and likewise takes its name from the locality where it is found. The colour of it is that of an apple, or of green oil, and no one sets any value on it.

1 “Sandaresus” and “Sandasiros” are other readings. This stone has not been identified, but Ajasson is inclined to think that it may have been Aventurine quartz, and is the more inclined to this opinion, as that mineral is found in Persia, and sandastra or tchandastra is purely a Sanscrit word. The description, however, would hardly seem to apply to Aventurine.

2 Dalechamps thinks that this is the same as the “anthracites” mentioned in B. xxxvi. c. 38, and identifies it either with our Anthracite, or else with pit-coal or bituminous coal. It is much more likely, however, that a precious stone is meant; and, in conformity with this opinion, Brotero and Ajasson have identified it with the Spinelle or scarlet Ruby, and the Balas or rose-red ruby, magnesiates of alumina.

3 Littré suggests that the reading here probably might be “ob id non magno”—” sell not so dear.”

4 It has not been identified.

Such a fascinating stone. The “garamantites” is a reference to the Garamante people of the second century AD in the Sahara, according to another source, Nicholas Lemery’s Complete Materials Lexicon from 1721. Further searching for ‘sandastros’ led me to an essay published in June 1953 by a D.J. Greene, entitled ‘Smart, Berkeley, the Scientists and the Poets: A Note on Eighteenth-Century Anti- Newtonianism’. It doesn’t explain what sandastros is or where it originated, but it’s worth reading in full for its distinct premise:

In spite of all that has been written in recent years about the effect on poets and poetry of the modern development of natural science, the conscientious student may be forgiven for wondering whether the historical evidence adduced in these discussions is yet adequate and unambiguous, and for feeling that much more research needs to be done into the history of the relations between science and poetry before any valid generalizations can be made. This article is intended to be a small contribution to that history.

One line from the essay that I liked in particular: “John Livingston Lowes proved long ago, in his study of The Ancient Mariner, that poetry, however romantic, is not spun solely out of the bowels of poets.”

Anyway, according to the fifth chapter of a compilation by a George Rapp of the University of Minnesota, entitled ‘Gemstones, Seal Stones, and Ceremonial Stones’ and published in 2009, sandastros is aventurine, a green-hued form of quartz (and matching the “green oil” colour of sandastros). Rapp doesn’t mention this but aventurine lends its name to aventurescence, a phenomenon referring to a peculiar reflection of light, resembling “metallic glitter”, within the material owing to some mineral structures. (Another mineral that exhibits aventurescence is sunstone, a form of plagioclase feldspar found in small parts of Europe, Australia and the US.)

Aventurine. Credit: Simon Eugster/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

However, recall that ref. 1 to the text by Pliny the Elder clarifies that his description doesn’t match that of aventurine, presumably referring to the “appearance of fire placed behind a transparent substance” and the “drops of gold” that are “always to be seen in the body of the stone, and never upon the surface”. There appears to be some dispute here and which I plan to follow through later – but it remains that sandastros is, as I said, an utterly fascinating thing.

Featured image credit: Holly Chisholm/Unsplash.