Back in ancient times when the gods were not only worshipped but took an active role in the affairs of their humans, we come across many references to the precious metals, prized for their magical properties as well as theirmore practical value. Sacred objects and talismans crafted in metal and imbued with divine power were often given as gifts to those who were specially favoured by the gods.
For example, we read in the poet Homer’s Iliad:
”He spoke and hurled his javelin with weighty hand; not in vain, for he hit him below the knee on his shin bone, so that the tin covering of the new, strong shin-plate sounded with a frightful clash; yet the copper weapon bounced back and did not penetrate the shield, a gift of the gods.”
Among the metals, tin has always been held sacred to Jupiter, both the planet and the great protective deity of the Romans. A magnificent temple in Rome built by Etruscan architects in honour of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva was the centre of religious life of the state. Jupiter Optimus Maximus was the great god of the Capitol who ruled benevolently over all affairs of state and law, oaths and treaties, striking down enemies with his thunderbolt, while “governing for the good of the governed,” an unusual concept in today’s world.
The Greek form of Jupiter was Zeus, ruler of gods and mortals. A statue of this deity from around the 5th century B.C. was over 40 feet high, richly decorated, and known as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. As the planet Jupiter is a giant in the solar system (almost a small sun itself), so Jupiter-Zeus shone like a sun in the pantheon of gods.
There is another reference to tin, this metal of Jupiter, in Homer’s Odyssey where the hero Odysseus is described as crossing over to the magic shores of Cornwall, famed for some of the earliest known tin mines since the Bronze Age. In the ancient Celtic world tin and bronze were highly prized and tin from the British Isles travelled through ancient sea lanes to the Mediterranean and as far afield as the Orient.
In Metal Magic, Mellie Uyldert tells of the fearless Tartessian and Phoenician seafarers who on their quest for tin used the Isles of Scilly,’ ‘this ancient desolate archipelago” as a major trading post, exchanging copper, pottery and salt for the tin brought and stored there by the island inhabitants. The Romans later called these islands the Cassiterideslnsulce from which our world for tin-ore cassiterite is derived, also the Greek word for tin kassiteros and the Sanskrit kastira. The Romans called tin ‘white lead’ or plumbum album.
The process of its mining was recorded by the Roman Diodorus (8 B.C.) who described how this metal’ ‘was hewn from rocky ground, extracted from the rock by melting, purified and poured into moulds,”1 the same method used for thousands of years.
As the Iron Age gradually took over many ancient tin mines were abandoned and lay silent in the shadow of the Dark Ages. It was due to Paracelsus, Biringuccio, Leonardo da Vinci and Agricola (his Re Metallica of 1556), that the old methods of mining and metallurgy were reintroduced and the tin mines came to back to their noisy life. By the later Middle Ages tin was again in common use. Combined with lead it formed pewter from which household utensils were made, as well as all the implements of the medieval church. The horsetail plant, high in silica (and a mineral closely connected with tin) was used to scour and shine this popular alloy.
While the rich had their bags of gold and silver, small tin coins were minted in 155 8 for ” small traders and innkeepers.” While the rich were born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths the poor had spoons of tin (both of these metals incidentally, were known to improve the quality of the food on which it was served.)
All over Europe, Uyldert tells us, the metal workers, “all those who work with the hammer” had their own guilds, and up until the time of the industrial revolution gypsy tinkers were a common sight in the neighbourhood repairing old kettles and recycling any broken or worn utensils which could easily be melted down and recast.
The nobility of tin resists the weathering of time, as pewter jugs found on board a sunken Swedish ship testify, still in good condition after more than 300 years under the sea; and tin objects unearthed after 1800 years beneath the city of London ‘shone as new.’
THE SPECIAL PROPERTIES OF TIN
“…in tin strength of form and plasticity of substance are ideally united.”2
Tin shines with a silvery sheen, it is a stable metal and does not oxidize. It has curiously contrasting properties; although soft and pliable (its softness lies between lead and gold) it has a crystalline structure of great inner strength. It also has a brittle quality; when bent, it makes a crackling sound described as the ‘tin cry’ as the inner crystals rub against each other.
Researcher Wilhelm Pelikan notes tin’s unusual tetragonal crystalline structure when compared to the other six traditional planetary metals which generally crystallize in the form of small octahedrons.
In contrast to mercury, tin has the greatest spread between its melting point (2320°F) and its boiling point (20680°F). It strives to maintain its equilibrium between extremes. When heated it loses its softness to become hard and brittle and then disintegrates into a powder. At low temperatures instead of freezing into a more rigid shape it also disintegrates into an amorphous powdery substance.
This powder has the curious property of infecting other tin surfaces it comes into contact with, first by forming blisters that spread until all the metal ‘sickens’ and disintegrates. This sickness was called the ‘tin plague’ and was the scourge of tin roofs in the severe cold of winter.
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