I was perusing a shop in Lahaina, HI that sold coral jewelry, when I asked the manager about the origins of the practice of wearing coral as jewelry.
Me: So why did people begin to wear coral for jewelry?
Informant: Well, in the Mediterranean, the practice of wearing coral, specifically red or pink coral, began in Ancient Greece.
Informant: Yes. Do you know of the legend of Medusa?
Me: Yes, it is one of the most well known myths, and she is one of the most well known monstrous figures of Greek mythology.
Informant: Yes. Well, as you must know, Medusa was a gorgon – a woman cursed by Athena who had snakes for hair and who could turn anyone to stone when they made eye contact. Perseus, the hero, was sent on a quest to kill Medusa, which he managed through the use of the gifts given to him by the gods as well as his own ingenuity.
Me: Yes, using Medusa’s reflection on his shield to know where she was without running the risk of being turned to stone.
Informant: Exactly. Well, when Perseus killed Medusa, her body was thrown into the sea, and her blood, which was pouring out of her severed neck, as she was beheaded, crystallized, hardened, ah, fossilized and became the red coral. The Greeks would harvest the red coral from the sea and make it into amulets and protective jewelry to ward off both her evil as well as evil enchantments in general.
Me: So red coral, at least for the Greeks, was originally used for protection from evil?
Informant: Yes, it was. And that’s how red coral, at least, became used for jewelry.
This story, legend, shows how myths and legends can influence a culture to the point that even today when the original purpose for using a particular substance for anything, in this case red coral for jewelry, may be more or less forgotten, or at least not widely known, a practice is still in place. People still harvest red coral and make jewelry from it, and it is now simply viewed as the same as making jewelry from silver, gold, precious, and semi-precious gems and metals. The original purpose is forgotten, but the material is still in use.
For the original myth, see Beekman, E. M.. The Posion Tree: Selected Writings of Rumphius on the Natoural History of the Indies. University of Massachusetts Press , 1981. Print. og 254. There is a translation of the passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and further information.