Amber Through the Ages: Origin Myths, Medical Uses, and Beautiful Baubles
Amber, or succinite as a mineralogist might call it, hails from simple beginnings. It is simply fossilized tree sap. For something so humble, it has managed to captivate the human imagination for millennia. Maybe it’s the fact it is easily shaped into beautiful forms. Or maybe it's the experience of holding something in your hands that was once part of a living thing millions of years ago. Whatever the reason, humans have been fascinated by amber for a long time. Not just pretty to look at, for many ancient peoples it had strange magical properties. So where did this obsession with amber come from?
Myths about Amber’s Mysterious Origin
Ancient Mediterranean cultures were particularly enamored with amber. While amber could be found in Europe and Sicily, the majority of the resin these peoples used came from the Baltic area. Rather than being dug up, this amber washed up on beaches where local craftsmen could collect it. Baltic amber was naturally rough, so the pieces were pared down to more manageable sizes and then cut, carved, and polished to be put into jewelry or ornaments.
Of course, ancient people had no idea where this strange but beautiful material came from. The idea that they were handling 40 million-year-old tree sap was completely beyond their comprehension. Human curiosity meant rumors and myths soon started to crop up as to amber’s origins. Some were grand, some were weird, and one in particular, was pretty gross.
Ovid, a Roman writer from the first century AD, used the old story of the goddess Clymene and her tears to explain where amber came from. In Greek mythology, Clymene was an Oceanid (minor sea goddess) and the daughter of the Titan Iapetus. Clymene had a son, Phaethon, with the sun god Helios. One day Phaethon, eager to prove himself, took it upon himself to drive Helios's chariot. Every morning Helios would drive his chariot across the sky, dragging the sun behind him.
Tragically, the young god lost control of the chariot and risked crashing the sun into the earth. To stop the disaster, Zeus was forced to shoot Phaethon out of the sky with one of his mighty thunderbolts. The young god perished, and his mother and sisters were so distraught by grief that they transformed into poplar trees. Amber was said to be the crystallized remnants of their tears. The Greek name for amber was electrum, which was derived from their word for the sun, elector.
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The Fall of Phaethon, by Jan Carel Van Eyck, circa 1636. The grief of Phaethon’s mother and sisters over his death was so profound, they transformed into poplar trees, and their tears turned to amber. ( Public Domain )
Another Greek myth tied amber to the death of the Greek hero Meleager. Meleager’s mother was told before his birth that her son would live for as long as an ember in her fireplace could survive the flames. His mother quickly extinguished the ember and hid it away in a cupboard.
Meleager grew up to be a great hero, but for some reason (sources conflict) Meleager ended up killing his uncles. His mother was so upset that in a fit of rage she threw her son's ember into her fireplace. When the ember went out, so did her son's spark. It was said the hero's death was so tragic that the birds of the earth cried. Their tears solidified into amber.
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Depiction of the death of Meleager, circa 1787 ( Public Domain )
Ovid wasn’t alone in his ruminations on the origins of amber. Other ancient writers claimed amber was just a ray of sunlight that had somehow solidified when it struck the earth. Others believed it came from a mysterious temple in Ethiopia or a river in India.
Perhaps the strangest theory was that amber came from male lynx urine. Apparently, male lynx urine is much darker in color than that of the female lynx. So dark in fact, that it is close in shade to that of amber. So, obviously amber must have come from lynx urine.
Although some of these theories are fun, it seems unlikely that many ancients put much stock in them, perhaps only the most superstitious among them. Other writers were much closer to the mark as to amber’s origins. Aristotle was correct when he described it as a “hardened resin”. Combine that with the story of Clymene turning into a tree and crying and it’s clear the Greeks were not entirely baffled about the nature of amber.
Pliny the Elder Follows the Clues
The Roman writer Pliny the Elder came the closest to solving the riddle, however. When writing his Natural History , he attempted to describe and classify all the precious stones and materials the Romans had so far come across. When it came to amber, he noted that it was a common material that was widely traded and used in jewelry. He struggled to come up with a reason as to why the material was popular.
As to amber’s origins, Pliny essentially threw out all the old myths. He also debunked most of the claims of where amber supposedly came from. He suspected that amber came from pine tree sap, noting that when burnt, amber smelled of pine.
Pliny the Elder also came to the conclusion that amber had at some point gone from a liquid to a solid because how else could insects get trapped inside it? He was not familiar with the idea of fossilization, however, and declared that some strange mechanism of the sea was responsible for turning the liquid sap into solid amber.
The Mystical Properties of Amber
So why did amber become so popular? The practical answer is that it is easy to work with, relatively abundant, and easy to source, compared to say, emeralds, which during this time could pretty much only be sourced from mines in Egypt.
Compared to precious stones, amber is comparatively soft and pliable. Craftsmen used saws, files, and drills to turn amber into the desired shape and then engrave it. Try sawing an emerald or diamond in half with a 2,000-year-old saw and see which quits first, the saw or the diamond.
The only downside to amber is that as an organic compound it doesn’t last forever. While amber can be polished until it gleams, that gleam eventually fades. Once exposed to sunlight or air, amber loses its luster. As it gets older, it becomes increasingly opaque. Amber pieces that were crafted by the ancients are often not as impressive as they once were.
A portion of a horde of amber goods discovered near Basonia, present-day Poland ( Public Domain )
The other reason amber became popular was because it was mysterious. Yes, it wasn’t particularly rare, but the fact no one was sure where it came from gave it an air of mystique. This, in turn, meant people soon started claiming it had all sorts of mystical properties.
Many ancients, especially in Greece and Egypt, believed that amber somehow protected those who wore it. Greeks and Egyptians were already partial to wearing protective talismans , so making these talismans out of amber was thought to essentially double up their protective capabilities. The Romans were also partial to a good talisman. It was not uncommon for them to leave amber beads in the graves of children to help protect their spirits on the way to the afterlife.
If amber didn’t protect you, it could supposedly heal you. While Pliny was writing his chapter on amber, he noted that some people believed that amber had medical benefits. It was believed amber could help with everything from mouth and throat problems to mental disorders. For example, there is evidence that during the time of Hippocrates, amber was being used in folk medicine. People would grind it up with rose oil and honey to treat eye and ear problems.
This use of amber as medicine continued from ancient times to the medieval era, and even up to the present. To this day, traditional Chinese medicine uses amber to “tranquilize the mind”. In certain parts of Europe, amber necklaces are a traditional remedy for colic and teething pain.
Interestingly, there is some scientific evidence to explain some of amber's supposed mystical qualities. Amber contains succinic acid, which was commonly used as a medicine before the discovery of antibiotics. However, there is little evidence that amber necklaces have any effect on colic or toothache in young children. Chewing on amber does not appear to be an efficient delivery method of succinic acid.
To the ancients, amber had another strange property. When amber is rubbed, it quickly produces a negative electrical charge. This allows it to attract small objects. The Persians called amber kahruba (straw robber). While not especially impressive today, it is easy to see how this could impress people thousands of years ago.
Amber’s Popularity through Time
So far we’ve only really focused on the Mediterranean obsession with amber, but it was much more widespread than that. The earliest amber workshops in the Baltic go back to the Neolithic period (around 10,000 BC). Trade in amber then became widespread during the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC), with Germanic and European tribes busy trading the material in exchange for metals that actually had a practical use. Seafarers like the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians also became involved in the amber trade, spreading it further afield.
Eventually, amber made its way to the Near East, where it became even more popular than in Europe. It is thought that this is because the vast majority of amber being traded at the time came from the Baltic, making it much more rare and exotic in the Near East. It was something only the very wealthy could afford, making amber a symbol of royal power, the ultimate status symbol.
As mentioned above, Baltic amber also made its way into ancient Egypt. The Egyptians preferred gold and precious stones, but amber jewelry and rings have been found in several tombs as well as amber talismans. Its relative scarcity in Egypt points to it once again being a status symbol for the very powerful or wealthy.
An amber ring engraved with hieroglyphs, possibly New Kingdom (British Museum / CC BY NC SA 4.0 )
By the Iron Age (1200-600 BC), the east coast of Italy had become the place to be for amber craftsmen, with Picenum in particular appearing to be a hub. From this point onwards, the popularity of amber split. By the classical period, it appears the Greeks, who had done so much to popularize amber, had fallen out of love with the material. Once a common feature of archaic Greek art, evidence of amber goods in the classical Greek era is much less common.
Italy remained the center of amber’s popularity. The Etruscans of central Italy became masters at producing amber jewelry and figurines. The Romans were also big fans of the material. Pliny the Elder noted in his work that a small amber figurine could cost more than even a physically exceptional slave.
An amber die, from 1st or 2nd century Rome, with the numbers arranged so that opposite sides add up to seven; the units are marked by a dot within a circle. (British Museum / CC BY NC SA 4.0 )
Eventually, amber’s esteem waned, even with Romans. Its use as a material went into sharp decline from the 3rd century AD. After the 3rd century AD, amber only remained particularly popular in the Baltic regions. In the medieval period, it was the Armenians who championed the material. They continued manufacturing it into jewelry and kept up a healthy amber trade with other nations.
To this day, amber remains a popular material in the jewelry trade, even if it isn’t as popular as it once was. Scientific advances mean that amber has lost some of its mysterious allure. What was once the tears of the gods, or crystallized sunlight is now just fossilized tree goop. Pretty to look at, but perhaps not particularly exciting.
However, for many of us, knowing where amber comes from has only made it more astonishing, not less. To hold a piece of amber in your hand (especially if it has an insect encased within) is to hold something which has survived millions of years. Amber is another example of how our world, and the life that resides upon it, is so old that the human brain struggles to comprehend it.
Top Image: Amber’s beauty and utility has been recognized since Neolithic times, being used in jewelry as well as medicine. Source: HJSchneider / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
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