From Fortean Times 159 (June 2002):

[gloss for the uninitiated: baetyls are 'sacred stones' believed to have assorted powers]

This amiably supplements Steve Moore's Baetylmania piece in FT153:50.

Did Fort himself know this story? The only English translation of Photius's Bibliotheca in his day (JH Freese, London, 1920) was incomplete and stopped well before the operative ch242, also omitted from the recent selection (Duckworth, London, 1994) by Nigel Wilson - R Henry (Budé, Paris, 1959-77) provides a complete French one.

Fort could obviously have read George Moore's 1903 'Baetylia' article mentioned by Steve Moore - any Moore for any Moore? As evidenced by his Index, he consulted many such journals. Falling stones were one of his preoccupations (Books, pp145-60, 959-69), concluding: "It would be much of coincidence, if, at a time of religious excitement, [..] lightning should make its only known, or reported, pictures, on hailstones, and make those pictures religious emblems. But that the religious excitement did have much to do with the religious pictures on hailstones, is thinkable by me."

As Steve Moore shows, there was plenty of religious excitement between pagans and Christians in Damascius's time. He is also right to be cautious about the reasons for Damascius's telling and Photius's retelling the Baetyl tale. Maybe, from their opposite standpoints, both men had the same supernatural agenda.

Damascius is tricky to weigh up intellectually. Surviving works include a philosophically serious treatise On Principles and Commentaries on three Platonic dialogues. Apart from the Life of Isidore (ed. C Zintzen, Olms, Hildesheim, 1967), he compiled this tetralogy: 352 Astounding Tales; 52 Anecdotes Of the Gods; 63 Ghost Stories; 105 forteana. Photius's ridicule (ch130) implies Damascius was credulous, not critical; elsewhere (ch166) he snidely suggests that one Damascian source was the sci-fi novel Wonders Beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes (second century AD?), known to us only from Photius's précis.

Outside Damascius's story, 'Baitulos' occurs Greekly only in the lexicographer Hesychius, who says the original one was given by Rhea to Kronos to eat at the moment of Zeus's birth, thus providing a mythological springboard for later marvels. This link is manifest in a third-century AD inscription from Palmyra (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, 1934, volume 117, no341). According to A Lods, Israel Des, Origines Au Milieu Du Mlle Siècle (A Michel, Paris, 1949, p302), the Greek name comes from Hebrew `Bet'el' (House of The Lord). The second-century historian Philo of Byblus (fr2 paral9) dubbed them "animated stones". Damascius himself (Photius, ch242 para94) remarked on the multitude of Baetyls and Baetylia (a diminutive so rare that some Greek lexica miss it) around Heliopolis. There's no sign of either form in JT Pring's Oxford Dictionary Of Modern Greek (1986). Steve Moore says it "became commonplace" in the 20th century to apply 'Baetyl' to any old sacred stone - the Oxford English Dictionary actually gives but seven entries, 1854-1941, all in academic texts.

Photius distinguishes the many "weird tales" of these Baetyli from the present one. He also quotes (ch242 para233) the pagan Severus's reminiscences of seeing with Isidore at Alexandria several kinds of stones that reproduced all lunar and solar colours and movements.

It's also notable that Eusebius in Damascius's anecdote should be from Emesa - that Syrian town's prize exhibit was a huge black conical stone worshipped locally as having "fallen from heaven" and containing a recognisable diagram of the Sun: Herodian, History, bk3 ch4 para5.

Plenty of magical stones also in book 37 of Pliny's Natural History, containing (ch51 para135) the only Latin occurrence of `Baetulus'. Pliny is generally scornful of supernatural lapidary claims, mostly denouncing the Magi - more Eastern connections - as perpetrators of such rubbish. For the 'Baetulus', though, he is fascinatingly and exasperatingly different, quoting the (to us) unknown gemmologist Sotacus to the effect that Baetuli are common, black, round, and so supernaturally powerful that "thanks to them cities and fleets are attacked and overcome" - now, what do we make of that?

"Phony Baetylmania has bitten the dust" - The Clash (almost)

Barry Baldwin
(reprinted with permission of the Author; blame any typically graphic transcription errors on dm)