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Fossilized tree resin has been valued for thousands of years, not only because of its yellowy-orange ...
2022-11-22 09:00:00

Tears of the Sun
A Cultural History of Amber

Photo by James St. John, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
Tears of the Sun
Tears of the Sun

People always loved it for its beauty, but mostly they believed in its power. It was said to cure the ailing, and to assist those in the afterlife. Amber, with its aura of mystery, threw a bridge between the living and the dead.

Read in 12 minutes

Amber generally has a yellowy-orange hue, though one also encounters whitish-yellow and brown shades, more seldom cherry-red or nearly black. Green and blue specimens also occur—these can be found in the mountain mines scattered around Santiago in the Dominican Republic. Although amber is extracted all around the world, its largest deposits are found in the Baltic Sea region.

The kind found on Baltic beaches is called succinite, from the Latin succinum, as the Romans  believed that it came from the congealed “juice” (Latin: succus) of trees. Today it is believed to come from the fossilized resin of various now extinct trees—a pine (Pinus succinifera), a golden larch (Pseudolarix wehri), or perhaps a species of Japanese pine shrub.

Seeping out from canals under the bark, the resin protects the plant from fungi and insects, safeguards it against mechanical damage, and helps it survive extreme weather conditions. It is assumed that a sudden change in climate—probably a great increase in moisture—caused Baltic trees to excrete this resin in large quantities. This occurred around forty million years ago, in an epoch known as the Eocene, when prehistoric forests covered an area now partly submerged by the Baltic Sea. The climate of this region was warm and damp back then—it resembled more the tropics of present-day south Asia than its contemporary landscape, with mixed-tree forests and thickets growing on the dunes by the sea.

Over millions of years of physicochemical processes, this Baltic resin was exposed to a variety of conditions, fusing with a wide array of organic substances. This is why amber has a diverse range of marvelously preserved inclusions—organisms and fragments thereof, samples of ancient nature.

Along the Elbe and the Vistula

There was an interest in amber even back in prehistoric times. People were extracting it ten thousand years ago, as is evidenced from its presence in late-Paleolithic burial sites. Yet it was only demand from the ancient inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin that led to the creation of an infrastructure for circulating it on a larger scale.

The first amber shipments set off from the coast of the North and Baltic seas to the Adriatic in the Bronze Era. Initially, the amber trail went along the Elbe, cutting through the Alps, not far from present-day Resia and the Brenner Pass. Over time, however, a new route was marked out, from the Vistula through Greater Poland, Silesia, and the Moravian Gate to the pass of the Eastern Alps, and onward via the Isonzo River to the northern part of the Adriatic Bay. There the road forked: one arm led toward the Padua Delta, the other headed for the eastern coast of the Adriatic, running from there to the shores of the Mediterranean.

Initial trade in the “gold of the north” was probably a series of short-range transactions. The price of amber was already quite high by the time it reached a Greek or Roman customer—many middlemen added their mark-ups along the way. Direct exchange between Italy and the Baltic region only began in the first century CE. It was then, too, that the first measurements were taken of the distances between the two regions. This had not been done before, though not because of limited opportunities or neglect—owing to the secrecy shrouding the amber trail, traders could say it had traveled whatever distances they pleased, often making absurd claims, giving their goods an even more exotic flavor and hiking up the price. High demand for amber caused the communities trading it to grow wealthy. It also brought about a total transformation of the original market in the Mediterranean region and utterly pushed out Sicilian amber.

Death and the Young Man

Italian Etruscans connected amber with the sun, magic, and vitality, but also with death. Pieces with inclusions were particularly associated with the afterlife—ancient life caught in a trap. For the Etruscans, such amber was a symbol of life after death.

To ease the journey to the hereafter, the amber amulets they possessed were placed in Etruscan tombs, to be used in the afterlife. Owing to its supposed magical protective properties, amber  was favored by Etruscan women, and their resting places are where it is most often found—this connection is so reliable that finding amber often helps archeologists determine the gender of the deceased.

Many Mediterranean amber origin myths tie it to the tragic death of young men. The most famous of these is surely the Greek myth of Phaethon, told by Ovid in his epic Metamorphoses (ca. eighth century CE). While it is true that the story was mentioned by older Greek authors, such as Plato and Euripides, Ovid’s version most unequivocally speaks of amber.

Phaethon was the son of the sun god (Roman: Sol; Greek: Helios) and the Oceanid Clymene, and lived in the world of humans, in the kingdom of his father-in-law, Merope. The young man liked to boast of his divine parents, but one day his friend Epaphus, son of Jupiter (Greek: Zeus) and the nymph Io, challenged Phaeton’s parentage. Ashamed, Phaethon went to his mother to beg her to confirm his lineage. While giving him her assurance, she suggested he take his request to Sol himself. Following her advice, Phaethon headed east, through Ethiopia and India, to the glistening palace of Sol. The god greeted him warmly and assured him of his parentage. As proof, he swore on the River Styx he would make his son’s every wish come true. Emboldened by this declaration, Phaethon asked to drive his father’s solar chariot for just one day. Recognizing how perilous this would be for his son, Sol tried to discourage him. Alas Phaethon insisted, and bound by his oath, the father ultimately conceded.

At dawn, Phaethon joyfully set off across the sky. However, the flaming horses pulling the chariot were unable to feel Sol’s weight, and decided their vehicle was empty. Freeing themselves from Phaethon’s control, they ran off course, causing wanton destruction on Earth. The flames of the low-riding chariot consumed the lands, scorching the hills, fields, and forests, drying out the rivers. Libya became a desert, and the skin of Egypt’s inhabitants went dark. The horses’ rampage brought Gaia herself to a pause, and she in turn called upon Jupiter, who, having no other option, cast a bolt of lightning at the chariot. Cast down from the sky and set aflame, Phaethon fell into the waters of the river Eridanus.

“The Fall of Phaeton, from the series Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” anonymous Netherlandish artist (after Hendrick Goltzius), ca. 1588. Source: MET (public domain)
“The Fall of Phaeton, from the series Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” anonymous Netherlandish artist (after Hendrick Goltzius), ca. 1588. Source: MET (public domain)

His mother found her son’s grave far up north, and she and her daughters, the Heliades, mourned his death. Their grief lasted so long that the daughters turned into black poplars. Yet their tears flowed on. Hardened in the sun, they fell from the virgin branches as amber. These were swept up by the bright river, found by humans, and gathered to decorate the homes of brides.

Illustration for Ovid’s Metamorphoses (by Nicolas Renouard), Jean Mathieu, ca. 1619 (public domain)
Illustration for Ovid’s Metamorphoses (by Nicolas Renouard), Jean Mathieu, ca. 1619 (public domain)

The Rubble of an Underwater Castle

Contemplating the origins of amber was quite popular in Antiquity. It is mentioned, for example, by Roman historian and writer Pliny the Elder, born in 23 CE, who devoted a great deal of space to amber in his Natural History. Recapping the various ideas on the applications and origins of amber, Pliny mentions, for instance, the fantastical opinion of Athenian politician Nicias (ca. 470–413 BCE), according to whom it was a fluid produced when the rays of the setting sun struck down hard on the surface of the Earth and left behind a thick, amber-colored “sweat,” later scooped up by the tide and tossed onto the German shore. Despite many such theories, Pliny was conscious of the organic origins of amber. He was convinced that it came from the resin of old pines growing near the North Sea—perhaps in the land of the Hyperboreans on the mythic island of Avalon.

Elsewhere, Pliny’s Natural History rejects the opinion of Athenian speaker and demagogue Demostratus, who named amber with the Etruscan lyncurion, tracing its origins back to the urine of a wild beast known as the “lynx” (the male of the species was thought to produce a red-tinged amber substance; the female, a white one). Pliny aptly observed that this creature must not have been a beast, but in fact a tree the Etruscans called “lynx.” A mistake like Demostratus’s was repeated by many other Roman writers and historians—hearing the word “lynx,” they immediately assumed it was an animal.

Pliny also cites the original German name for amber—glæsum—which later transformed into the English word “glass.” The present German name, Bernstein—derived from the Lower German börnstēn, which means “fiery stone”—is a precursor to the modern Polish word for amber, bursztyn. In turn, the Phoenician jainitar (“sea resin”) gave itself to the old Slavic cognate jantar (“amber”), as well as the Lithuanian gintaras and the Latvian dzintars. The old Lithuanian and Latvian legends describing the creation of amber are quite interesting. They speak of an underwater amber palace destroyed by Perkūnas, the god of thunder, its rubble regularly washed up on the shore of the Baltic.

Religion, Magic, Medicine

Undoubtedly, the fact that amber is warmer and much lighter than other gems, and above all, has electrostatic properties, convinced the ancients of its supernatural quality. As a result, it was more in demand for ritual purposes—funerary rites, religious and magical ceremonies, for restoring health—than for decorative use. 

It was used for ceremonial fragrances, in oils, ointments, and incense, like those found in Etruscan tombs. Bits of finely crushed amber were left there, most likely as incense for the hereafter (or at least during the journey to the afterlife). Ancient Egyptians also burned bits of amber, often joining the incense with a symbol of divinity. They believed the smell of burnt resin helped them to reveal the presence of gods; it also simply brought them pleasure. They believed amber came from the tears of the sun god, Ra.

In ancient Greece and Rome amber was used in restorative rituals. It was believed to have the power to absorb illness and misfortune, much as it could attract light objects. Mention of the curative use of amber is even found in the works of the father of medicine, Hippocrates, and its beneficial properties were seen as indisputable right up to the 19th century.

Amber was used to make a curative powder, and was later distributed in a whole array of medicinal products: lozenges, tablets, drops, and various tinctures. It was recommended as a remedy for a vast number of ailments, from urinary tract problems to asphyxiation, from drunkenness to impotence, and for a gamut of transmittable diseases. Pliny mentioned the medicinal properties of amber, attributing the following advice to a little known Roman author, Callistratus: “[...] good for any age, as a preventive of delirium and as a cure for strangury, either taken in drink or attached as an amulet to the body. [...] triturated with honey and oil of roses, it is good for maladies of the ears. Beaten up with Attic honey, it is good for dimuess of sight; and the powder of it, either taken by itself or with gum mastich in water, is remedial for diseases of the stomach.”

Grind It up with Crab Eyes

In later centuries, amber was increasingly cited as a medicine for various ailments. German doctor Eucharius Rösslin, alive at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, author of European bestseller on midwifery Der Rosengarten (The Rose Garden), recommended taking amber pastilles, along with four or five spoonfuls of water plantain, to cure excessive menstrual bleeding.

One hundred years later, Felice Passera, an Italian monk of the Capuchin order, wrote in his treatise Il nuovo tesoro degl’arcani farmacologici galenici, e chimici [The New Treasury of Galenic Pharmacological and Chemical Arcana]: “It heats, dries, gently shrinks, tranquilizes, and bolsters.” He took his knowledge of amber’s properties from the writings of a great Greek doctor of the Roman period, Claudius Galenus, known as Galen of Pergamon. In 17th-century Europe, he still enjoyed considerable authority, inspiring, for one, an English collection of medical prescriptions by the Countess of Kent, Elizabeth Grey, who developed a curative amber-based powder. “[...] good against all malignant and Pestilent Diseases, French Pox, Small Pox, Measels, Plague, Pestilence, malignant or scarlet Fevers, good against Melancholy,” ran the ads for the remedy. The countess’s prescription instructed: 

Take of the Magistery of Pearls, of Crabs eyes prepared [small stones chiefly made of the calcium found in crayfish stomachs], of white Amber prepared, Harts-horn, Magistery of white Coral: of Lapis Contra Yarvam [the Dorstenia contrajerva root, imported from Peru], of each a like quantity, to these powders infused, put of the black tops of the great claws of Crabs, the full weight of the rest, beat these all into very fine powder, and searce them through a fine Lawn searce, to every ounce of this powder add a dram of true Oriental Beozar, make all these up into a lump, or mass, with the jelly of Harts-horn, and colour it with Saffron, putting thereto a scruple of Ambergreece, and a little Musk also finely powdered, and dry them (made up into small Trochisces) neither by fire, nor Sun, but by a dry air, and you may give to a man twenty grains of it, and to a child twelve grains.

In the context of this recipe it is interesting that, although amber comes in a wide array of colors, it is the white variety that holds a high quantity of succinic acid, whose medicinal properties have now been confirmed. It is not known what drove the countess to choose the color of this ingredient, but the prescription, supported by numerous testimonies of those she cured, swiftly gained success, and was found in the annals of medicine for many years.

In the late 19th century, the first efforts were made to undermine many of the aforementioned medicinal properties of amber, which belonged more to medical folklore than science. At the same time, the first serious scientific studies commenced exploring the medical applications of the substance. Thus in 1886, Robert Koch, pioneer of modern-day bacteriology, made an analysis of the succinic acid contained in Baltic amber. He stated that there was no risk of it accumulating in the body, and, above all, declared the positive impact of the substance for one’s health. Today it is known that Baltic amber contains from three to eight percent succinic acid, with proven antibacterial and antiseptic effects, which can be of vital significance in treating some drug-resistant bacterial infections.

Although amber stores the energy and memory of millions of years, unlike diamonds it is unfortunately not eternal. Over time it aerates, and owing to its fragility requires special care from its owner. It is worth taking care of, as it holds marvelous stories and extraordinary beliefs, and its beauty has given luster and power to many objects. While it is a fact that science has not confirmed many of the abilities once attributed to it, this is how it goes with amulets: they do not give us any more than we put into them.


Translated from the Polish by Soren Gauger

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