pyrite cube from Navajun, La Rioja, Spain
|Origin||Navajun, La Rioja, Spain|
Pyrite was known even in ancient times. Its name is derived from the Greek pyr (`fire’), because sparks fly from it while it is being broken. Striking it produces sparks strong enough to ignite tinder, and it was in this way that early man mastered fire: striking with flint.
Roman legionnaires were still using the technique centuries later, lighting their fires by striking it with nails. Medicinal properties have long been attributed to pyrite, including its use in powdered form to treat boils and scrofula – a common practice which lasted well into the eighteenth century.
In Greece it was considered to have healing powers (stopping ‘blood decay’) and was therefore worn as an amulet. The Incas in South America made mirrors from it. Intricately decorated mirrors were discovered in the pre-Columbian tombs of Peru, it is sometimes called “Incas’ mirror”. Large polished slabs have been found in their graves and this is why it is sometimes called ‘the stone of the Incas’. Some practical facts relating to pyrite were compiled by natural scientists of the Middle Ages, who based their findings on the experience of miners. Many people are familiar with the small golden yellow grains or crystals of pyrite in coal, which at first glance look like gold. The black streak of pyrite (in contrast to the yellow streak of gold) soon proves the difference. The largest quantities of pyrite are contained in metamorphosed and non-metamorphosed sedimentary rocks, in which it develops by sedimentation in a poor supply of oxygen. Pyrite often forms crystals of various shapes and combinations. The typical shapes that are formed include cubes (often striated), octahedrons and pyritohedrons.