What’s behind the enduring popularity of crystals?
A detail of the Manhattan Shale which formed 450 million years ago in Central Park in New York, NY, Wednesday, April 2, 2008. AP Photo by David Humphrey
As New York City Mayor Eric Adams attends ribbon cuttings, parades and bulldozing dirt bikes, he wears an energy stone bracelet given to him by his supporters. In a recent interview, Adams spoke about his belief that New York City has a “special energy” as it sits atop a storehouse of gems and rare stones – the so-called “Manhattan Shale”. , which is over 450 million years old and contains over 100 minerals.
Adams is not alone in giving rocks metaphysical significance. In the first year of the pandemic, the crystal industry boomed as customers hoped the gemstones could ease their anxiety.
Some people might be confused about the appeal of these stones. But crystal lovers are not deviants. Current ideas about crystals come from a larger tradition called “metaphysical religion” that has always been part of the American spiritual landscape.
more than rocks
Technically, a crystal is any material with a repeating pattern of atoms or molecules. Crystals for sale in stores are known as euhedral crystals because they have well-defined surfaces, or “faces.”
For centuries, people have attributed special properties to crystals. Scientist Carl Sagan, in his book “The Demon-Haunted World”, traces their modern popularity to a series of books written in the 1980s by Katrina Raphaell, who founded the Crystal Academy of Advanced Healing Arts in 1986.
Crystals are not just eye-catching stones. Quartz is used in electronics because it has piezoelectric properties that cause it to release an electrical charge when compressed. But, as skeptics are quick to point out, there is no evidence that crystals can bring health, prosperity, or any of the other properties that crystal lovers may attribute to them.
Yet crystals are part of a larger tradition called metaphysical religion, a term coined by historian Catherine Albanese.
Metaphysical religion includes modern New Age movements, a nebulous milieu of alternative spiritual beliefs and practices, such as synchronicity or psychic abilities. Older traditions like mesmerism, the idea that human beings emit magnetic energy that can be used for healing, and spiritualism, the belief that mediums can communicate with the dead, also fall under the metaphysical umbrella.
Albanese attributes four characteristics to metaphysical traditions: a concern for the mind and its powers; “correspondences”, or the idea of hidden links between things; a tendency to think in terms of energy and movement; and a desire for salvation understood as “comfort, solace, therapy, and healing.”
Metaphysical ideas about crystals exhibit each of these characteristics.
While crystals are physical objects, not thoughts, many crystal enthusiasts recommend “clearing” and “charging” crystals through visualization and other meditative techniques. Thus, the spirit plays a key role in Crystalline Spirituality, as in other forms of metaphysical religion.
Correspondence refers to the belief found in many occult traditions that ordinary things possess secret qualities or connections to other things. A classic example is astrology, which postulates a correspondence between one’s date of birth and certain personality traits. Metaphysical claims about crystals also reflect a belief in correspondences. For example, Colleen McCann, a self-proclaimed shaman affiliated with crystal supplier Goop, has described the positive qualities of different crystals: bloodstones promote good health, rose quartz helps with love, and pink mangano calcite is good for the sleep.
Modern crystal enthusiasts often use words like “energy” and “vibration” which present their ideas in a scientific register. When devotees talk about crystal energy – as Eric Adams did – they really mean that it exerts influence in a certain proximity. This is the principle of crystal water bottles which can be used to ‘charge’ water with ‘vibrational energy’.
Stripped of scientific language, the logic of energy and vibration is another form of what anthropologist James Frazer has called “contagious magic” found in many cultures, where the simple act of placing a thing next to another is supposed to cause an effect.
A source of stigma
Finally, metaphysical religion tends to focus on solving problems in this life rather than the hereafter. This includes health and prosperity, but also emotional growth and well-being. Crystalline spirituality is certainly centered around these worldly goals.
This is a big difference with traditions like Christianity which emphasize salvation in heaven. It is also a factor that explains why metaphysical ideas are stigmatized despite their popularity.
Protestant Christianity, which emphasizes “sola fides” – faith alone – has historically rejected many forms of material religion, or objects with religious significance, as superstition. Thus, in a culture shaped by its historically Protestant majority, some Americans may be predisposed to view crystal spirituality as foolish, greedy, or even blasphemous.
But while claims about the hidden properties of crystals lack scientific validation, so do many claims from Christianity and other mainstream religions.
Historically, Adams’ ideas about crystals do not make him an outlier. As a scholar of religious studies, I see it as a normal part of the American religious landscape.