©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Amber Magic?, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 7 December 2019.
While magic is probably the one word broad enough to describe the ancient use of amulets, the modern public finds the term difficult. As H. S. Versnel puts it, “One problem is that you cannot talk about magic without using the term magic.”
But even if it were possible to draw precise lines of demarcation between the ancient use of amber for adornment and its role in healing, between its reputation for warding off danger and its connection to certain divinities and cults, such categorizations would run counter to an understanding of amber in its wider context. Amber’s beauty and rarity were evident to an ancient observer, but its magnetic properties, distinctive, glowing, sunlike color and liquid appearance, inclusions and luster, and exotic origins were mysterious and awe-inspiring. Amber’s fascination and associative value prompted a wide range of overlapping uses. Pliny the Elder, for instance, put together an impressive list of uses for amber, including as a medicine for throat problems and as a charm for protecting babies. Diodorus Siculus noted amber’s role in mourning rituals, and Pausanias guided visitors to an amber statue of Augustus at Olympia. The main sources of amber in antiquity were at the edges of the known world, and those distant lands generated further rich lore. Myths and realities of amber’s nature and power influenced the desire to acquire it. As the historian Joan Evans has observed, “Rarity, strangeness, and beauty have in them an inexplicable element and the inexplicable is always potentially magical.” Beliefs about amber’s mysterious origins and unique physical and optical properties affected the ways it was used in antiquity and the forms and subjects into which it was carved.
Excavations during the last half century, especially in Italy, have greatly improved our understanding of how amber functioned in funerary contexts. The emerging picture is also enhancing our understanding of how amber objects were used before their burial. A number of amber pendants, including the Getty objects, show signs of wear (figure 4). Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to whether the ambers were actually possessions of the people with whom they were buried, how the objects were acquired, and in which cultic or other activity they played a part. There is no written source until Pliny the Elder, around A.D. 79, to tell us how amber was used in life (in a religious, medical, magical, or other context). Only a few fragments of information from early Christian sources add to the Roman picture. All evidence before Pliny is archaeological and extrapolated from earlier sources—from Egypt, the Aegean, the ancient Near East, and northern Europe. In Egypt, and to a lesser extent in the ancient Near East, much more is known about how amuletic jewelry was produced, and by whom and for whom it was produced. In both regions, we find instances of amulets specifically designed for funerary use and of previously owned amulets continuing their usefulness in the tomb.
We might also ask how amber pendants in the form of age-old subjects (goddesses [figure 5], animals, or solar and lunar symbols) relate to older traditions. In the ancient Near East, Kim Benzel reminds us, symbolic jewelry pendants signified emblematic forms of major deities from as early as the third millennium B.C.:
Symbols of divinities have a long tradition of representation in various media throughout the ancient Near East. They were certainly meant to be apotropaic, but likely had far greater efficacy than the purely protective. An emblem was considered one mode of presencing a deity.… The power embodied in [such] ornaments thus would have been analogous to the power embedded in a cult statue—which is perhaps why in the later religions, along with idol worship, jewels were banned.
The subjects of the Getty pre-Roman figured ambers vary, but without exception, they incorporate a protective as well as a fertility or regenerative aspect. It is easy to see that the same amulet that had helped to ensure safe entry into the world of the living could serve a similar function in smoothing the transition into the afterworld, or world of the dead. Many images allude to a journey (figure 6) that the deceased’s shade, or soul, takes after death, and these pieces are difficult to see as intended for the living: these must have been gifts or commissions specifically for the dead. The ambers that show wear do not indicate who used them. While there is no direct evidence as to whether the amulets found in burials were owned by the deceased during their lives, it is tempting to assume that this could have been the case. Were they purchases, part of a dowry, heirlooms, or other kinds of gifts? Ambers were made, at some point, for someone, whether bought on the open market or commissioned to order. Inscribed Greek magical amulets (lamellae) “that had been commissioned for specific purposes (or most feared dangers) came to represent for their wearer a multivalent protection, a sine qua non for every activity in life. And in the face of the liminal dangers of the afterlife passage … this same amulet that had come to protect all aspects of life would now be considered crucial in death, the apotropaic token of the soul.”
The wear on many objects is undeniable. Some amber pendants are both worn and “old-fashioned” for the context in which they were found, and they cause us to remember that in antiquity there was a well-established tradition of gift giving during life and at the grave. Figured ambers, including those in the Getty collection, may have been worn regularly in life for permanent protection or benefit; others, on a temporary basis or in crises, such as childbirth, illness, or a dangerous journey. Others may have been grave gifts or offerings to divinities, perhaps to propitiate underworld deities. In some cases, deceased girls may have been adorned as brides—a common aspect of funerary ritual.
How these objects might have functioned in reference to clanship or other social identities, either during life or the rituals surrounding death, should also be considered. Among certain populations, there might have been a generally accepted role for amber, in both the range of subjects into which it was formed and/or the objects it embellished. Some subjects might have been pertinent to clans or larger communities, in the way that shield emblazons might be. Some imagery might have been special to family groups, who may have traced their origins, names, or even good fortune to a particular deity, animal, totem, or myth. If an elite person whose family’s founder was a divinity or Homeric hero was buried with a ring with an engraved gem representing, say, Herakles (figure 7), Odysseus, or Athena, might the same have been done with figured ambers?
The extent to which some of these ornament-amulets had a role in established cult or folk religion is difficult to ascertain, but it should not be either exaggerated or denied. The diversity of subjects that appear in figured amber over time suggests that the material was used within many different symbol systems, but always for its protective or regenerative aspects. Some pieces do incorporate elements relating, for instance, to Dionysos or Artemis, but as such, they occupy a hazy territory between identifiable religious practices and what Einar Thomassen calls “the appropriation of ritual power for personal ends.” The use of these amulets may have been dictated to some extent by skilled practitioners, but it is likely that the original, specific use of a protective amulet often would have eroded into a more generalized portafortuna, or good-luck, role over time. The generally feared evil eye might have been warded off with any amber amulet.
Worked amber and amber jewelry were well in evidence in northern Europe from the fourth millennium B.C. onward. The earliest evidence for worked amber in Italy is from the Bronze Age. We do not know where the amber found in graves dating to circa 1500 B.C. in Basilicata (near Melfi and Matera) was carved. In the later Bronze Age, Adriatic Frattesina, a typical emporium of the protohistoric era, was a place of manufacture. Already by this time, variety in style, subject, technique, and function was evident. Some of these early ambers are the work of highly skilled artisans; others are rudimentary in manufacture and indicate work by other kinds of amber-workers/amuletmakers, perhaps even priestesses, physicians, or “wise women.” It is tempting to think of multiple ritual specialists involved in amber-working and amuletmaking, though perhaps in not so pronounced a fashion as in contemporary Egypt—although there is evidence for widespread amuletic usage in Italy even into modern times. We might well envision a scenario that includes simple gem cutters, sculptors, multiple ritual specialists—from healers to hacks—those with fixed locations in urban settings, and itinerants. Such a variety of practitioners offering objects and ritual expertise is likely, especially for amulets in a material as inherently magical as amber.
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