A historical eaglestone pendant.

Eaglestones: Historical Amulets for Childbirth


Content warning: Miscarriage/Abortion

Part 1 – What are Eaglestones?

Childbirth can be scary, especially if you’ve never given birth before and don’t know what to expect. Just like we might do today, throughout history, women have talked to each other about it, developed their rituals surrounding it, they have asked midwives and doctors questions, and they have prayed for protection. They have asked for safe deliverance; for both mother and baby to survive this dangerous time. Many objects have been a part of the world of childbirth in the past, from religious relics to special bedsheets passed from one generation to the next. But perhaps none of these objects are as interesting as eaglestones, ancient magical amulets believed to give protection during this dangerous time in women’s lives. There’s evidence of their use from antiquity to the 19th century, throughout Europe. Women kept them by their beds or wore them in long necklaces, so that the stone, as a pendant, was close to their bellies. They were commonly tied with string to a woman’s left arm to protect against miscarriages and, later, to her thigh, during the delivery, to make it easier, safer, and quicker. Let me tell you about these stones – and the many myths that surrounded them.

The legends surrounding eaglestones go back thousands of years, but let’s start with Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th-century botanist, astrologer, physician, and one of my favourite popular medical writers. This is how he defined ‘eaglestones’:

‘Aetites, or the stone with child, because being hollow in the middle, it contains another little stone within it, it is found in an Eagles nest, and in many other places; this stone being bound to the left arm of women with child, staies their miscarriage or abortion, but when the time of their labor comes, remove it from their arm, and bind it to the inside of their thigh, and it brings forth the child, and that (almost) without any pain at all.’

Let’s go through Culpeper’s description. Eaglestones were called ‘aëtites’ or ‘echites’ from the Greek for eagle, ‘aetos’, or ‘aquiline’, or ‘aquilaeus’, from the Latin ‘aquilae’. And that’s because these stones were believed to be found in eagles’ nests, as Culpeper mentioned. In fact, female eagles were believed to use these stones to make their nests more secure. The English writer John Lyly described them in 1636 as  ‘ the precious stone Aetites which is found in the filthy nests of eagles ’. That seems unnecessarily mean to eagles, but ok. Other authors believed them to come from inside the eagle’s bodies, such as from their necks, which seems to come from the 15th-century Peterborough lapidary, which mentions the eagle swallowing the stone. But this idea wasn’t as widespread.

Today, we’d call them geodes. They were hollow stones, formations enclosing loose crystals that could move around and rattle and so they would be like a ‘pregnant’ stone – a stone with a smaller one inside it. It was because of this feature that they were connected to childbirth; their power to help pregnant women shows how analogic reasoning was central in medical thinking in the past: the stone inside a stone was just like a baby inside its mother. So, the stones were believed to prevent pregnancy loss and make the delivery easier and safer. This belief in the stones and their use as amulets was transmitted orally, especially among women, through the rituals of the birthing chamber. They were believed to protect expectant mothers from natural accidents, but also from baby-snatching demons like Gello, whose legends survived in popular culture among women.

In Culpeper’s book, you would find eaglestones in a section called ‘Mettals, Minerals, and Stones’ – which also included bezoar and toadstones. Next to the entry on eaglestones, there are printed marginal notes mentioning Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides as the sources. You see how footnotes are not a new thing! And I’m not the only one who mentions Pliny all the time, Culpeper was the same! Anyway, Culpeper might have wanted to bolster his authority on the matter, maybe anticipating some readers to be unsure whether to believe him. So he writes at the end of the section:

‘And thus I end the Stones, the vertues of which if any think incredible, I answer, 1. I quoted the Authors where I had them, 2. I know nothing to the contrary but why it may be as possible as the sound of a Trumpet is to incite a man to valor, or of a Fiddle to dauncing; and if I have added a few Simples which the Colledg left out, I hope my fault is not much, or at least wise, venial.’

So, a subtle jab at the Royal College of Physicians, too. But you can see how women weren’t the only ones interested in the subject. The earliest mention of eaglestones that I found was in the ancient Greek philosopher and mineralogist Theophrastus, a disciple of Aristotle. In his De lapidibus, or ‘On stones’, from the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, he described a great marvel: the ‘greatest and most remarkable power, if this be true, is that possessed by the stones which bring forth other stones’, a ‘stone that begets young’, without naming it. Later, the surgeon Dioscorides’ described the legend of these stones and their connection to eagles in his work Materia medica, from around 69 CE. He was intrigued by the possible medical uses these eaglestones could have, as. Centuries later, the latest reference in a medical book I came across was in a re-edition Quincey’s Pharmacopoeia from 1769 (even though we know that they continued to be used for longer). Throughout the centuries, there are many mentions of this magical stone, too many for me to include them all in this text. But it’s worth mentioning that Trotula, the legendary medieval female physician from Salerno, recommended eaglestones. So did Jane Sharp, the famous 17th-century English midwife, who wrote that ‘this stone hanged about a woman’s neck, and so as to touch her skin, when she is with child, will preserve her safe from Abortion [miscarriage], and will cause her to be safe delivered when the time comes.’

In the Renaissance, in particular, there was a surge of curiosity among humanists about all kinds of natural phenomena, especially the ‘wonders’ and ‘secrets’ of nature, and the occult properties of things. Those interested in hermeticism and esotericism, and arcana in general, would have studied these stones seriously. But, because of their role in popular culture and an increase in literacy and commerce, eaglestones were discussed by many who weren’t scholars. They appeared in popular print, too. In Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s edition of Dioscorides Materia medica, which was a central book in Renaissance medicine, eaglestones were discussed at length, and his book sold thousands of copies. Private collections such as the 17th-century ‘Museum of Metals’ by the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi included around 30 images of eaglestones, and the ‘Paper Museum’, a 17th-century encyclopaedia containing over 7 thousand illustrations, compiled in Rome by the collector Cassiano dal Pozzo, included simple explanations of what an eaglestone was. So, this was not just folklore or ‘old wives tales’; all these texts legitimised the use of the stones in connection to pregnancy and childbirth. But where did the connection between stones and medicine come from? Let’s talk about lapidary medicine.

Part 2 – Lapidary Medicine and Magic

So, what is lapidary medicine? Well, the name comes from ‘lapis’, which means stone in Latin. The idea was that, just as plants can have healing properties, so too could precious stones and gems. And, just like herbals listed plants’ properties and medicinal uses, lapidaries were books in which the qualities of stones were listed, with the indicated use for each of them. One of the most famous books to list stones and their healing properties was Albertus Magnus’ Book of Secrets, and you can find the legends about eaglestones under this heading:

If thou will engender love between any two. [But you’ll see, there’s much more to them than ‘just’ making people fall in love]

Take the stone which is called Echites, and it is called of some Aquileus, because the Eagles put these in their Nests. It is of purple colour, and it is found nigh the banks of the Ocean sea, and sometimes in Persia, and it containeth always another stone in it, which soundeth in it when it is named. It is said of antient Philosophers, that this stone hanged upon the left shoulder, gathereth love between the Husband and the Wife. It is profitable to women great with Child [so, pregnant women], it letteth untimely birth, it mittigateth the peril of making afraid, [so it protects from miscarriages] and it is said to be good for them that have the falling sickness [epilepsy]. And as the men of Chaldea say and assum, that if there be any poyson in thy meat, if the aforesaid Stone be put in, it letteth that meat may be swallowed down [so it’s an antidote to poisons]; and if it be taken out, the meat is soon swallowed down, and I did see that this later was examined sensibly by one of our Brethren. [So, he saw this in the monastery where he lived.]

Albertus also recommended wrapping the stone in a linen cloth or calf’s skin and wearing it in contact with your skin, in a place such as your armpit. The belief that gemstones could have medicinal properties was so widespread that jewellery would often be open-backed with that in mind so the gem touched the skin. Any excuse to wear jewellery, right? And don’t forget that women were advised to tie eaglestones around their bodies, so in contact with their skin.

Now, we should keep in mind that there were several other stones believed to have medicinal properties, and many of them were associated with pregnancy and childbirth, such as jaspers, which were good for lactation, and recommended by the fabulous 12th-century nun Hildegaard von Bingen, but also, coral, quartz, chalcedony, sapphires, diamonds, jade, emeralds, pumice, and even lodestones, or magnets. Still, this advice wasn’t always straight-forward (plus not everyone had the budget to be able to afford these lapidary cures), nor was the advice consistent. Some people said that lodestones prevented conception and others, that it encouraged it. I guess both would be right sometimes! All these stones appeared in books of natural philosophy, medical texts, midwifery manuals and pharmaceutical books. These substances had different properties and uses, but they were recommended to avoid getting ill during your pregnancy, facilitating the delivery and helping with the production of milk. Depending on the case, they should be tied around different parts of the body, ingested in herbal drinks in powder, or applied as an ointment to a specific part of the body. Still, the most well-known of these stones were aetites or eaglestones. And this belief in their power was arguably the one to last the longest.  

But let’s talk about magic. Lapidary medicine was closely connected to magic in the early modern period. People sought to heal their bodies and to care for their families however they could; not only to find explanations for their misfortunes but to come up with treatments, with remedies that might bring some comfort and relief. Medicine at the time was very eclectic, it was a mix of Greco-Roman traditions, Arabic writings, folkloric magic, Christianism, and empirical cures. Many medical practitioners, such as wise women, based their cures on practical experience a mixture of knowledge about plants with the folklore about stones and other substances. On the other end of the spectrum, highly educated humanist scholars influenced by Neoplatonism believed in the occult properties of things, and how they might influence people through sympathies. So, the analogy of a pregnant stone being helpful for a pregnant woman could make sense both to a wise woman and a humanist writing in Latin. This apparent contrast is typical of how medicine worked at the time; so it’s not surprising that the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1691, by the London College of Physicians, would feature eaglestones.

Magic in the Renaissance had many different definitions, but most scholars would divide it into demonic and natural magic. The first, as the name suggests, would involve demons and be a perversion of religion, while the second dealt with the occult or hidden properties of natural things, such as stones. This kind of magic was studied seriously by many scholars of the period, as they sought to understand the world around them and the connection between the macrocosm – the universe – and the microcosm – the human body – through a complex network of influences, sympathies and antipathies. In his book ‘A greene forest’, John Maplet uses loadstones/lodestones to explain the occult properties of natural things, and there’s much overlap between the legends concerning lodestones and eaglestones:

they “amazeth also (euen as the Lodestone doth) the beholder by his hid and occult naturall set or vertue.”

If you don’t understand how magnets work, you would probably also think they’re wonders of nature, with occult virtues. There’s more to them than the eye can see. The same goes for eaglestones and you could even say that, in this period, the same goes for the mysterious female body and especially the womb. But wait, because things are about to get weirder.

Part 3 – Even Weirder Eaglestones Lore

You might be thinking – if eaglestones are a pregnant stone, how did they get pregnant? Surely I wasn’t the only one thinking about this? Anyway, here all this mythology gets even more intriguing. Eaglestones are described in the primary sources in many different ways and according to some authors this varied appearance might be explained by the fact that some of these stones were male, and some were female. Lighter and transparent ones were usually believed to be female, and the darker ones to be male. These ideas can be found in lapidary texts from the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. For Pliny the Elder, you would always find the two kinds of stones in eagle’s nests – without them, the eagles wouldn’t be able to reproduce. This idea seems to come from the Greek sophist Philostratus, who was not a naturalist, and he seems to have learned this from Eastern legends. There’s a lot of confusion in this mythology, especially since, centuries later, Albertus Magnus is said to have found one of these stones in a stork’s nest! In 1584, the geologist Bernard Palissy shut these ideas down, saying that they were basically geodes, found in the soil, not eagles’ nests. But let’s go back to Pliny, who believed eaglestones were great for both pregnant women and cattle, because why not, right?

Pliny the Elder described four kinds of eaglestones:

‘…that of Africa is soft and diminutive, and contains in the interior-in the bowels as it were-a sweet white argillaceous earth. The male stone, on the other hand, which is found in Arabia, is hard, and similar to a gall-nut
in appearance; or else of a reddish hue, with a hard stone in the interior. The third kind is a stone found in the Isle of Cyprus, and resembles those of Africa in appearance, but is larger and flat, while the others are of a globular form: it contains a sand within of a pleasing colour, and mixed with small stones; being so soft itself as to admit of being crushed between the fingers. The fourth variety is known as the Taphiusian aetites, […] It is met with in the beds of rivers there, and is white and round […] none of the other varieties of Aetites have a smoother surface than this ‘.

The 7th-century theologian Isidorus of Seville also kept this opposition between hardness and softness, light and dark colours in his descriptions of eaglestones, but this wasn’t just a theoretical discussion by the 16th century. The Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner collected eaglestones – including one with a navel, according to him! He didn’t really believd in the idea of male and female stones, but he was fascinated by how varied they could be. He exchanged letters with friends, who also collected the stones, comparing their shape and colour. For those who believed there were male and female stones, and that eaglestones were really pregnant, you can’t help but ask: could they give birth? Pliny the Elder thought so. He also believed a lot of other crazy things, so this should come as no surprise. So, after a 3-month-long pregnancy, the stones were ready to pop. And that the noise of the cry, either from the mother or the baby was loud enough to wake those who were asleep at night. Now, I’ve never written a horror story, but if I were to do that, I think this would be a very cool premise. Anyway.  

As you can see, discussing lapidary cures in general, and especially eaglestones, was not uncommon among Renaissance humanists. But using the stones was popular among people of all kinds. Their price varied greatly – depending on the story that came with it. If you were buying a rare specimen from Persia or India, it wouldn’t cost the same as a home-grown eaglestone from the neighbouring town, would it? Some were as expensive as precious stones and so only wealthy women would have had access to them. The stones could be expensive; a woman in Scotland, Anna Balfour, included her in her will. But they could be bought from apothecary shops too. According to the Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino, the best stones would be udner the influence of Venus and the moon – making them ideal for women. Many Renaissance women agreed, perhaps most famously Isabella d’Este, the marchioness of Mantua and a fabulous alchemist I have mentioned on this channel before. So, clearly, the eaglestones were found in elilte households (we know that thanks to inventories), but price lists from German shops indicate that they weren’t too expensive. In any case, women were know to borrow eaglestones from friends and family when they were pregnant, or even from midwives. Muslim, Christian and Jewish women all seem to have used eaglestones – the Talmud even mentioned ‘preserving stones’, which were interpreted by some as a reference to eaglestones, as they would protect women from miscarrying. These stones were still sond in French pharmacies in the 19th century. Joan Evans, who wrote a fantastic book about magic jewellery in the 1920s, describes how this belief was still present among rural communities in England in the 20th century.

But if you’re thinking – surely we must be done with this subject – well, there’s more to it. Eaglestones were also believed to detect a thief or enemy, and to cure epilepsy, among other things. Let me quickly go through that. According to Dioscorides, eaglestones are ‘a discloser of a thief, if any put it into ye bread that he offers him, for he that stole cannot be able to swallow down ye things chewed ; and they say also that Aetites, being sodden together with meat becomes a betrayer of a thief, for he who stole, shall not be able to swallow that which was sodden with it ; but being beaten small, and taken in a Cerat made of Cyprinum or Glucinum or of some other of those that warm, doth greatly help ye epilepticall ’. Huh. Centuries later, people like my Giambattista Della Porta, one of my favourite people from the Renaissance, still believed that, as he wrote in his book, Natural Magick. They were also reputed to help with the plague, rheumatism, paralysis, the Kings Evil (scrofula), and fevers. They could also make you rich, wiser, popular and victorious over your enemies, and protect children from harm – not bad, huh?!

These ideas get repeated in many lapidaries throughout the centuries, sometimes with slight changes. The Swiss medical reformer Paracelsus described eaglestones as ‘a gem beyond what is natural, which, by the will of Nature, becomes an instrument of various forms and properties, as the Eagle-stone.’ Not everyone believed these stories about eaglestones, though. The French pharmaciest Pierre Pomet wrote in the 17th century ‘it were to be wished that the Virtues attributed to the Eagle Stone were as certain as they are considerable’ – I love how dismissive his tone is.

Final Thoughts

If you were to look for eaglestones in a museum today, you might come across many different things. Depending on the time and place, they were described as white, purple, red, black, or amber in colour. Their size, porosity, transparency, and shape varied widely, too. The chemical composition might be described as containing iron oxide, aluminium, or silex. The one thing that remained constant was the idea of a pregnant stone, a stone with another one inside it. The belief in eaglestones has passed into folklore and history. The stories about wonderful cures, magical properties, and mystical origins of these fantastical stones have been largely forgotten. But I think it’s worth it knowing about them, and for many different reasons.

First of all, eaglestones are an example of how blurry the line was between magic and science. They remind us how much interaction and influence there was between the worlds of learned medicine and popular folklore and medicine. The English midwife Jane Sharp was writing about them in the 17th century, and even Sir Hans Sloane wrote about eaglestones in the 18th century. They were studied by people like Paracelsus, but your local wise woman would have a few tricks to teach you, too. Eaglestones transcended gender and social barriers, and were part of a European-wide childbirth culture, besides being discussed by humanists.

The second reason why I think these stones are so interesting has to do with community. For those who couldn’t afford them, they would have access to these stones through their social networks, thanks to friends, family, neighbours, and people in their parish. In 1662 the Dean of Christchurch in Canterbury, Dr Bargrave, wrote that he had bought one from an Armenian in Rome. But this wasn’t just for the family’s personal use. He wrote of the stone:

‘It is so useful that my wife can seldom keep it at home, and therefore she hath sewed the strings to the knitt purse in which the stone is, for the convenience of the tying of it to the patient on occasion, and hath a box to put the purse and stone in.’

So, the Dean’s wife would have the eaglestone with her, and, when she attended births, maybe as a gossip or matron, she could share it within the community for the public good, and support the midwives’ in their role. So, besides being family heirlooms, eaglestones could be something that bound the community together, especially the women.

The third reason why I find eaglestones so interesting is that they remind us that the people in the past were just like us. They were also anxious about pregnancy loss, they were also scared of childbirth and the pain that might come with it, they also hoped for healthy babies. So I think that eaglestones serve as a material reminder of female community and solidarity, of the deeply human emotions surrounding childbirth, and how this world was not separate from the world of learned medicine and humanism, but an integral part of it. Some of the legends about eaglestones may be weird or nonsensical but, to me, that only adds to their charm, and I wouldn’t have minded having one on me when I was giving birth. As long as it was removed from my thigh as soon as the placenta was delivered, otherwise the stone might attract the womb and make it come out of the body, and that’s never good, is it? 


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Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or, The London dispensatory (1653).

Pedanius Dioscorides, De Materia Medica (1555).

Conrad Gesner, De Rerum Fossilium, Lapidum, et Gemmarum Maxime (1565).

John Lyly, Euphues the anatomie of wit (1636).

Albertus Magnus, The Boke of Secretes of Albertus Magnus of the vertues of herbes, stones, and certayne beasts (1560).

John Maplet, A Greene forest, or A naturall historie (1567).

Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Materia medica (1544).

Marbode of Rennes, De lapidibus, with commentary and C.W. King’s translation by J. M. Riddle (1977). 

Pliny the Elder, The historie of the world, trans. by P. Holland (1634).

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History of Pliny (1857).

William Salmon, Pharmacopaeia Londinensis (1691).

Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book (1671).

Theophrastus, De lapidibus: edited, with introd., translation, and commentary by D. E. Eichholz (1965).

Further Reading:

C. N. Bromehead, ‘Aetites or the Eagle-stone’, Antiquity 21(81) (1947), pp:16-22.

Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (1998).

T. G. H. Drake, ‘The Eagle Stone, an Antique Obstetrical Amulet’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine , January, 8(1) (1940), pp. 128-132.

Christopher Duffin, ‘A Survey of Birds and Fabulous Stones’, Folklore123(2) 2012, pp. 179–197.

Christopher Duffin, Moddy, R. T. J. and Gardiner-Thorpe, C. (eds.), A History of Geology and Medicine (2013).

Joan Evans, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Particularly in England (1922).

Nichola Harris, ‘Loadstones are a Girl’s Best Friend: Lapidary Cures, Midwives, and Manuals of Popular Healing in Medieval and Early Modern England’, in The Sacred and the Secular in Medieval Healing: Sites, Objects, and Texts, ed. by B. Bowers and L. Keyser (2017).

Jacqueline Musacchio, ‘Imaginative conceptions in Renaissance Italy’, in G. Johnson and S. Matthews Grieco (eds.), Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (1997), pp. 42–60.

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971).

Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (1964).

Thomas Forbes, ‘Chalcedony and Childbirth: Precious and Semi-Precious Stones as Obstetrical Amulets’, Yale J Biol Med. April 35(5) 1963, pp. 390-401.