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Anyone who has met me in person can vouch for the fact that I am a fan of amethyst. Almost all my jewellery contains a purple stone of some size or shade. So I was particularly interested when I heard the intriguing tale about this gem from our collection, and thought it doubly fitting that I should launch my Specimen of the Month series with it.


From ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, and all through the ages to 21st Century new-age spiritualists, humans have long ascribed gemstones with particular properties. For example, amethyst is said to bring calmness and clarity, boost intuition, and be linked to those born in the month of February. It's even claimed the purple quartz helps combat the effects of drunkenness.


But one of the many amethysts on display at the Museum is reputedly associated with something altogether less calm, and entirely more sinister. This item, on show in The Vault gallery and often referred to as the purple sapphire, is cursed! Its previous owner, Edward Heron-Allen - a polymath who practised law and palmistry and was an expert on violins and Persian literature - claimed the amethyst was 'trebly cursed' and 'stained with blood and dishonour'.


Heron-Allen says: 'I had it bound round with a double headed snake that had been a finger ring of Heydon the Astrologer, looped up with Zodiacal plaques and neutralized between Heydon’s magic Tau and two amethyst scaraboei of Queen Hatasu’s period, brought from Der el-Bahari (Thebes).'



The cursed amethyst: faceted, oval, (3.5 x 2.5cm) mounted in a silver ring in the form of a snake, decorated with zodiacal plaques and with two hinged pendants, one of which bears two scarabs of amethystine quartz, the other a T in silver, engraved.


The amethyst was donated to the Museum by Heron-Allen's daughter in January 1944, along with a letter (see the full text further below) written by Edward warning against anyone handling it. Heron-Allen writes that the stone 'was looted from the treasure of the Temple of the God Indra at Cawnpore during the Indian mutiny in 1855 and brought to this country by Colonel W. Ferris of the Bengal Cavalry. From the day he possessed it he was unfortunate'.


After Colonel Ferris's death the amethyst was passed to his son, then to Heron-Allen, who in turn passed it onto various friends, upon which it reportedly inflicted a trail of suicides, apparitions, disasters and failed careers. Eventually it came back to Heron-Allen, who packed it in seven boxes and deposited it in a bank safe, enclosing his warning letter, and instructing that the amethyst not 'see the light again' until 33 years after his death. (His daughter waited less than 12 months to present it to the Museum!)


But, unfortunately for all you horror and conspiracy fans out there, the cursed amethyst story is, apparently, more tall tale than treacherous truth. I have been assured by one of our Museum mineral curators who has dealt with the amethyst that there is 'no clear suggestion of any truth in it'; that is, at least as far as Edward Heron-Allen is concerned. In fact, what is most likely is that Heron-Allen fabricated the legend to give credence to a short story he wrote in 1921 under the pseudonym Christopher Blayre, called The Purple Sapphire.


But that's not to say the whole thing is a sham. Over the years several people, while researching their family genealogy, have contacted the Museum to say that they have discovered strong similarities to some of the elements of misfortune recounted by Heron-Allen in his letter. Most interestingly, these families all had some connection with places that Heron-Allen knew, especially Lewes, Sussex.


The conclusion that our Museum scientists have come to, is this: Edward Heron-Allen may have met an aged ex-army Colonel or General either in the course of his work in London, or in some gentleman’s club in Lewes, and heard tales of army life in India, and decided that these would make a good story. Then, years later when he wrote the story, he had the amulet created to make his tale plausible, but perhaps couldn't afford or wasn't able to obtain a large sapphire, so made do with an amethyst.


Of course we can never really know the full story, and as such, I feel compelled to sign off this blog with the final six words from The Purple Sapphire book: “And then I wonder many things"...


To – Whomsoever shall be the future possessor of this Amethyst. These lines are addressed in mourning before he, or she, shall assume the responsibility of owning it.


This stone is trebly accursed and is stained with blood, and the dishonour of everyone who has ever owned it.  It was looted from the treasure of the Temple of the God Indra at Cawnpore during the Indian mutiny in 1855 and brought to this country by Colonel W. Ferris of the Bengal Cavalry. From the day he possessed it he was unfortunate, and lost both health and money. His son who had it after his death, suffered the most persistent ill-fortune till I accepted the stone from him in 1890. He had given it once to a friend, but the friend shortly afterwards committed suicide and left it back to him by will.


From the moment I had it, misfortunes attacked me until I had it bound round with a double headed snake that had been a finger ring of Heydon the Astrologer, looped up with Zodiacal plaques and neutralized between Heydon’s magic Tau and two amethyst scaraboei of Queen Hatasu’s period, brought from Der el-Bahari (Thebes). It remained thus quietly until 1902, though not only I, but my wife, Professor Ross, W.H.Rider, and Mrs Hadden, frequently saw in my library the Hindu Yoga, who haunts the stone trying to get it back. He sits on his heels in a corner of the room, digging in the floor with his hands, as of searching for it.


In 1902, under protest I gave it to a friend, who was thereupon overwhelmed with every possible disaster. On my return from Egypt in 1903 I found she had returned it to me, and after another great misfortune had fallen on me I threw it into the Regent’s Canal. Three months afterwards it was bought back to me by a Wardour St. dealer who had bought if from a dredger. Then I gave it to a friend who was a singer, at her earnest wish. The next time she tried to sing, her voice was dead and she has never sung since.


I feel that it is exerting a baleful influence over my new born daughter so I am now packing it in seven boxes and depositing it at my bankers, with directions that it is not to see the light again until I have been dead thirty three years. Whoever shall open it, shall first read this warning, and then do so as he pleases with the Jewel. My advice to him or her is to cast it into the sea. I am forbidden by the Rosicrucian Oath to do this, or I would have done it long ago.


(Signed) Edward Heron-Allen

October 1904


Last night I was one of the lucky few with a ticket to perhaps the most sought-after event in the Museum's calendar so far this year: Sir David Attenborough's lecture about Alfred Russel Wallace and their shared passion for birds of paradise.


It was the 10th and final event in our Wallace100 lecture series and came on the 100th anniversary of the death of Wallace, who co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin.


Sir David Attenborough celebrates the life of Alfred Russel Wallace and his passion for birds of paradise.


Sir David's lecture focused on Wallace's expedition to the Malay Archipelago in 1854-1862. It was during this time, while suffering from a fit of malarial fever, that Wallace independently conceived his theory of evolution. But the driving force behind the trip, Sir David explained, had been Wallace's ambition to see birds of paradise first hand:


He was driven by passion. Birds of paradise were his great obsession.


Wallace became the first European ever to see the magical displays of the birds of paradise. He called it 'the most beautiful of all the beautiful living forms that adorn the Earth', and being Wallace, and being down to earth, he also wrote 'the flesh is only to be eaten in necessity. It is dry and tasteless'.


He was fascinated by what he saw and it became my ambition to see it also.


During his eight-year Malay expedition, Wallace observed five different species of birds of paradise, more than any other European at the time. He said he considered the standardwing bird of paradise 'the greatest discovery I have yet made'.



The standardwing bird of paradise, identified by Wallace in 1858 and named Semioptera wallacii in his honour.
Coloured lithograph by John and Elizabeth Gould, 1840-1848.


Sir David Attenborough: 'Is there a more elegant cravat in shape or colour worn by any bird? I doubt it'


Wallace's book documenting his travels, The Malay Archipelago, published in two volumes in 1869, included the first accurate illustrations of birds of paradise.


In a time before Wallace, Sir David explained, birds of paradise had been thought to have no legs. According to the Papuans who traded them with neighbouring islands (and in turn European explorers) the birds spent their lives floating high in the sky, feeding on dew. That's how they got their name - they were birds of the gods, birds of paradise. It was only when they died that they fell to earth and could be collected.


The truth was that, because the birds were prized for their colourful and elaborate plumage, their legs were considered unimportant and were simply cut off. A legacy of the legless mythology survives to this day, thanks to the rules of species classification. When Carl Linnaeus first described the greater bird of paradise in 1758 for inclusion in his System Naturae, he gave it the official name Paradisaea apoda, which translates as legless bird of paradise.



Paradisaea apoda, the legless bird of paradise


Sir David closed the lecture by praising Wallace as 'a great scientist, a great man and a tough traveller beyond compare' and read a passage from The Malay Archipelago which he said he 'agreed with every syllable of':

'I thought of the long ages of the past during which the successive generations of these things of beauty had run their course. Year by year being born and living and dying amid these dark gloomy woods with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness, to all appearances such a wanton waste of beauty. It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man, many of them have no relation to him, their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone.'

Alfred Russel Wallace
The Malay Archipelago


For all those who missed out on tickets to our sold-out Night Safari with MasterCard last night, I managed to sneak in so I could get the low-down for you on the science fact behind some well-known tales of fear and fiction.


In our annual Halloween instalment of the popular after hours Museum tour and lecture series, scientists revealed the truth behind popular stories of body-snatchers, man-eaters and mythological monsters.


Upon arrival attendees were broken into three groups: cyclops, kraken and zombies, which corresponded to the topics of the lectures we were about to hear.


It was nice to see three of my fellow cyclops group members, Martin, Genevieve and Deboarh, embracing the Halloween spirit.


First up my group met Gavin Broad, curator of Hymenoptera, who told us about the flesh-eating, mind-controlling habits of parasitoid wasps.


These wasps lay their eggs on or in the bodies of other insects, which are then eaten alive by the baby wasps as they grow. In some cases, the incubating wasps are even able to exert a kind of mind control over their host. In a zombie-like state, the hapless creature will actually lash out at anything that comes too close, in an attempt to protect the parasitoid wasps that are clinging to its body and sucking it dry.


If your Halloween hangover can handle it, take a look at this video of a couple of wasps that, having used their host plant hopper for all it's worth, make a break for it.



Next up Karolyn Shindler gave us a whirlwind lesson in ancient mythology and the real-life beasts that inspired legends such as the cyclops, griffin and unicorn.


The one-eyed, sheep-rearing, man-eating giant of Homer's Odyssey-fame? He was imagined from the bones of miniature elephants found in caves on Cyprus. In a phenomenon known as island dwarfism, over time the large elephants (which probably swam from mainland Europe) shrank down to about the size of pigs.



Marble head of the cyclops Polyphemos, and a dwarf elephant skull.

In a time before science, it's not hard to understand how people thought the nasal passage from which the elephant's trunk protrudes was actually a massive single eye cavity.


The gold-guarding griffin of lore? That one is the result of Protoceratops bones found in the gold-rich Gobi desert. The sheep-sized herbivorous dinosaur, with its parrot-like beak and large head, is quite similar to depictions of the mythical creature that had the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.


And the benevolent horned horse? Well, in Europe it most likely derives from the narwhal horns collected by mariners and sold at port markets, and in Asia, it's attributed to an ancient rhinoceros from the Pleistocene era.


Finally, we heard from Jon Ablett, curator of Mollusca. He explained that the tales of kraken, the legendary sea monsters so large that they could bring down whole ships, are - and here's the scary bit - real!


Pierre Dénys de Montfort's Poulpe Colossal (1810) and Jon Ablett with a pice of colossal squid arm.

Kraken, or giant and colossal squid as they're known in the real world, can grow to around 14 and 18 metres respectively. Their arms and tentacles are covered in saw-tooth-ringed suckers and hooks that help them snare prey.


The evening proved that, like they say, sometimes the scientific truth really is as scary, fascinating and strange as storybook fiction!