I received my McFarland sales report and royalty check this week, and I was pleasantly surprised that the check was larger than last time. But it confirmed to me that there is really no point in writing books, at least if I have any intention of reaching an audience. When I added up all of the lifetime copies I’ve ever sold of all of my books and then generously assumed that ten people read every copy (an unrealistic assumption), I still reach five times more people each week through my website than I have done in ten and a half years of publishing books. Over the course of a month or a year, the multiple becomes stratospheric. Spending time writing books is all but literally the least efficient way of communicating with an audience, or of spreading ideas that have an impact on audiences.
On a completely different note, I can’t resist sharing what has to be one of the weirdest ancient claims I’ve ever read. It concerns a gemstone thought to form from the brain of dragons, or large serpents (Latin: draco, Greek: drakon). The story is told by Pliny the Elder in Natural History 37.57:
Draconitis or dracontia is a stone produced from the brain of the dragon; but unless the head of the animal is cut off while it is alive, the stone will not assume the form of a gem, through spite on the part of the serpent, when finding itself at the point of death: hence it is that, for this purpose, the head is cut off when it is asleep. Sotacus, who tells us that he once saw a stone of this kind in the possession of a king, says that persons go in search of it in a chariot drawn by two horses; and that, the moment they see the serpent, they strew narcotic drugs in its way, and then cut off its head when asleep. According to him, this stone is white and pellucid, and admits of no polishing or engraving. (trans. John Bostock).
The weird idea probably would have faded into obscurity if Isidore of Seville hadn’t decided to include it in his Etymologies, in the section on stones: “Dracontites is forcibly taken from the brain of a dragon, and unless it is torn from the living creature it has not the quality of a gem; whence magi cut it out of dragons while they are sleeping. For bold men explore the cave of the dragons, and scatter there medicated grains to hasten their sleep, and thus cut off their heads while they are sunk in sleep, and take out the gems” (16.14.7, trans. Ernest Brehaut).
As weird as this seems to be, it probably relates to the “Serpent Stone” that Photius, in Biblioteca codex 190, summarizing Ptolemy Chennus’ New History, says came from serpents and gave people the power to see invisible things. (Cf. the Persian mohrah, the stone snakes use to see hidden treasure.) This, in turn, must be derived from Indian stories that spread into Greece. Consider, for example, the passage in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana (3.8) which describes how large serpents have stones in their heads. The Indians, Philostratus says, catch the dragons in this manner:
They embroider golden runes on a scarlet cloak, which they lay in front of the animal's burrow after charming them the runes to cause sleep; for this is the only way to overcome the eyes of the dragon, which are otherwise inflexible, and much mysterious lore is sung by them to overcome him. These runes induce the dragon to stretch his neck out of his burrow and fall asleep over them: then the Indians fall upon him as he lies there, and dispatch him with blows of their axes, and having cut off the head they despoil it of its gems. And they say that in the heads of the mountain dragons there are stored away stones of flowery color, which flash out all kinds of hues, and possess a mystical power as resided in the ring, which they say belonged to Gyges. (trans. F. C. Conybeare)
According to M. J. Walhouse, writing in 1875, different groups on the Indian subcontinent continued to believe that that snakes bore diamonds or other precious stones on or in their heads down to his day, and snake charmers would make a great show of using prestidigitation to “extract” such a stone from one of their pet snakes for the amusement of the crowd. According to modern newspaper accounts and YouTube videos, removing stones called nagamani from snakes’ heads is s still a widespread snake-charming practice in India, leading rationalists to try to educate the public about the real anatomy of snakes. Conmen even try to scam cash with such stones. Walhouse also reported that the Jews of Cyprus made amulets of counterfeit precious stones and used them against venom, claiming them to be from the head of the kouphi, or viper.
While that’s interesting enough, it’s probably worth noting that the French medievalist Claude Lecouteux made a complete hash of it in trying to describe the dragon stones in his book A Lapidary of Sacred Stones (Inner Traditions, 2012). There, he attributed Philostratus’ text to Herodotus and quotes Pliny without identifying him.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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