For thousands of years, the intense red of the grain of cinnabar stone (mineral) captivated people who found many uses for it, such as the creation of artistic works or medicinal substances. It is a rare stone, used in alchemy, which gave it various properties, and therefore different uses. Cinnabar stone has long been used as a pigment for the creation of ceramic decorations, and in the use of numerous artistic paintings. In religious ceremonies, it was often used as a ritual element, a kind of elixir of immortality. Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers used this type of grain for the first time in Western Europe on the painted walls of various caves: Chauvet (c. 35,000 BP), Cosquer (c. 23,000 BP), Lascaux (c. 18,500 BP) or Altamira (c. 14,500 BP). Ochre and charcoal mineral grains seem to have been used in this context. Hematite (Fe2O3) is at the origin of its colour.
In Neolithic times, volcanic activity had an influence on its deposits. The powder of cinnabar stone is precious, due to its rarity, and often difficult to find locally. The Levant region is known to have discovered the first uses of this brightly coloured grain, which is a component of this mineral. This is the case for the overmodeled skull of Kfar-Hahoresh (8200-7000 BC), which is now in Israel. The latter was covered with a plaster composed of this material, although the nearest deposits were in the volcanic area of Anatolia. The largest Neolithic site is ÇatalHöyük (7500-4300 BC), located on the Konya Plain in Anatolia, where traces of this material could be seen on the skeletons and skulls of numerous remains, and also as part of (painted) mural artworks. The red grain in these works was frequently obtained by adding ochre. This emphasised the intensity and brightness of this hue.
In Europe, its use has been recorded in various Neolithic and Chalcolithic archaeological sites, notably in Spain and Serbia, two regions known for their mines. It should be noted that a flint blade, coated with a film of this material, dating from between 5300 and 5200 B.C., was found in a mineshaft at Casa Montero, south-east of Madrid, at a flint mining site. At the La Pijotila site west of Merida, this type of grain was identified in a tomb at Tholos. Significant concentrations of this mineral have also been discovered in the region of Almadén (Ciudad Real). In Neolithic times, this material was discovered in the culture sites of Vinca, in the Balkans. Cinnabar stone, found on pottery fragments, is believed to have come from the Šuplja Stena mine on Mount Avala. At Plocnik, which is further south, a micro-XRF study of the powder found in a container and on the decoration of a figurine has shown that this material was used around 5000 BC, which is the oldest use of the Vinca culture.
In China, the oldest use of this material was found in the Middle Yangshao culture (between 4000 and 3500 BC), located in the Yellow River region. While excavating a large semi-subterranean settlement with a 204 m2 roof, a soil covered with clay and shell powder was discovered. The floor and the walls were coated with it. This structure was probably intended for ritual ceremonies. During the Middle Neolithic period, it was regularly used as grain for painting pottery. The beginning of the Bronze Age is defined by the rise of the state and an urban civilization in Mesopotamia (from 3000 BC), and then in Egypt. We can note the appearance of the first writings, in cuneiform for the Sumerian and in hieroglyphs for the ancient Egyptian. These writings arrive simultaneously around 3,300 BC. Written documents were used to establish the cultural background of any artistic creation. Ochres of this hue (anhydrous iron oxides) are well known in ancient Egypt, especially at Tell el-Amarna. During the first millennium BC, the Egyptians seek this material in Spain.
Its use has been proven in the Lower Period (-750 to -332) and at the beginning of the Greco-Roman period, thanks to writing on papyrus. In the Egypt of the Ptolemies (-323, -23), in the necropolis of Anfouchi in Alexandria, pieces of burnt bones speckled of this colour were discovered. Analysis of these fragments proved that it really was this material. It was also identified on the portraits of the Fayyum. During the Bronze Age period (1500-350 BC), it was used to accompany the funerals of the Chinese elite. The tomb of lady Fu Hao, who died around 1200 BC, still contained all her furniture. Traces of this mineral have been identified at the place where the coffin was placed and on jade objects. Putting this type of red grain on graves and corpses was meant to repel demons. The funerary use of this material, which was very famous in the Bronze Age, continued to develop until the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Its creator, Emperor Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with the idea of death and desperately wanted to create an elixir of immortality. He had a huge mausoleum built for him where he rests next to civil servants and a clay army composed of eight thousand terracotta statues of soldiers and horses. The soldiers were coated with a dark brown lacquer, and two to three layers of pigments of this material, as well as malachite, and azurite. For this, five tons of mercury sulphides and also 25 tons of raw ore of this mineral were used, according to Chen’s analysis.
It also appears in the best known divination technique under the Shang (-1500, -1046) and the Zhou (-1045, -256) dynasties, called pyro-osteomancy. The purpose of the latter was to burn a bone support until it cracked, which represented divinatory signs. As early as 1300 BC, an inscription in jiǎgǔwén characters, attesting to divination, was engraved on the bone. It was applied to some of them in order to enhance them. Under the Zhou, these inscriptions were frequently made with a brush dipped in black ink. An important part of the oracular bones discovered without inscriptions make us think that they were written in ink. Writing in this colour plays the role of a distinctive sign, attesting to the importance of the document. In order to solemnly inscribe oaths of alliance, strips of jade have been drawn with a brush, using this substance (Houma excavations). This gives us an impression of the perpetuation of this value, including a certain majesty in the habit that Chinese emperors had of making annotations on official documents received, using ink of this hue. It should be noted that the latter is associated with a certain nobility there, as it represented the imperial colour under the Zhou dynasty. Later, in Taoist circles, it would become the colour adapted to popular traditions. According to Ge Hong’s Baopuzi, all charms and talismans had to be of this hue.
During the Han Dynasty, the first bronze seals were printed on clay tablets. Very early on, paper was universally used there, and seals were printed directly on the paper, using an ink consisting of the powder of this material, oil and pieces of silk or sagebrush twigs. This use would later develop. When we mark a document with a seal of this colour, it gives us a guarantee of its authenticity. In Greece, Theophrastus (-371, -288) wrote the first scholarly work on the minerals De Lapidus, in which he tells that this material, in the form of rock, comes from Spain and Colchis (Georgia), while the material in the form of sand comes from over Ephesus. It is sufficient to reduce the latter to powder and extract a pigment from it, thanks to several successive washes. Quicksilver can be produced by using a bronze pestle to grind the material with vinegar. When studying the fresco of the marble throne backrest of the “tomb of Eurydice”, one notices a highly diverse range of pigments, put on a lead white undercoat. This is an essential component that will produce the pink used for the clothing of the gods and also for the chariot (Brécoulaki, 2000).
Aineia’s cist tomb III revealed yellow ochre, which mixed with kaolinite, will serve as an undercoat for this material, to erase its intense hue and create an orange colour. Painters were conquered by the intensity of its red, and used it to write inscriptions on marble (according to Pliny, XXXIII, 122). When mixed with white (lead white or calcium carbonate), it has a specific pink colour, which is very effective in making the complexion of the face more realistic (Haghios Athanassios tomb, tomb of the Palmettes). It was often used because of its easy access in mercury deposits in Macedonia and surrounding areas. Much later, towards the beginning of this era, Vitruvius preceded Dioscorides and Pliny to agree on a change of terminology, which was to be for a long time a source of awkward confusion. They now call this ore “minium”(in Latin) and spread the idea that it is a very harmful poison, to be used exclusively for its grain, making it possible to obtain this type of scarlet hue in mural paintings. Since it is one of the most expensive, very strict protective measures are established to combat its falsification and imitation.
Imported from the mines of Almadén in Spain, it is transported in its raw state to Rome where it is processed in multiple specialized workshops located at the foot of the Quirinal. Vitruvius also alerts us to this material’s colour tendency to blacken on the outside walls, as is the case with peristyles. He tells us that there was another type of this material, coming from the mines of the Apennines, much less appreciated by the painters of Pompeii, because their rich patrons wanted the most magnificent, expensive and eye-catching works. Pliny explains that this material had a prestigious reputation in Rome and that it was sacred. Referring to older authors cited by Verrius, he states that, “it was customary, on feast days, to coat the face of Jupiter himself and the bodies of the triumphant ones with this material” (Pliny, H.N. XXXIII, 111). Pausanias also tells us about a statue of Dionysus stained with this material. Finally, wondering about the religious notion linked to the latter, Pliny says : “ it is established that even today the “minium” is sought after by the Ethiopians, that their high-ranking persons are entirely dyed with it and that in this country it is the colour of the gods’ statues”.
Sublime murals made of hematite and cinnabar put on a rubrica (ochre) undercoat embellished pretty houses (such as the House of the Griffins or the House of Augustus in Rome) or rural houses (such as Boscoreale’s villa in Campania), all of which were possessed by powerful men. The Roman method of painting with cinnabar was brought to Gaul, first in Provence (conquered in 123 B.C.), and then to the whole of Gaul, after the conquest by Caesar in 52 B.C. It should be noted that a long compartment or long red field of this material can be seen in Roquelaure, in the Gers. This suggests that the Greco-Romans first made aesthetic use of it, in contrast to other great civilizations. There was an important exploitation in the region of Huancavelica, in ancient Peru. It was after the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1564 that the Huancavelica mine, which contained it, was perceived as one of the largest sources of mercury in the world. It is believed to have produced 36,000 tonnes of mercury until it closed in 1974. Traces of mercury pollution have been found in lake sediments dating back to 1400 BC.
It was probably mined to create a grain of this colour, which was used for body paint and as a decoration for ceremonial objects. Sediment contamination (with this chemical element) stabilized and then increased. The grain of this material was used to decorate ceramics, and also the graves of important people of the Chavín, Moche, Sican and Inca civilization. In Mexico, the most important deposit is located in the Sierra Gorda, in the state of Querétaro. It has surely been considered the most sacred grain of all Mesoamerican cultures. It represented high-ranking individuals, as was the case with the tombs of the King of Calakmul. It covered the totality of the funerary elements, from the royal shroud to the funerary objects as well as the walls of the tomb. At Teotihuacan, a partially burnt adult body was found. It was covered with this red grain. The Maya also used it in their funeral rites.
In Palenque, in a tomb located under Temple XIII, a tomb with walls covered with this type of pigment was found. The bones of three individuals were found there, covered with a 3 mm layer of pigment. There were two sacrificed individuals and a queen. According to specialists, cinnabar stone (and hematite) would represent blood and rebirth. This is because blood represents the link between death and rebirth as when there is a birth, and the baby comes into the world covered in blood. Covering a corpse with this material would offer it rebirth, and act as a kind of elixir of immortality. One observes within the two great Chinese and Amerindian civilizations, a rather identical use of this material, within the framework of funerary (elixir) and religious traditions, and also as a symbol of prestige. The use of this material in (painted) murals certainly reached a high technical level in Pompeii, but it needed a theoretical and ideological perspective. A new knowledge about metals and minerals was to be born in the coming centuries in India and in the Mediterranean Basin.
The creation of grains and the use of cinnabar would be linked to alchemical knowledge on the transmutation of metals. Alchemical theories will be scrupulously linked to the cultural, philosophical, spiritual and medical environments in which they appeared. From a purely symbolic use in the Neolithic period, this material will then be inscribed, with the appearance of writing, in movements of thought such as alchemy and medicine. For your information, alchemy is an occult science popular in the Middle Ages, born of a combination of chemical methods kept secret and mystical speculation. These polymorphic doctrines, deeply rooted in particular cultural identities, will be affected by the chemical revolution in Western Europe. The latter will offer autonomy to chemistry and, more generally, will constitute a clear cut between the sciences and the various forms of knowledge.
Nevertheless, the differentiation will be less clear in India and China, where many remnants of this ancient knowledge continue to remain in traditional medicines. After the chemical revolution and the development of science, the uses of cinnabar, which were stigmatised, diminished to make way for artistic uses only, and finally became exhausted because of the awareness of its dangerousness. In China, beliefs about the pathogenic influence of demons continued to spread throughout all social classes. Almost all famous authors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) eras believed that demons were responsible for diseases. And to defend oneself against these destructive forces, the recommended medication was very violent. For example, Sun Dejun (fl. 1826), a well-known physician, advised a pill to fight against demon attacks, composed of tiger skull, cinnabar, realgar, and orpiment. The method of carved lacquer appeared in China in the seventh century (under the Tang), and developed fully under the Ming and Qing. These so-called “Peking” lacquers are obtained by applying multiple layers of lacquer and then sculpting them. Their main colour is this vermilion hue which is obtained thanks to a very fine grinding of cinnabar; hence the name “cinnabar lacquers”, which is still often associated with them.
In Europe, true vermilion (natural or synthetic) could no longer be found in artists’ shops around 1880, according to Eibner. The most coveted vermilion among painters came from Holland and China. The Dutch imported cinnabar from mines in Germany and managed to convert it into vermilion using undisclosed processes. The Dutch manufacturing process was a change from the dry process, known to the Chinese, Arabs and first the Greco-Egyptians. By heating mercury and sulphur together, a black mass of sulphide of this chemical element appears, which is converted by sublimation at very high temperatures (above 580°C). The Germans created a cheaper process for converting ethiops mineral into vermilion. They heated it in ammonium or potassium sulphide. This technique later exploded in Europe. In the West, cinnabar was used as a drug and, until 1850, was one of the treatments for syphilis and skin diseases. This use was banned in the nineteenth century because of its harmfulness.
CThis stone results from the grinding and washing of the mineral species of mercury sulphide. Chemically, it has sulphur in a ratio of 1 to 1 (with 14% sulphur). After the Greco-Egyptians, the Chinese and the Arabs, European alchemists first wanted to synthesize this material, using sulphur. Synthetic cinnabar stone, also called vermilion, of a vivid hue, was used to decorate manuscripts with illuminations as early as the eleventh century. Natural cinnabar was used from the Neolithic period onwards in (painted) mural art works in ÇatalHöyük in Anatolia (in the 8th-7th millennium BC). It was then used in many parts of Eurasia and America. The way cinnabar has been used has varied over some ten millennia, all around the world and in diverse cultures. Cinnabar powder has been used in many funerary rituals, as well as in spiritual journeys (to have a long life).
It is also used for alchemical research, therapeutic purposes, or in the creation of works of art. The vivid colour of cinnabar stone represents symbolic values that vary according to time and culture, but always revolve around the themes of immortality. Purely symbolic in the Neolithic period, cinnabar stone later participated, with the appearance of writing, in currents of thought such as alchemy and medicine. The use of this grain in painting and decoration was very frequent, until the chemical revolution dealt it a fatal blow. It can be said that its use will end by itself because of the awareness of the danger of mercury. Cinnabar stone is formed from the cooling and consolidation of magmatic fluids residues. The best known cinnabar mines are in Almaden, Spain, Mount Amatia, Tuscany, and Idria, Slovenia. The most beautiful cinnabar crystals come from China, especially from the province of Guizhou.
Cinnabar stone (ore) is reputed to give strength and courage. It helps us to face difficult situations. It also increases our power of persuasion. It has a positive effect on the entire circulatory system and stimulates the immune system. It has the ability to promote hearing. Cinnabar is not recommended for people who are too stressed, impulsive or cardiac. It will help you to improve your intuition and increase your alertness, in order to enjoy a more harmonious life. You will then be able to use your thoughts and creativity better. It is a transformation crystal with great practical power. This stone is very useful in mediations. It will help you to better understand the flow of energy from the divine source to the physical sphere. To use it properly, keep it near the place where you receive your money. This would potentially bring you an increase in income. Its energy will always be beneficial. It will increase your assertiveness, and help you to be more argumentative and persuasive. This stone will bring you much prosperity in your life..
It also has the reputation of increasing your self-confidence and making your communication more fluid. It is often called “the stone of the merchants”. It gives energy, and in practice reduces aggression. It improves concentration. It has a strong resonance in the sacred chakra and the base or root chakra. This type of energy is known to improve the quality of awakening of your kundalini. It will promote a greater flow of vital energy in these lower chakras, where it is appreciated for having a positive impact on sexual feelings, and for improving personal relationships. It will be practical to help you get rid of fear and resentment, and will allow you to accept the wounds caused by anger and jealousy. It has a long vibrational power, which will melt away excessive energy, taking every past excess through the base chakra to the earth chakra, to improve the spiritual grounding field of your life.
This stone purifies the blood, increases its quality and promotes a balanced circulation. It also stimulates the creation of lymphocytes. It is therefore a perfect ally in case of deficient immunity, for those who wish to have a long life path. It has the ability to strengthen the bones and has an impact on fertility. It is also attributed with soothing qualities, as it relieves bloating and has a beneficial effect on skin disorders, for those affected by such ailments. In Chinese tradition, there are practically three fields of cinnabar stone, which are linked to the Taoist trinity: Earth, Man, Heaven. Modern medicine no longer uses this substance since the evidence of its toxicity has been clearly demonstrated.