tools and trade goods
Given its abundance in volcanic or formerly volcanic areas around the world, obsidian artifacts -- in the form of amulets, tools (including surgical tools), weapons, masks, mirrors, and jewelry -- are one of the more frequently uncovered materials found in archeological excavations.
tsimshian obsidian "spear head"; skeena river, british columbia
Such artifacts have been useful tools in tracing ancient trade routes because the specific chemical composition of each piece is unique, enabling archeologists to determine specific origins.
Archeological evidence suggests that Native Americans traded obsidian from the Pacific coast (where obsidian stores were prolific) to the Atlantic. In British Columbia, modern scientific "finger printing" techniques have dated the trade in obsidian to more than 10,000 years ago.
trephination: ancient surgery
Perhaps one of the most interesting uses of obsidian, archeologically, is as a surgical tool. Used by Neolithic healers as long ago as 7000 BC, obsidian surgical tools are particularly associated with brain trephination, an ancient process to relieve pressure on the brain -- as well as to enable the escape or entrance of spirits -- by removing a piece of the skull (frontal, parietal, or occipital bones).
(Most often performed on adult males -- with fractures from blows produced by heavy objects -- archeologists believe that patients undergoing the operation had an impressive recovery rate because roughly two thirds of the skulls examined reveal various degrees of healing.)
The fact that the edge of a newly chipped obsidian flake is sharper than surgical steel was only re-discovered in the 1970's. Today obsidian blades are currently used by surgeons for heart bypass surgery, eye surgery and cosmetic surgery as obsidian blades cut cleaner, thereby promoting more rapid healing with less scar tissue.
the mirror that smokes
Obsidian was used extensively among pre-Colombian societies throughout North and South America, but it reached its highest development at the hands of the Aztecs. Obsidian was especially sacred to them. Coatlique, mother and "earth monster" in the Aztec creation story, was first impregnated by an obsidian knife, giving birth to Coyolxanuhqui, goddess of the moon, and to a group of male offspring, who became the stars.
, meaning "divine stone," the Aztecs used obsidian to create images of their god of sorcery and divination, Tezcatlipoca
(pronounced " tes-kaht-li-poh'-kah"), the "Mirror that Smokes."
The antithesis of Quetzalcoatl, the "Feathered Serpent" -- who stood for life, love, and luminosity -- Tezcatlipoca represented darkness: he was god of the nocturnal sky, of ancestral memory, of time, and "Lord of the North."
Another aspect of the dark god, was Itzpaplotl (also known as Itzlacoliuhque), "obsidian knife butterfly," the beautiful female goddess of fate, stars, and agriculture who had death symbols scrawled on her face.
And yet another aspect of Tezcatlipoca was Itzcoliuhqui, the "twisted obsidian one," god of the curved obsidian blade," who stood for darkness and destruction: blinded and cast down from the heavens, he struck out randomly at his victims.
sacrifice and sorcery
The Aztec economy was based primarily on corn (or maize) and good crops depended on the sun. To ensure that the sun would have the strength to rise each day, and to prevent the end of the world, Tonatiuh -- god of the Sun -- demanded a regular provisioning of human blood and sacrifices were conducted on a grand scale -- it was not unusual for several thousand victims to be killed in a single day. With sacrificial alters at the top of tall pyramids, built to be as close to the sun as possible, human offerings were often dispatched with the aid of an obsidian-bladed knife, their still pulsating hearts lifted high to the Sun.
malachite and obsidian knife (reproduction)
Aztec priests drew on Tezcatlipoca's power when using obsidian and pyrite mirrors in divination and healing practices.
For example, if a child was suffering from 'soul loss' the healer would look at the reflection of the child's image in an obsidian mirror or a container with water. If the image were clear the child would soon recover -- if it were shadowy, the soul had been lost. (Like the Aztecs, some people in parts of Mexico today believe that 'soul loss' is a cause of illness.)
(Symbolically, eyes are commonly used to represent shining or reflective surfaces such as mirrors or water. The jaguar, primary shamanic animal in Central America, was associated with sorcery and divination, the underworld, caves, water, night, and hunting. Aztec shamans claimed they could read the mysteries of the spirit world in a jaguar's eyes just as they could in an obsidian mirror. The jaguar was so closely identified with mirrors and magic that it became Tezcatlipoca's totem.)
Making good use of obsidian's natural razor sharp edges, the Aztecs used it in the creation of their lethal war clubs and 'swords.' Called a macuahuitl, Aztec swords were wooden sticks whose two edges were each lined with five razor-sharp blades of chipped obsidian -- glass, in effect.
illustration of the macuahuitl; florentine codex
Also used in butchering and in sacrifice, the extreme sharpness of obsidian blades may help to explain why the Aztecs were willing to submit to self-mutilation: they cut their tongues and ears with obsidian blades on ritual occasions, catching the falling blood on the index finger and flipping it in the direction of the sun or the moon. Once believed to be quite painful, it's now understood that a fresh obsidian blade is so sharp one can barely feel a cut into the flesh.
Why didn't the fierce Aztecs fare better against the Spanish? One reason is that the macuahuitl didn't have a tip and therefore couldn't pierce; it was designed only for slashing. Another reason was 'reach' -- macuahuitls were about the same length as a warclub -- an adept Spanish swordsman could fend off an Aztec warrior simply by ducking a sword swing and then running the Aztec warrior through. (It was not until the late 1700s that steel completely replaced obsidian in Mexican technology.
bash'zhini dzil, obsidian mountain
Relatively close to the Aztecs, geographically, the Navajo of the Southwest displayed great reverence for obsidian -- one of their four sacred stones, each of which plays a significant role in the Navajo Blessingway.
The heart and soul of the Navajo start with the four sacred mountains which delineate Din�tah, the sacred Navajo homeland. Each mountain is represented by a sacred stone -- abalone, obsidian, turquoise, or white shell.
mt. hesperus, obsidian mountain
To the east, Blanca Peak wears white shell; to the south, Mt. Taylor wears turquoise; and to the west, the San Francisco Peaks wear abalone shell. On the fourth side, in the La Plata mountain range to the north is the 13,225 foot high Sacred Mountain of the North, Mount Hesperus (Dib� Nitsaa, Big Mountain Sheep) who wears black obsidian; its ceremonial name is bash'zhini dzil
, Obsidian Mountain.
Obsidian also figures in Navajo creation stories. The Navajo chief, Hasteen Klah. told one version which was recorded by Mary C. Wheelwright:
"Then they began to make Man, They made his feet and his toe nails and his ankles of soil of the earth, his legs of lightning, his knees of white shell and his body of white corn and yellow corn.
His veins were of striped corn and blue corn, the calico corn made the hair on his arms and body, the black corn made his eyebrows, and the red corn was his blood.
His heart was of obsidian, and his breath was the white wind; his ear was made of white shell and the ear drum of mica."
The story of the first Dine' hogan was recorded by Father Berard in An Ethnologic Dictionary (The Franciscan Fathers, St. Michels, AZ):
"The poles were made of precious stones such as white-shell, turquoise, abalone, obsidian, and red stone, and were five in number.
The interstices were lined with four shelves of white-shell, and four of turquoise, and four of abalone and obsidian, each corresponding with the pole of the respective stone, thus combining the cardinal colors of white, blue, yellow and black in one gorgeous edifice.
The floor, too, of this structure was laid with a fourfold rug of obsidian, abalone, turquoise, and white shell, each spread over the other in the order mentioned, while the door consisted of a quadruple curtain or screen of dawn, sky-blue, evening twilight, and darkness...."
the queen's conjurer
On the other side of the world from the Aztecs and Navajo, was the famous (or infamous) Dr. John Dee (1527-1608), alchemist, mathematician, astronomer, magician, court astrologer and scryer to Tudor queen, Elizabeth I (1533-1603).
Dr. Dee possessed an Aztec "magic mirror" of obsidian, which according to him was "delivered by the angel Uriel" (from whom he learned the magical language of Enochian).
In actuality, the mirror, made of highly-polished obsidian, was one of many Aztec cult objects and treasures brought to Europe after the conquest of Mexico by Cort�s between 1527 and 1530.
In 1605, the fame of Dee's Magic Mirror was so great that it was popularly supposed to have revealed the famous Gunpowder Plot, a scheme to blow up the King and the House of Lords in defense of the Catholic religion.
During Dee's "research," he supposedly invoked the Enochian angels to visible appearance within his "scrying" crystal (or 'shew-stone') and his magic black mirror of obsidian by means of prayers and certain magical seals; these were just two of the many polished, translucent, or reflective objects which he was said to have used as tools in his occult research.