Amber is fossilised tree resin that has been appreciated for its colour and natural beauty since Neolithic times. Much valued from antiquity to the present as a gemstone, amber is made into a variety of decorative objects. Amber is used in jewellery. It has also been used as a healing agent in folk medicine.
The English word amber derives from Arabic and Middle Persian ambar. The word was adopted in Middle English in the 14th century as referring to what is now known as ambergris (ambre gris or “grey amber”), a solid waxy substance derived from the sperm whale. The two substances (“yellow amber” and “grey amber”) conceivably became associated or confused because they both were found washed up on beaches. Ambergris is less dense than water and floats, whereas amber is too dense to float, though less dense than stone.
The classical names for amber, Latin electrum and Ancient Greek elektron, are connected to a term elektor) meaning “beaming Sun”. The word elektron gave rise to the words electric, electricity, and because of amber’s ability to bear a charge of static electricity.
Amber has long been used in folk medicine for its alleged healing properties. Amber and its extracts have been used for a wide variety of treatments from the time of Hippocrates in ancient Greece through to the Middle Ages and to the early twentieth century. Traditional Chinese medicine still uses amber to “tranquilise the mind”.
The Roman historian, Pliny notes in his Natural History that some people believed amber could help with problems specifically connected to the tonsils, mouth, and throat, as well as mental disorders and bladder problems. Amber was even ground and mixed with rose oil and honey to treat eye and ear infections. Amber contains succinic acid a mild antibiotic which was used in medicines prior to the use of antibiotics.
In ancient China, it was customary to burn amber during large festivities. If amber is heated under the right conditions, oil of amber is produced. Previously this was combined carefully with nitric acid to create “artificial musk”. When burned, amber does give off a characteristic “pinewood” fragrance.
Stone Age (8,000 BCE) gravesites have contained amulets with spiral patterns, beads, and pendants carved from amber. Amber ornaments have been found in Mycenaean tombs and elsewhere across
Amber’s bright, sunshine colours also enhanced this connection. The Ancient Greek historian Nicias believed amber to be congealed droplets of sweat formed on the Earth as The Sun set beneath the waves. Other ancient writers depicted these “droplets” of fossilized sap as the tears of gods or heroes on various quests.
The Vikings carved amber pieces into animal shapes. They believed the amber inherited the strengths of the animals. In Ancient Greek and Roman times, women wore amber fish, frog, and rabbit figurines to ensure fertility. The early Chinese believed the souls of tigers became amber upon their release from this plane.
Ovid, the Roman writer describes the old belief that amber was nothing less than the crystallised tears of Clymene and her daughters whom following the tragic death of her young son had been transformed in their grief to poplar trees. had foolishly lost control of his father’s Helios (the sun god) the sun chariot. To prevent the earth from being scorched by the falling sun, Zeus had felt compelled to strike Phaethon down with one of his thunderbolts. Hence the Greeks called amber ‘electrum’ after their name for the sun (elector)
There is Lithuanian tale about Perkunas (God of Thunder) whom had a beautiful daughter named Jurate. Jurate lived in an underwater palace completely built of amber in the Baltic Sea. Kastytis a fisherman, used to cast his fishing nets within the forbidden underwater kingdom. Jurate sent her many handmaids to ban Kastytis and stop him from fishing in her kingdom. The fisherman ignored the maids’ warnings and kept on poaching. Jurate was forced to warn him in person. But as soon as she saw him, she fell in love and took the fisherman back to the amber palace with her.
However, Jurate’s father (Perkunas) had already betrothed his daughter to Patrimpas, the God of Water. He was incensed that his daughter had chosen a mortal and destroyed the amber palace with a lightning bolt. Kastytis was killed and Jurate was imprisoned within its ruins for eternity.
Legends say that the amber found on the Baltic Sea coast are fragments of the underwater palace. Many of these small pieces and fragments are tear-shaped and are said to be the tears of grieving Jurate who still cries for her lost lover.