©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Amber Medicine, Amber Amulets, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 7 December 2019.
Amber Medicine, Amber Amulets
Because of its beauty, saturated color, and translucency, amber was seen in antiquity not only as an ornament, but also as a supernatural and curative substance. To be overly concerned with the distinction among the roles of amber (sacral, ornamental, magical, medicinal) is perhaps to miss the more subtle relationships among them. Pliny makes no such mistake: “Even today,” he writes, “the peasant women of Transpadane Gaul wear pieces of amber as necklaces, chiefly as adornment, but also because of its medicinal properties. Amber, indeed, is supposed to be a prophylactic against tonsillitis and other affections of the pharynx, for the water near the Alps has properties that harm the human throat in various ways.” “Amber is found to have some use in pharmacy,” Pliny goes on to say, “although it is not for this reason that women like it. It is of benefit to babies when it is attached to them as an amulet.” In this passage, we find one of the two surviving ancient literary references to an amulet of amber, a use (the archaeological evidence tells us) that was pervasive from as early as the mid-second millennium B.C. Caesarius of Arles gives us the other: he warns his readers against wearing “diabolical” amulets made of certain herbs, or of amber, around the neck.
What did these amulets look like? The ones that Pliny refers to may have been perforated and polished raw lumps; or perhaps they were bulla-shaped or crescent-shaped. It is possible that they were made into special shapes, including figural subjects, as had been traditional for amber amulets in northern Europe and around the Mediterranean (and beyond) for millennia. Might one of Pliny’s amulets be similar to the Roman Head of Medusa (figure 1)? Or might they have been like one of numerous surviving small carvings in amber—bird and animal figures, or corn ears and fruit—given as New Year’s presents in imperial Rome? Several of these New Year’s gifts bear inscriptions referring to this occasion, evidence that amber’s magical properties were still significant.
The act of writing on or figuring a material—providing it with a face or a form—gave it new significance and power. One might write on a gemstone or amulet “to create the impression of mysterious power by virtue of the writing itself.” Now, in addition to the associations the material itself carries with it, the figured object has become a metonym for a past event, or a desired outcome, or perhaps for the attributes of a deity (see the rams’-head figures 29 and 39). Such an object derives new significance when it is attached to a person—tied around the neck, perhaps, or fastened to the arm or a girdle. Unsurprisingly, the Greek terms for amulet, periamma and periapta, come from a verb that means “to tie on,” and an amulet worn by a human can be defined, quite simply, as a powerful object attached to a person. Ancient amulets range widely in type, from natural objects to simple carved pendants to figured objects to lamellae, objects inscribed with magical symbols or incantations to ward off evil. The material from which the amulet was made was critical. T. G. H. James suggests, “Although certain materials, semiprecious stones in particular, were invested with magical properties in ancient Egypt, it seems that these properties were usually only activated when the stone in question was used for the manufacture of amuletic figures of specific kinds.”
Almost any jewelry object could have had some apotropaic function—and, as Geraldine Pinch remarks in her book on Egyptian magic, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that most Egyptian jewelry has amuletic value. How conscious wearers were of their ornaments’ symbolism is a more difficult question to answer.
The same is evidently true for amber objects of adornment. In life, amulets were worn as charms to bring good luck, health, protection, or love, to avert danger, or to cure disease. Figured or inscribed amulets often would have had a sympathetic function; a figure of a boar, such as the Getty plaque Addorsed Lions’ Heads with Boar in Relief (figure 30), might have brought luck in a hunt, safeguarded the wearer from the boar he was hunting, or even may have channeled the powers of Herakles or Meleager. Situations of potential crisis, such as a hunt, a dangerous journey, or childbirth, warranted temporary amulets. More permanent amulets, in the form of jewelry, could have provided protection during childhood, throughout an individual’s life, and during the fraught voyage to the afterworld, the dangerous realm of spirits and demons. Indeed, amber and amber amulets were important elements in the mourning ritual as permanent tears and as grave gifts.
The impact of the Aegean, the Near East, and Egypt (where women and children wore the majority of amulets) on native Italian customs during the first millennium B.C., a period of contact and acculturation, is evidenced by the amulets’ subjects. New images, spells, amulets, deities, and aspects of deities replaced, perfected, or married with the old. Although only a portion of the extant figured ambers can be associated with religious cults, the use of amulets was certainly bound up with secret knowledge of sources of power—the province of skilled practitioners such as magicians, priests, “wise women,” healers, and midwives. Practitioners of magic might exert an influence on all levels of society. Theophrastus maintains that Pericles, on his sickbed, was induced by the women of his household to wear an amulet—entirely against his better judgment. The story, whether apocryphal or not, is further evidence for widespread use of amulets among the elite, as well as the lower classes. It is also interesting for its indications about the role of women in promoting such use.
Amulets were especially valuable to women for controlling or increasing fertility, protecting the unborn, helping to ensure safe childbirth, and safeguarding their children. Protective gynecological amulets must have been among the earliest of all amulets. Such practices in Italy and the Greek world were age-old, the lore passing from generation to generation, no doubt affected by contact with new populations, practitioners, and magical practices.
One seventh-century plain pendant in the Getty collection (figure 31) is inscribed with two images, on one side a fish and on the other something resembling the Egyptian symbol of a papyrus clump, or a pool with lotus flowers. This piece is one of forty-three beads from the same parure, its original findspot now unknown. Who scratched the signs? How were they understood? Was the mere presence of Egyptian, or Egyptianlike, writing enough to make the amber more efficacious?
The serious dangers of disease for young children and the considerable risks for women in childbirth and early motherhood gave rise to a belief that the dead were jealous of new life, and the need for magical protection of women and children was a compelling one. For a pregnant woman, amber’s property of encapsulating living things may have made it an especially powerful similia similibus amulet, a “pregnant stone.” Resin also heals damage and wounds in trees; could it extend such properties to people wearing it?
The bulla, a lens- or bubble-shaped container, is perhaps the best known of all ancient amulet types. Known in Rome as Etruscum aurum, it combined two magical functions: it enclosed amuletic substances and it symbolized the sun in material, in form, and in its powers. The shape derives from age-old disk amulets of the sun. The bulla was given to high-born boys. The ancient sources relate that the king Tarquinius Priscus was the first to present his son with a gold amulet after the son had killed an enemy in battle, and from that time onward the sons of cavalrymen wore amulets. Ancient sculpture shows that Etruscan boys wore the bulla, and Roman writers recount that it was worn by magistrates, triumphant generals, and even domestic animals. It should be noted that bullae were made not only of gold, but also of other bright metals such as bronze, as is evidenced by bronze bullae of various forms found in Latin and Etruscan graves, dating as early as the eighth century B.C.
In fourth-century pre-Roman art, the single bulla and strings of bullae, not only lens-shaped but also pouch-shaped pendants, were worn by elite personages, some recognizable divinities and heroes. Dionysos wears a single bulla on the Praenestine “Cista Napoleon” in the Louvre. On an Etruscan red-figure krater in Florence, an Argonaut wears strings of bullae on his arms, while a companion ties on yet another (figure 32). On a sarcophagus from the Tomb of the Triclinium at Tarquinia, a reclining woman wearing a necklace of bullae, holding a thyrsus and kantharos and keeping a fawn by her side, is clearly a devotee or maybe a priestess of Dionysos/Pacha/Fufluns. On Etruscan mirrors, Aplu, Fufluns, Tinia, Epiur and Maris, young Hercle, Thetis and Alcumene, Athena, and Turan wear bullae. Votive images of women, girls, and boys, and effigies of deceased men, women, and babies, are often shown with a bulla or bullae. A mid-fourth-century mirror in New York shows Peleus wearing an armlet with bulla-shaped pendants on her left arm and Calaina (Galene), a Nereid, holding a circlet with similar pendants in her left hand (figure 33).
As early as the eighth century, the bulla was imitated in amber for pendants on necklaces, but it is important to note that documented finds of amber bullae come almost exclusively from elite female burials (figure 34). Strings of amber bullae excavated in Latium and the Basilicata date to the early seventh century. Bullae of amber were special translations of the form: they were sun-shaped and sun-colored, shining like the sun, and instead of containing amuletic substances inside a metal envelope, the material itself was a curative (remedia) that could enclose inclusions.
If amber was fiery and glowing, its most prized characteristics, then this alone might have ensured it a special protective and sanctifying role. Amber could also symbolize constancy. Amber necklaces were gifts for brides, mortal and immortal, as the ancient sources tell us.
Another sympathetic function of amber amulets might have been their ability to focus the powers of a particular deity and astrological force. Amber’s magnetic properties gave it a special role in attraction (and displacement), and because of its already potent associations with the sun, amber may have been thought able to draw, attract, and fix the sun’s influence. Ancient beliefs in the ability of stones to draw down the power of the planets and stars, and especially the rays of the sun, were widespread and are described first in Egyptian texts and later in Hermetic writings on talismans. We might extrapolate from such sources how amber might have worked in this regard. One Hermetic papyrus describes how “the magician draws down to earth the spiritual powers of the star, planets, and fixes them in talismans prepared of the proper substances and engraved with or shaped into the proper symbolic forms.” In early modern Europe, amber, gold, and rubies—all solar materials—were believed, like the sun, to have the property of generating the vital spirit of the microcosmos.
It is not difficult to see how a shiny amber amulet could have been thought to contain sunlight or to allow light to pass through it in some active sense. In Greece and Italy, songs, healing words, spoken prayers, and incantations accompanied such amulets. Roy Kotansky traces the use of written incantations and symbols with amulets back to the rituals of Egypt and the Near East and notes that these “may have been transmitted to Ancient Greece and Italy by traditional folk means, traders, or itinerant medicine men or women.”
There is a relative paucity of information in Greek and Latin literature about amulets and their use, as noted above, and much of the archaeological evidence awaits study. However, what does exist is enlightening, as recent scholarship shows. Some well-known examples indicate how pervasive was the use of “tied-on” substances: Pericles, sick with the plague, was prodded into wearing an amulet around his neck. Socrates in Plato’s Republic lists amulets and incantations as among the techniques used to heal the sick. More is known about Egyptian and Near Eastern amulets, from both written sources and archaeological evidence. Such information may be useful in coming to conclusions about early Greek and Italian use of amulets, but despite the similarities, it would be a mistake to assume that all such usage had Oriental prototypes. Much less is documented about northern European practice, and yet many subjects of the figured amber pendants found in Italy have Baltic precedents that are thousands of years older: standing human figures (figure 35), faces, and detached heads, bears, and hoofed animals.
From the point of view of amber amulet usage in Italy, seven large ambers, four of which are figured—two female heads and two satyrs—found in Tomb 48 at Ripacandida are of great interest. Angelo Bottini has suggested that the objects were not part of a necklace but may have been put inside a pouch or strung together to form a chaplet or a sort of rosary. A chaplet, or circlet, with bulla-shaped pendants held by the figure of Calaina (Galene) on a fourth-century Etruscan mirror (figure 33) is an unusual ornament in Classical art. In Assyrian and neo-Assyrian art, a goddess carries a similar chaplet, or so-called string of beads, as an attribute. Amuletic pouches, containing all sorts of materials and objects, remained popular throughout Italy until the modern era. At the end of the nineteenth century, Giuseppe Bellucci collected and studied hundreds of such protective bags, or sacchettini, many of great age.
Using terms such as necklace, armlet, collar, pectoral, or girdle for worked amber objects minimizes their ties to older amuletic traditions. There is a long history of such strings of amulets (some are seals) throughout Europe, in the Mediterranean littoral, and in the Near East. Such groupings are documented as early as the Early Dynastic period (third millennium) at Ur. Mesopotamian texts specifically refer to figured amulets in the context of protection and healing, amulets that were to be either carried and worn by the living or placed on various parts of the deceased’s body. Strings of amulets are documented as hanging in houses in the ancient Near East. In Greek, Cypriot, and Etruscan art, babies and children (and some Greek young women) are depicted wearing amulets tied onto a long cord worn diagonally across the body. This tradition may well be the ancestor of the Roman crepundia. As Demetrius Waarsenburg argues, the crepundia (charms strung together and used as rattles for children) can be connected to these assemblages of amulets, implying that they originally had a more profound significance.
Although nearly all figured amber pendants excavated in Italy were found in funerary contexts, many of them had “lives” and an owner or owners (not necessarily the deceased) before they became part of the mourning ritual. Interments could contain both old and new pieces. Some may have been heirlooms, already venerable and powerful, made so by provenance, status, or accrued potency.
Some beads and pendants show signs of use—of handling, of pulling on the suspension perforations, of rubbing. Was the rubbing done to enliven the electromagnetic properties of the amber? To release its fragrance? For the tactile sensation? To activate amber’s divine associations? For medicinal and magical purposes? To enact the magic of the amulet’s imagery?
The blurred features of some figured ambers must be due to handling in the course of amuletic use. Several examples from controlled excavations seem to confirm this. A female head from a grave at Latronico retains sharp groovings in the hair and crisp delineations in the diadem, but has smoothed facial features (its tiny chips are likely from modern times). It has a standard perforation through the top of the pendant but also a secondary perforation through the temple area, front to back, which has been elongated by gravity and pull, very like the holes on heirloom Tibetan or African amber beads. The Herakles and satyrs’ heads from a woman’s grave, Tomb 106 at Braida di Vaglio, which may be at least a generation older than the burial, are salient examples of nonuniform use wear. The face of the Herakles pendant is especially worn. Some figured ambers from another of the Braida di Vaglio tombs, Tomb 102, that of a little girl, are clearly worn on the prominent surfaces of the face. The features of one of the frontal female faces is nearly worn off, and three of the rams’ heads, as well as the pendant in the form of a dormant feline, show evidence of use wear. This is in contrast to the comparatively fresh surface of other ambers from the tomb, including the recumbent sphinx (which is also at least a generation older than the burial).
The woman’s Tomb 48 at Melfi-Pisciolo included at least five figured pendants, but only one female head in profile shows considerable surface wear. It contrasts with the male subject, a crisply detailed winged nude youth in a Phrygian hat with a shield at his side and sword in his hand. A large pendant of Eos carrying off a youth, perhaps Kephalos, from a burial of circa 350 B.C. at Tricarico-Serra del Cedro, is an extreme example of face-rubbing: the youth’s face is nearly lost. Female heads from a documented find at Valle Pega (Spina), and rams’ heads from excavated tombs at Bologna, show well the contrast between the better-preserved tops of heads and the more abraded faces. A number of the Getty female and rams’ heads illustrate similar patterns of wear. Many other carved amber objects from burials throughout Italy (and Serbia) bear signs of wear: pulling troughs at the suspension hole, as in a head of a satyr from Palestrina (figure 36), handled or rubbed surfaces, and repairs, such as the drilling of replacement perforations or securing broken pieces in mounts.
The sometimes disfiguring large drilled holes in the faces deserve special comment. Why and when were they bored? Raw amber pieces are sometimes found with large round holes in their center, the result of resin forming around a branch or twig (now disintegrated). If a piece of amber was purposely perforated before it was made into an object, the act might have occurred anywhere between the Baltic and Italy, and at any time, for it is likely that amber moved south in both worked and unworked form from earliest times. On a practical level, the holes may have been drilled into the amber to better protect it when it was suspended from a pin; or, once the piece was cored, it would have been suitable for wearing on a pin. The smoothed prominent surfaces of the Getty pendant Winged Female Head in Profile (figure 37), the multiple throughbores, the abrasion troughs in the suspension perforations at the top, and the central hole all indicate that this pendant must have been used over a period of time before it was finally interred in a grave. How, and by whom, amber pendants were used during life is a subject for speculation. Pliny’s account is one useful source of information, and the few surviving Archaic and Classical illustrations of people (and divinities) wearing figured elements and amulets around their necks and limbs are valuable evidence for figured pendant usage outside of the grave context.
Paintings or sculptures of figures wearing a string with a single amulet or a group of them (as opposed to necklaces designed with repeating elements) are uncommon in Archaic and Classical art from Italy, but the depictions that do survive depict bullae-wearing men, women, and children, horses, and even ravens. Human figures of both sexes were them around the neck and on the upper arms. The single ornaments include gorgon masks and the heads of animals, such as fawns, lions, and rams. A number of terracottas of seated goddesses from Greek sanctuaries in Magna Graecia, for example, wear strings of figured elements, among them bulls’ heads. On Greek vases, on Cypriot terracotta sculptures of temple boys, and on Laconian bronze images of partly clothed young women are seen cross-torso carriers bearing various kinds of amulets: crescents, boar tusks, circlets, and other shapes. Women wearing a single lotus-blossom pendant are represented in terracottas, bronzes, and plastic vases of the late sixth and fifth centuries. Pomegranates and simple flowers are also not unusual.
All amulet wearers depicted on Etruscan fourth-century mirrors are elite subjects, and most are identified as divinities and heroes. Two examples are important for amber pendants, especially because of the material’s association with Apollo/Aplu and Dionysos/Fufluns. On many Etruscan fourth-century mirrors, Aplu wears pendants around his neck or on his upper arm. On an Etruscan mid-fourth-century bronze mirror, the infant Dionysos/Fufluns is already adorned with a ribbon of amulets during his birth from Tinia’s thigh. Fufluns as a youth, now with a necklace of amulets but otherwise unadorned, is kissed by his mother, Semele, on another.
Key illustrations of animal pendants in use are painted in the Tarquinian Tomb of Hunting and Fishing (circa 510 B.C.) (figure 38). On the back wall of the main chamber, the male banqueter wears a necklace of three (possibly amber) rams’ heads almost identical to the Getty amber rams’ heads (figure 39). In the first room of the tomb, simple carriers with rams’- and lions’-head pendants, similar to those in the Getty, hang from branches (figures 40 and 41). This room of the tomb may depict the grove of Apollo or a Dionysian setting.
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Amber Medicine, Amber Amulets