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Avengers: Infinity War and the allure of mystic stones

bbc.com / As film fans await the premiere of Avengers: Infinity Warand its ambitious attempt to cluster dozens of heroes onto a single screen, there is another seminal gathering taking place in the film that has diehard fans every bit as eager: the assembling of all six ‘Infinity Stones’. Described as ingots of unfathomable power, the remnants of singularities that existed ‘in a time before creation itself’, the Infinity Stones have appeared in Marvel Studios’ films throughout the last decade, though never all together.

The Philosopher’s Stone has appeared in a Donald Duck comic, and a Satyajit Ray film – and was the title of a Van Morrison album

Thus far, we have seen that these stones are capable of turning back time, opening portals across the galaxy, and destroying entire planets, so the assembling of all six certainly qualifies as a threat worthy of the entire retinue of Marvel’s heroes. However, though the threat of the combined Infinity Stones is new for the Marvel films, the mythos behind these mystical gemstones is anything but.

The creative forces at Marvel have never shied away from incorporating mythological influences into their stories, from the more subtle echoes of the ‘hero’s journey’ in Spiderman to the overt co-opting of figures like Thor, Loki and Odin. The Infinity Stones are no exception to the trend, and are simply the latest in a long line of humanity’s celebrated mythological stones.

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Every mythology comes with its own legendary artifacts, but stones that bear mysterious, otherworldly properties are by far one of the most pervasive throughout civilisations. From the countless medieval lapidaries purporting the healing and apotropaic properties of gemstones to the widespread misidentification of neolithic arrowheads as ‘thunderstones’, virtually every culture shows some evidence in the belief of mystical stones.

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Some of these legends have proved so culturally embedded that we instantly recognise them today. Take the Philosopher’s Stone, the alchemical gem capable of turning lead into gold and producing the elixir of life, which has remained so universally relevant that it’s served as a major plot point in modern works as disparate as the Harry Potter books, the Japanese manga Fullmetal Alchemist, one of the Uncle Scrooge comics featuring Donald Duck, and a Satyajit Ray film. The Philosopher’s Stone was even the name of a Van Morrison album.

The worship of holy stones is one of the oldest forms of religion of which we have evidence – George F Moore

But that’s just scratching the surface of the quarry. The stones sought out by the superheroes of today are known for their power to bend the laws of nature, and are therefore perhaps more akin to the likes of the Japanese kanju and manju , fabled jewels that would grant the owner control over the tides, or the gems of Mayan myth that harnessed the power of the elements. The Romans even claimed to be in possession of such artifacts themselves, submerging a special stone known as the lapis manalis in water with the hopes of bringing rain in a ritual known as aquaelicium.

Mining for meaning

Though it’s hard to say whether these legendary precursors had any influence upon the authors of today’s comic books, their wide geographical span speaks to the fact that mystical stones do not belong to any one particular culture, but hail from a deeper part of our collective human consciousness. As such, the true question is not how it is that these legendary stones are so pervasive throughout the world, but rather why they are so pervasive. According to the writings of religious historian George F Moore, stones inherited a role of religious significance at a very early point in human history.

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“The worship of holy stones is one of the oldest forms of religion of which we have evidence, and one of the most universal,” Moore writes in the American Journal of Archaeology , “its survivals in popular superstitions have proved nearly ineradicable.”

Moore goes on to explain that stones first attained their lofty place in the world of the divine by serving as makeshift altars for early worshippers, with special predilection going to stones that were either massive in size or peculiar in shape, as these were considered more likely to have been intentionally shaped by the hands of the divine.

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The presence of such sacred stones can be seen in a number of both ancient and contemporary religions, like the Sledoviks of Russia or the still-revered Black Stone of Islam. However, one of the earliest written accounts comes from the Greeks, who make numerous mentions of the Baetylia – perhaps the first ‘soul stones’. These stones in particular were believed to have been imbued with a life force by the gods, provided with a spirit that could grant them the ability to move of their own accord, or in some cases even to speak.

The mining of meteorites dates back thousands of years

It is all the more understandable that ancient peoples would attribute such veneration to stones considering the fact that they did, from time to time, fall from the sky. For those who had not yet probed the secrets of the galaxy, a meteor shower would undoubtedly seem like a blessing from the heavens, and thus any collected meteorites would hold an inherent connection to divinity.

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Of course, this is yet another tradition echoed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Black Panther’s fictional nation of Wakanda has an industry that revolves around its abundance of ‘vibranium’, a rare and powerful metal harvested from a massive meteor. While the Infinity Stones harken to our earliest myths, Wakanda’s coveted vibranium speaks to our history. The mining of meteorites is not merely a convention of comic books, but an actual practice that stretches back thousands of years.

There is evidence that the early Inuits of Greenland tried their hand at mining meteorites that fell in the Cape York area, while the Descubridora meteorite discovered in present day Mexico had a copper chisel lodged in a crevice, suggesting that the area had its own share of intrepid meteor-miners. Researches even claim that one of the daggers found in King Tut’s tomb is wrought of iron harvested from a meteor, due to its unusually high nickel concentration, a typical hallmark of iron harvested from extraterrestrial sources.

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What’s truly fascinating is that, just as with Wakanda’s vibranium, these early civilisations had justifiable reason to believe that the minerals harvested from these meteorites were of a superior quality to those on Earth. In the case of Egypt, many of the meteoric-iron artifacts date to back to a time before iron-smelting had popularised, meaning that bronze was the common alternative. Just as with Wakandan vibranium, the iron harvested from meteorites was considered tremendously valuable due to its rarity, and relative durability, at the time.

Is belief in rocks just Blarney?

As Virginia Woolf once wrote, “The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare.” The fact that the pursuit of magical stones remains a crucial plot point in one of contemporary society’s most famous film franchises suggests that it is not just the stone that is destined to last an eternity, but our steadfast devotion to it, as well.

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Naturally many would say that the operative distinction between the mythical stones of legend and those found in the Marvel universe is that, while the power of early sacred stones was taken as fact, we recognise the Infinity Stones and vibranium for what they are: works of fiction. However, though we now look back upon some of the more antiquated beliefs surrounding rocks and gemstones with an amused curiosity afforded to us simply by existing in the time that we do, the remarkable thing is that – though many of these ancient religions have died out – the genuine belief in the magical properties of stones has endured to this very day.

Visitors still flock to kiss the Blarney Stone in hopes that it will grant them the gift of gab. The legendary London Stone is kept safe in a museum with legends saying that its removal would cause the city to collapse. Though we now turn up our nose at antiquated medieval medicinal practices such as bloodletting, the thriving online market for ‘healing gemstones’ like amethyst and aquamarine is nothing more than the modern era’s version of lapidary medicine.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting that our devotion to the stone is not entirely baseless. Though we don’t possess any gems that will allow us to bend the will of the tides, minerals like flint, with its role in building fires, and quartz, with its piezoelectrical properties, have, in a way, granted humans a certain ‘mastery’ over the elements. Although a far cry from the belief that certain gems could repel venom when worn around our necks, mineral supplements have proved to be quite useful in the treatment of a variety of ailments in modern medicine. Certainly less mystical than our archaic superstitions, but perhaps these more practical applications of stones have left just as indelible a mark on our society.

With such an entrenched allegiance to the power of stone, Marvel’s all-powerful gems would appear less a whimsical conjuration of fantasy, and more a primal call to one of our most ineradicable beliefs. At the heart of the film is one of our oldest and most perpetuated fascinations; yet another layer in an already rich tapestry of allusions to the many legends of the past. With a history that stretches from the Stone Age to the Infinity Stones, it would seem that our collective obsession with mythical gems is in no danger of eroding anytime soon.

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