©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Literary Sources on the Use of Amber, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 24 May 2019.
Literary Sources on the Use of Amber
The archaeological record hints at a variety of uses of amber throughout the ages that are sometimes complemented by the surviving literature, but often are not. Certainly those uses that were by nature magical or tied up with mystery religions are unlikely to have been referred to other than obliquely in any mainstream literature, although they were extensive and widely acknowledged from very early on, through the Classical era and well into the Middle Ages. In addition, as helpful as the archaeological record is in elucidating the use of amber in mourning and burial contexts, it is less so when it comes to the everyday employment of amber as documented in the literature. Its use among the very wealthy ranged from girls’ playthings, to decorative items such as the amber-encrusted goblet that Juvenal mentions in a satire, to sculpture such as the imposing statue of Augustus that Pausanias describes, to magical and religious purposes—amulets, incense, fumigation, and burnt offerings (which by definition do not leave any physical trace). Martial writes of the pleasant odor amber gives off when it is handled by girls, of “amber nuggets polished by hand,” and compares kisses to well-worn amber. In a letter to Marcus Aurelius, Fronto speaks scathingly of those writers (Seneca and Lucan) who “rub up one and the same thought oftener than girls their perfumed amber.” These analogies provide some explanation for the wear on many pre-Roman amber beads; magical use explains it further (figure 26).
Pliny (as usual) has a long list of possible uses: amber is carved into figurines (figure 27), fashioned into truffle-cutting knives, made into artificial gems, and in Syria used for spindle whorls. He also describes amber drinking cups, arms, and decorations of the arena (uses that would have been appreciated by men as well as by women), although he prefaces these examples with denunciatory comments at the beginning of Book 37: “The next place among luxuries [after myrrhine and rock crystal], although as yet fancied only by women, is held by amber. All three enjoy the same prestige as precious stones … but not even luxury has yet succeeded in inventing a justification for using amber.”
Amber is also often burned; as Tacitus says: “If you make an experiment of burning amber by the application of fire, it kindles, like a torch, emitting a fragrant flame, and in a little time, taking the tenacious nature of pitch or resin.” Pliny observes “amber chippings steeped in oil burn brighter and longer than the pith of flax.” This suggests that amber may have had a practical use as interior lighting. Pliny also cites evidence that the northern Guiones used amber instead of wood as fuel and refers to what must have been a very common use of amber as incense, suggesting that in India, “amber was, to its inhabitants, found to be more agreeable even than frankincense.”
Such burning may seem a rather wasteful use of a precious material, but it was essential for offerings, for communication between the human and the divine, and even for feeding the gods, as in Egypt. As J. Todd has pointed out, “From the earliest recorded times burnt offerings and specifically incense are considered the most sacred gifts of all. The burning of amber would not have been considered a destructive act, but rather an elevated use of the material.”
Amber burned as incense was of great consequence in rituals involving solar deities before and during the Classical era, since both amber and incense were symbolic of the sun in the ancient world. Incense, which emitted a fragrant smoke when scattered on lighted coals (in either a stationary or a movable burner or censer), was a regular element in Babylonian religious ceremonies. The thousands of incense burners found in sanctuaries and graves throughout Greece and Etruria attest to the great importance of burning fragrant gums and spices. One of the oldest Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri, opened in the nineteenth century, was found to include “bits of amber and other oriental gums placed around the corpse,” as George Dennis recounts. A morsel carried off and later ignited by the excavator “caused so powerful an odour as to be insupportable.”
“Incense ‘offerings’ were a normal part of sacrificial rituals and the use of incense was often called for in magical rituals.” In China, a nineteenth-century traveler records, chippings and amber dust left over from cutting figured pieces were used for varnish or incense. “The burning of the odiferous amber is the highest mark of respect possible to pay a stranger or distinguished guest, and the more they burn the more marked is their expression of esteem.”
In ancient medical practice, incense, resins, wood shavings, and other odoriferous materials (usually plants) or aromatics were used as a form of fumigation, either alone or in compounds. It is also likely that amber incense was used in divination: omens were read in the plumes and short curls of smoke formed by burning amber (figure 28).
Amber incense may have been ground into a powder and mixed with other aromatics, or nitrates, to keep it burning. In Rome, as Karen Polinger Foster shows, incense was “shaped into cones, balls, discs, pyramids, obelisks, granules, and pellets as it had been in Egypt and the Near East.” But the Romans apparently did not follow the Egyptian practice of using figurative incense blocks in forms such as birds or recumbent calves, which clearly suggests a religious element to the burning of incense. A few pieces of unworked amber found in Etruscan graves might be construed as evidence of amber used for fumigation or as unburnt incense. And it may be that the very same amber objects considered then and now as ornament and amulet (for example, birds or recumbent calves) might also have been valued for their potential as light energy or incense.
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Literary Sources on the Use of Amber