Saturday, 12 December 2015

Amber - tears of trees

I have an amber bear, a bit like this ancient amulet, which may be as much as 3500 years old. Mine is a relatively new thing, I guess, though I have no real way of knowing. It came from Krakow, Poland. Whenever it was made, the amber itself is millions of years old. It's one of my most precious possessions.

My amber bear has made its way into my Iron Age novel. Back in 320 BC, when Pytheas was making his epic journey, amber was viewed as a magical material. It is still believed to have healing powers, but back then it was used in religious ceremonies and rituals because of its extraordinary properties. It appears like a gemstone, yet it is warm to the touch, like plastic, it glows and will melt in a candle flame. When rubbed, it creates static electricity; you can lift cloth with it, and even create sparks. No wonder it seemed to have magical powers to the ancients.

Amber is not found in the Mediterranean, so the Greek supply of 'electrum', as they called it, came from northern Europe. In the Bronze and Iron Age it was plentiful on the coast of Jutland, across the North Sea from Britain, and on the shores of the Baltic sea, which is where Pytheas' quest took him.

There are many wonderful stories about amber's origins. Some believed it to be the droppings of magical lynxes. Others believed it to be the tears of a goddess who fell in love with a mortal fisherman.

The Greek story is that it is the tears of the Heliades, the daughters of the sun god, Helios. When their brother, Phaethom, stole his father's chariot and tried to ride it through the sky, he lost control of the horses and set fire to the firmament. Zeus tossed him down from the heavens into the river Eridanus, where he drowned, and when his sisters came weeping there, they were turned into poplars. Their tears continued to pour, as resin, which solidified into amber.

I wonder if Pytheas believed this tale. Was he seeking the river Eridanus, on the banks of which he would find the magical weeping trees of the Heliades? Or was he, as a hard-headed scientist, trying to debunk the old myth and return with a more factual account of gems washing up on the North Sea beaches?

Whatever Pytheas believed, he would surely have been amazed to learn the truth, that Baltic amber is up to 50 million years old, and is, genuinely, the 'tears of trees', being fossil resin of ancient (and now extinct) conifers. I like to think he had an amber bear in his pocket, while he pondered its mysteries.

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