By Agatha Malinowski
Since prehistoric times man suffered the charm of amber, which attributed a divine origin, for his ability to appear as a drop of sunshine when illuminated by his haul for the suggestions evoked by the presence of insects and plants inside, to the ability to attract, electrifying them, light bodies and for its healing properties when taken in food and drink. This has led to confer magical and treatment powers to amber and to rework it into amulets. In ancient times there was not a substance worthy of attention from poets and mythographers like amber: either gold or precious stones.
The unknown origin drove the Greeks to weave legends that connected physical phenomena, or geographic elements with the origin of the substance itself. Its mysterious nature led us to collocate the source in impenetrable areas by definition, at the ends of the earth: the Far West. The genesis of amber is tied to the myth of Phaeton, son of the sun god, who asked his father to drive the chariot of the sun with which he lit up the earth; losing control, the young man burned the sky creating the Milky Way, burned forests and dried up rivers and lakes. The race was stopped by Zeus hurling a thunderbolt, made him fall into the deep eddies of the river Eridanus, the ancient name of the Po. Along its banks wept his sisters, the nymphs Eliadi, which were turned into poplar trees, to celebrate eternally their mourning: their tears, wiping in the sunlight, they were turned into drops of amber, carried by the river to the land of the Hyperboreans “by beautiful horses”.
The mythological scenario that places the origin of amber in the Po Valley is supported by archaeological research that identified in the delta of Po, since the full Bronze Age (1600 BC), the centerpiece of a flourishing trade in amber from the Baltic. Along the Elbe and the upper Rhine, across the Alps, amber penetrated into Italy down south, where the market was run by the populations that along the basin of Pula redistributed it to the Adriatic, and finally to Greece.
Its trade goes through Europe and the Mediterranean sea, linking the great continental civilizations and transmitting the spread of religious and mythological elements. Emerging new and complex beliefs related to cults of the water and the fire, the symbol of vital power, transforming and cathartic of sun. The different expressions of solar power express at several levels of ritual and social ideology: the vitality in the reproduction of wheels and solar wagons upon jewelery and everyday objects, the transformative power of the heat in the awarding of magical powers to metal objects and the cathartic appearance in cremation of dead, through which the soul is elevated to heaven. Amber, painful transformation of nymphs’ life and solar nourishment, embodies all aspects of the power of the Sun, the various mythological narratives and the combination with the water, becoming an exclusive talisman laying under divine protection warriors, priests and queens, from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean.
Cover: Amber beads necklace, from a bog between Cles and Tenno (Trento), XV-XVI cent. BC, Trento, Buonconsiglio Castle.