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Amber, Organic Gem with a Long History & Many Properties, Part I
Amber is fossilised resin of certain trees. Its chemical composition varies, since there are different sources of the resin. The colour varies too, mostly between yellow and orange-brown, but almost every colour is possible, although all except yellow to brown are rare. Amber is transparent or translucent, sometimes opaque, and might have inclusions of fossilised insects or other organisms, trapped there long ago. Much of what can be found on the market of that, however, is counterfeited; but the real thing does help palaeontologists and others to understand prehistoric flora and fauna better A relatively large number of extinct species (animals and plants) are known only through fossils in amber.
There is also the possibility of extracting fossil DNA. Jurassic Park, the famous movie, builds on that scenario. DNA from dinosaur blood in the stomach of fossilised mosquitoes in amber was used to recreate the original dinosaur species. DNA from fossils can sometimes be extracted and compared to similar modern organisms, but recreation of extinct organisms so far belongs to science-fiction. Attempts are made though, but so far on much simpler organisms than dinosaurs.
Raul Cano and Monica Borucki have isolated and grown spores found in amber. This is the first reasonable attempt to revive ancient life. Even if they succeed, however, it is always a matter of whether it is really ancient spores growing, or if the sample has been contaminated by contemporary spores.
Another scientific use of amber was suggested by Inga Lasenko at The Riga Center for biomaterial innovations and development. She discovered documents stating that donor blood in ancient Egypt was stored in amber vessels. That prevented it from coagulating. She also discovered ancient Egyptian records of using amber for implants. This is something she is now working on further, trying to produce amber filaments for implants.
Amber has no crystalline structure, it is amorphous; and it is very light, it floats in saltwater. It is fluorescent in ultraviolet light, doesn't crumble easily and burns in fire. From the latter stems the German word for amber, "Bernstein", burn-stone. The word "amber" is thought to stem from Arabic "anber". This is really something else, however, ambergris, a substance secreted by the sperm whale, often confused with amber. [I'll describe this substance in a subsequent article]. In old literary sources, it is not always clear which one they refer to.
Thales (about 600 BC) discovered that if you rub amber with a cloth (he used silk), it attracts dust. The Greeks called this substance "electron", and this property of amber is what gave electricity its name. For over 2000 years, it was believed that static electricity was a property unique to amber. William Gilbert (1544-1603) was the first to show that other materials had this quality as well.
Here is another source of confusion, apart from the amber-ambergris, namely about the character of electron, or electrum. This was indeed the Greek name of amber, but it also meant an alloy of silver and gold, a meaning it probably got later. What classical writers referred to when they used the word is debatable in many cases. So the interpretation of Greek legends about amber should be taken with a reservation that it might sometimes refer to a metallic alloy instead.
As I understand it, Latin writers tended to see the Greek word as referring to the metal, while they themselves had another word for amber, "succinum". This does not mean that Roman interpreters always, or even often, would have been right.
The age of amber counts in millions of years. Younger resin, not yet fully fossilised - perhaps only some thousand years old, is called copal.
Amber is most known for being used as a gemstone, and fine specimens, especially those with inclusions, are expensive. But less pure, it is used industrially too - to make, for instance, mouthpieces to pipes, bowls, works of art, or varnish.
Amber in perfumery is a misnomer. It is close to impossible to extract scented oil from the real thing. The label is just used to describe a certain quality certain attributes – to give certain associations. What they use is purely synthetic - even when they really mean ambergris [see AMBERGRIS below], which was previously much used in perfume production.
Although it exists everywhere, the beaches of the Baltic Sea are the classical source of amber. The Kaliningrad area alone contains about 90% of the world's known assets. Very high-quality amber is increasingly mined in Burma, it is Cretaceous and is called Burmite. Another form of amber is the Dominican.
Folklore attributed to amber the ability to give power, love, and strength. It was believed to promote health and to increase the strength of magicians. It was also believed to protect against evil; and at sea, if burned, against sea monsters. A Shah of Persia once had a cube of amber, which allegedly made him invulnerable. In some places it was and is associated with wedding, an important symbol of eternal bonds. Further, it is said to ward off the evil eye; and in astrology it is associated with constellations Leo and Aquarius.
Amber was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the Odyssey, Homer mentions it (Translation by William Cullen Bryant, 1794-1878).
Received a golden necklace, richly wrought,
And set with amber beads, that glowed as if
With sunshine. To Eurydamas there came
A pair of ear-rings, each a triple gem,
Daintily fashioned and of exquisite grace.
Two servants bore them."
A Greek legend states that amber was tears shed by Apollo for Asclepius absence in the north, or the tears of Apollo's daughters. Other Greeks associate it with other tears. Sophocles said its the petrified tears of Meleagres's sisters, Theophrastes refer it to lynx' tears or urine; not clear if he is talking about the animal or if lynx is something else. Some saw it as solidified sunshine.
Ovid wrote of when Helios's daughters were transformed to poplars on the bank of the river Eridanus:
"Where sorrowing they weep into the stream forever.
And each tear as it falls shines in the water, a glistening drop of amber."
But it was used long before that. Findings from excavations indicate that it was used already during the Stone Age. Egyptians, Assyrians, and Phoenicians also knew this material. It is likely that they got it from the Baltic area or from the North Sea via trading. Some sources state a place of origin, Basileia, which would be in Atlantis, wherever that would be.
The amber of Egyptian tombs was probably used for its preservative qualities. Much later, Roman ladies thought that just handling and touch amber would preserve a youthful appearance.
Lithuanian legend also associate amber with tears, and tear-shaped specimens are considered especially precious. Jurate, a mermaid and daughter of the Thunder God, Perkunas, lived in an amber palace in the Baltic. She fell in love with a mortal, whom Perkunas killed. Jurate's palace was destroyed and she was chained there forever. Tear-shaped amber pieces are her tears, and other pieces are parts of her palace washed up on the shore.
There is also another Lithuanian legend, about Amberella, who is kidnapped by the Prince of the Seas and taken to his undersea amber palace. The amber that is washed up on the beach are pieces thrown up by Amberella in an expression of sorrow for missing her parents.
Norse mythology tells the story of Freya and the Brisingamen, the Brising necklace [made of amber], made by four dwarfs. She was literally crazy about it and ready to pay whatever they asked to lay her hands on it. They answered that she must buy it from each of them, and that if she were wed to each of them for a day and a night, Brisingamen would be given to her. She accepted, although she was already married, and an Aesir queen at that. The transaction took place, and Freya withdrew in shame with Brisingamen. Loki turned up, and told Freya's husband, Odur, what had happened. In order to show it to Odur as evidence of Freya's betrayal, Loki stole the necklace. The next morning Odur was gone, and Freya went to her father, Odin, and confessed. She met him in the palace of Glaesisvellir, in the amber valley. Odin forgave her, but prescribed a penance. Forever Freya was doomed to wear Brisingamen and wander around the world, searching for Odur, her husband. While she does, she weeps. Her tears on land become gold, while those in the sea become amber.
Baltic amber is believed to have many metaphysical qualities, as attracting spiritual forces, enhancing instincts and intuition, and facilitating healing energy.
The Chinese view is or was that amber is the petrified soul [hupo] of a dead tiger, which they claimed gave strength and courage. They also associated it with dragon's blood. Burning amber was a display of wealth.
In Turkey amber is considered hygienic. A pipe with a mouthpiece of amber could be shared between people without risk for infection. The word for amber, kehruba, however, is derived from Persian, and from that stems also the Arabic word for electricity [kahraba].
Indian lore teaches that amber opens the Crown Chakra and the Navel Chakra.