A lodestone is a form of magnetite which demonstrates distinctive magnetic qualities. These qualities led to the use of lodestones as an early form of compass, since they could be used to point the way north. As often happens with scientific phenomena which are difficult to explain, lodestones were historically associated with magical or alchemical events, and many people who practiced magic used lodestones in their work. Magnets and objects with magnetic qualities continue to be popular in alternative medicine and the practice of magic.
Magnetite is a form of iron oxide. When the stone has a particular crystalline structure and chemical composition, it has the potential to become magnetized. If the stone is magnetized, it will be attracted to the Earth's magnetic pole, and when it is suspended in the air, it will slowly turn to point towards the pole. It will also attract iron, as was observed by the Chinese in the fourth century CE. Sailors used lodestones in their navigation; the Chinese appear to have been the first to discover the properties of magnetite in the context of navigation.
The word, in fact, is derived from its early nautical use. “Lode” originally meant a leader, so sailors would “follow the stone” to a specific destination; in the sense of mining, miners also “follow” a lode or rock or minerals to extract the material. The use of a lodestone on board probably made navigation much safer, and it paved the way to creating magnetic compasses and other more sophisticated navigational aides. Lodestones were viewed with some awe by sailors, since the properties of these rocks were quite mysterious.
Superstitious people and mystics also had beliefs about lodestones. Their remarkable ability to always point north made them useful to many people who believed in magic, as lodestones suggest that some sort of supernatural higher power really does exist. Many magical rituals called for the use of a lodestone, and alchemists experimented with the rocks in their hunt for deeper meaning in life. Early medical practitioners used lodestones as diagnostic tools, and they believed that the stones could be used to cure certain medical conditions.
The term “lodestone” is also used to refer to something or someone with strong attractive properties. Many poets, for example, use the term euphemistically, especially in love poetry. This usage suggests that lodestones have played a very important role in human history and development, since many people have strong associations with the word “lodestone.”