Every little thing they did was magic … or was it?

From royal rings to humble rocks, mystical objects were believed to shape human events throughout history. The powers they held reveals much about the hopes and fears of the people who believed in them.

By Patricia S. Daniels
Published 9 Jun 2022, 13:04 BST
Opener
The Egyptian gods (from left to right) Nephthys, Isis, and Osiris receive gifts from the deceased in a detail from the Book of the Dead that dates to 1075-945 B.C.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Alfredo Dagli Orti, Shutterstock

History is filled with objects—books, rings, weapons, even plain old rocks—that people believed were imbued with supernatural powers. The most valuable could confer protection, the right of kingship, or healing, including the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Stone of Scone, and the Fountain of Youth. Other objects apparently cursed their ill-fated owners, including stones picked up by tourists at Australia’s sacred Uluru. Lore about these objects has become myths retold in books, movies, and epic poems—King Arthur’s Excalibur and the Holy Grail foremost among them. 

The reality behind these powerful objects is often obscured. In fact, the romantic nature of the stories swirling around them encouraged people to keep believing, even with little evidence to prove their validity. True or not, each of these ordinary objects holds an extraordinary legend that delves into the culture and traditions of its time.

Egypt's Book of the Dead

The fields of the afterlife, in a papyrus copy of the Book of the Dead
Photograph by Gianni Dagli Orti, Shutterstock

For the ancient Egyptians, physical death was just the first step on a perilous journey into the afterlife, as the soul lived on to face the judgment of the gods. Therefore, the deceased needed spells and instructions for navigating their way to immortality. These directions, written up as nearly 200 spells in the Book of the Dead, could be inscribed on sheets of papyrus pasted together, but they also appeared on walls, coffins, amulets, bricks, and even mummy wrappings of upper-class Egyptians. The spells included guides to the dark world’s portals and protection against its dangers—some even transformed the speaker into powerful animals, such as a falcon. Whether the incantations truly guided Egyptians into the afterlife remains a mystery, the beautiful art and scripts of the spells themselves live on in stone and papyrus.

(The Book of the Dead was Egypt's inside guide to the underworld.)

Stones of Uluru

Uluru, a massive sandstone monolith, stands 1,142 feet (348 m) above the desert land­scape in central Australia. The iconic rock formation is at the heart of the Anangu people’s creation myth, referring to stories about the beginning of time, when ancestral beings travelled across the land to create all things, including sacred sites.

Uluru remains a place of active worship, and since 2019 visitors have been prohibited from climbing on the formation. National park staffers still receive packages returning rocks that tourists have pocketed as souvenirs; about a quarter of the enclosed letters report the rock snatchers suffered illness or other bad luck after their act of theft.

Uluru, or Ayers Rock, glows a rich red at dawn and dusk.
Photograph by structuresxx, Shutterstock

Ark of the Covenant

The prophet Moses built the Ark of the Covenant—a gilded, acacia-wood chest—according to the exact specifications given to him by God. Holding the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, it is one of the most powerful objects in biblical lore. Priests at the River Jordan, for instance, found the ark could stem the floodwaters so they could cross. 

The power of the Ark of the Covenant helped Joshua bring down Jericho’s walls.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Gianni Dagli Orti, Shutterstock

According to the Old Testament, the ark came to rest in Jerusalem’s Temple, which was destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar, the infamous sixth-century B.C. Babylonian king. If the ark did exist, its remains might still be buried in that sacred ground. Some Ethiopian Christians claim it now rests, rather, in a chapel in Aksum. Others have traced the ark to France, and to Zimbabwe. In popular culture, Indiana Jones discovered it in the Egyptian city of Tanis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

(Who was Nebuchadrezzar, Babylon's builder king?)

Ring of Solomon

In Jewish and Arabic medieval legends, King Solomon of Israel was known not only for his wis­dom but also for various supernatural accoutre­ments. Among them was his signet ring, or seal, which he used to seal letters and decrees—and for its magical powers. With it he could control the winds, fly on a wind-borne carpet, and communicate with animals. It also allowed him to control angels (good genii) and demons (bad genii). 

Using the ring’s powers, Solomon commanded a veritable army of demons to construct the Temple of Jerusalem (after which he buried them in bottles beneath the temple they helped to build). If any such ring existed, it seems to have been lost with its possessor, but the seal’s shape, the six-pointed star, lives on as the Star of David and a symbol of modern Judaism.

Solomon’s Seal is a popular motif in Islamic art.
Photograph by B.O’Kane, Alamy Stock Photo

Excalibur

The Round Table, portrayed in a medieval miniature, is another well-known Arthurian legend.
Photograph by Image courtesy of PHAS, Universal Images Group, Shutterstock

Perhaps one of history’s most wondrous objects is King Arthur’s magical sword. Like so many aspects of Arthurian legend, the sword has various names and origins depending on the source. It first appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as Caliburn around 1136, in which Arthur used it single-handedly to kill 470 men. In Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th-century work detailing the Arthur legend, Arthur released the miraculous sword out of a stone when he was just a boy. In that same work, it was an enchantress, Lady of the Lake, who presented the sword to Arthur. As he lay dying after his final battle, he demanded that his faithful Sir Bedivere throw it into the lake; an arm (presumably that of the Lady of the Lake) rose to catch it and then disappeared. 

Until historians find more solid evidence for the existence of a real King Arthur, however, a real Excalibur is also unlikely. Or is it? In 2017, a seven-year-old girl swimming in a Cornish lake—reputed to be the one mentioned in Malory’s work—found a medieval-style sword on the bottom. The press dubbed it Excalibur, though her more pragmatic father said, “It’s probably just an old film prop.”

(Medieval knights, like King Arthur, were the superheroes of their times.)

The Holy Grail

From medieval tales of holy quests to movies about Indiana Jones, the Holy Grail has long been the most desired Christian relic—though its validity remains obscured in many different stories, some contradictory. The first major reference appears in the 12th-century “The Story of the Grail” by Chrétien de Troyes, in which the graal (translated as a “bowl”) holds a single communion wafer that can sustain life completely. The bowl became associated with the Last Sup­per shortly afterward in the writings of Robert de Boron, who claims it was used to collect Christ’s blood after his crucifixion. 

Vari­ous Arthurian stories followed the travails of knights such as Perceval and Galahad in their quests to find the life-giving Grail. Not one, but two Grails turned up in medieval Europe. The first, kept in its own chapel in the Valencia Cathedral, is a ruddy brown agate cup that dates to Christ’s era. The other, preserved in the Genoa Cathedral, is a medieval green glass serving dish reported to have healing powers. Both can still be viewed today.

Jesus and a chalice at the Last Supper are shown in an engraving by Gustave Doré
Photograph by Image courtesy of duncan1890, Getty Images
The Valencia Cathedral keeps its Holy Grail behind glass in its own chapel.
Photograph by Peter van Evert, Alamy Stock Photo

Stone of Scone

Known to the Scottish as the Stone of Destiny, the Stone of Scone is a 336-pound (152 kg) sandstone block essential to the coronation of monarchs in Scotland, Ireland, and England. Scottish legend mandates that biblical patriarch Jacob used the stone as a pillow. By medieval times, it was kept at Scone Abbey near Perth, Scotland, where it formed part of the monarch’s seat during corona­tions. 

English king Edward I captured it in 1296, and for the next six and a half centuries, it resided inside King Edward’s chair in Westminster Abbey—until 1950, when four Scottish students stole it. The stone mysteriously reappeared soon after on a Scottish abbey’s altar. The Scottish government returned the stone to England, which gave it back in 1996. Now kept in Perth City Hall, it was last used in the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.

A replica of the Stone of Scone sits in front of a chapel near Scone Palace.
Photograph by Maria Gaellman, Alamy Stock Photo

Fountain of Youth

Ponce de Léon is probably most famous for his quest to find the Fountain of Youth—a magical spring that restores youth to those who bathe in or drink its waters. The truth is, when the Spanish crown appointed de Léon governor of Puerto Rico in the early 1500s, he was primarily interested in gold and slave labour. However, he did sail off in search of the “islands of Benimy” in 1513, eventually landing on the coast of Florida.

Was he searching for the Fountain of Youth? Chroniclers later claimed that, yes, the governor was, based on a legend going thousands of years about restorative waters in a mythical land called Bimini. There’s no evidence this is true. It seems that Ponce de León’s enemies were simply making fun of him by dredging up one of the oldest of legends. Regardless, the world still yearns for a magical fountain of youth.

The Fountain of Eternal Youth as portrayed in a Renaissance astrology manuscript
Photograph by Image courtesy of Alfredo Dagli Orti, Shutterstock
Portions of this work have previously appeared in Mysteries of History. Copyright © 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
To learn more, check out Mysteries of History. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.
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