When I was a girl, on those rare delicious days when I got to stay home sick with some flu or cold and could have the run of the house without my parents or my five siblings getting in my way, I would chose to spend the day in my mother’s closet.
The womb-like cramped space with its thick smell of moth balls and old wool held sensual treasures beyond the mundane New Jersey days of casseroles and homework and the big yellow school bus that carted me off each morning. I would dig through piles of my mother’s wool sweaters and cotton blouses until I rummaged down to what I was looking for — her jewelry box.
I would pull the jewelry box out from within the warm mass of wool, open up the velvet lid, and reach my hand deep inside and grope around in the darkness. I’d wiggle my fingers past the bangles and tangles of sixties plastic beads in gaudy pinks and turquoises, until my hand settled on it — a chunk of smooth polished amber.
I’d run my fingers over the warm amber and then slowly and ceremoniously take it out into the light. There, perched on my parents’ bed, I’d gaze for long hours at the fly trapped — mid-flight — inside the amber.
Crouched in that closet in suburban New Jersey, gazing at the fly in the amber, I knew little more about amber than that it was somehow associated with Lithuanian-American social events. Except for the dances at the Lithuanian Cultural Center where the older émigré women wore large, heavy, and I daresay, gaudy amber bead necklaces, nowhere else did I ever see anyone wearing amber.
For this reason, amber held little value for me and at the same time, fascinated me. Amber was something that was just there. Like the Lithuanian language that existed only in the private realm of the home and the homes of other émigrés. It was like Lithuania itself. The country existed on no map in school, but at our Saturday School, there were maps in every classroom distinctly showing the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia across the Baltic Sea from Scandinavia and sandwiched between Poland and Russia.
By far, the largest amount of amber used by people throughout the millennia was collected and quarried along the southern, southeastern and eastern coast of the Baltic Sea and in particular in the territories of the prehistoric Northern Sea. Baltic amber, which is a fossil resin, or succinite, fondly called “northern gold” or “sunny stone,” occurs naturally from the Friesian islands to the Gulf of Riga in the northeast and Belarus and Ukraine in the southeast. The name for Baltic amber, as a fossil resin, originates from amber pine (Pinus succinifera).
In the Neolithic era amber was used as a protective amulet; as a marker of social status and wealth; and for medicinal purposes. Amber was burned and the fumes were used to heal ear infections. My ex-husband, who grew up in the Lithuanian coastal town of Palanga, remembers how in his early childhood, his mother would take him to the local “witches” when he had an ear infection. These women burned amber and directed the smoke into his chronically infected ear while muttering incantations.
Up until the late 1970s, amber was burned as incense during mass at the church in Palanga. The pebbles were collected from the site of a defunct amber factory.
During the Soviet era, in the late 80s, hiking the Curonian Spit with a group of poets from the Department of Lithuanian Language and Literature at Vilnius University, we were almost arrested by border guards in the Kaliningrad region when the allure of collecting amber chunks off the coastline tempted us out of the safety of the pine forests where we were hiding and hiking without special permission to enter the border zone.
Around the year 98 A.D. the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus in his work “The Earliest Beginnings and the Land of Germans” (“De origine et situ Germanorum”), commonly referred to as “Germania,” mentioned the Aestiorum gentes for the first time, often linking them with the western Balts or the inhabitants of the Eastern Baltic region.
Tacitus’s “Germania” is a work of ethnographic quality, which describes the Germanic tribes, their character, points out peculiarities and distinctive features, geographic location, climate, habits, their mined wealth, the social structure of their society, everyday life, language, religions, etc. The Aestii are mentioned in the work because of their exceptional land’s treasure — amber (glaesum). Amber’s traits, as well as methods of amber extraction and trade, are described as characteristic features of the Aestii lifestyle, which separate them from the other barbarians.
In his 45th chapter of “Germania” Tacitus wrote: “Passing then to the right-hand shore of the Suebian Sea, here it washes the people of Aestii, whose customs and garments are those of the Suebi, and whose language is closer to the Britons. They worship the Mother of the Gods. As a symbol of their beliefs they wear images of boars. This symbol, like armament or defensive measures protects the goddess worshipper from everything even amidst enemies. They seldom use swords, clubs frequently. Grain and other crops they cultivate with a perseverance unusual among the generally lethargic Germans. They also rummage the sea: they are the only people who gather amber, which they themselves call glesum, in the shallows and the shore itself. Being barbarians, they have never inquired or discovered what substance or process produces it. In fact, for a long time it just lay among the other jetsam of the sea, until our luxury gave it a reputation. They have no use for it themselves: it is gathered crude and passed on unworked, and they are astonished at the price they get for it. But it is not difficult to understand that it is sap from trees, since often one can see shining through it some kind of creeping or winged insects who have been caught and remained stuck in the quickly thickening liquid.”
The peoples of prehistory, must have dreamed, like I did, of what the world may have been like when the insect trapped inside the amber was still alive. Intuitively, they made the connection between the majestic pine forests that line the coast and the insects floating eternally inside the amber’s yellow light.
When I was thirteen I was taken to the wake of my mother’s girlfriend’s mother. I was astonished that this woman, aristocratic with her elegant pre-war mannerisms, was prepared for burial with a beaded necklace of large round polished amber beads resting on her chest.
Archeological digs in the Baltics in recent years have uncovered burial after burial where women were buried with amber-bead necklaces around their necks. In some regions of Lithuania, stallions were buried alongside their riders, and amber amulet beads were found woven into their manes and tails.
Working as a journalist, I’d interviewed two young Lithuanian women who casually mentioned that they wore amber amulets when embarking on dangerous endeavors: the first was a archeologist who traveled to Ghowr province Afghanistan in 2007 to participate in archeological field work and the second was Olympic silver-medal winning sailor, Gintarė Volungevičiūtė, who claimed to wear an amber amulet for special protection while racing.
All of this makes me wonder whether the way Baltic people perceive and use amber is not rooted in a special wisdom that is perhaps passed on genetically. For a Balt, amber is sacred and at the same time mundane. The attitude towards amber is casual and reverent.
A Balt will never confuse amber with plastic at a vendor’s table. The eye recognizes true amber immediately. And if the eye fails, there is the touch.
Am I affronted by the endless tables of amber vendors lining Pilies Street in Vilnius or in Nida or Palanga during tourist season? Or the many overdone specialty amber shops? I am not.
Amber trade has been a part of the Baltic economy since prehistory. Amber trade routes stretched from the Baltics to the outlying provinces of the Roman empire. Traders traveled over wooden boardwalks through the marshes and forests of the Baltic region to procure amber and bring it back to “civilization.”
Around the year 77 A.D. Pliny the Elder in his work “Natural History” (“Naturalis Historiae“) describes everything that he knows about amber based on a variety of sources available to him (spread of amber, characteristics, uses). He describes not only the Romans unquenchable thirst for amber as a luxury item, but indicates who the primary consumers of amber were women. Pliny describes a trade mission that traveled especially to the southeast Baltic Sea coast to bring amber to Rome. This mission was organized during the reign of the Emperor Nero around 60 A.D. This is how Pliny described the expedition: “The distance from Carnumtum (presently Petronell in Austria) in Pannonia, to the coasts of Germania from which the amber is brought to us is some 600 hundred miles (888 km), a fact which has been confirmed only very recently. There is still living a member of the Roman equestrian order (eques Romanus), who was commissioned to procure amber by Julianus when the latter was in charge of a display of gladiators given by the Emperor Nero. Traversing the coasts of that country and visiting the various markets there, he brought back amber, in such vast quantities, that the nets used for protecting the podium against the wild beasts, were knotted with pieces of amber. Moreover, the arms, biers, and all the equipment used one day, the display on each day being varied, had amber fittings. The heaviest lump that was brought by this personage to Rome weighed 13 pounds (4.26 kg).”
The mission, led by a Roman equestrian, traveled along the main estuary of the “Amber Route” from Carnuntum along the left bank of the Moravia to the so-called Moravian gates, then later along the headwaters of the Oder, along the Prosna River, through the Kuiavia region and finally towards the lower Vistula region.
The mission sent during the reign of the emperor Nero, by Julianus, the organizer of gladiator games, was an important trade expedition. The mission was led by a person belonging to the Roman equestrians (eques Romanus).
It is clear that for Roman citizens the mission first of all was meant to confirm the power of Imperium Romanum and the emperor. The emperor’s ability to search for new sources of different stocks and markets, reaching the edge of the earth, underscored his power. By the same token, the amber that was brought back satisfied Nero’s limitless desires, strange fancies, and expansive ambitions, demonstrating himself and the power of his rule to the citizenry.
Eternally sought after
Not much has changed since antiquity. Amber is still the top-selling souvenir item in the Baltic. But in Baltic families, amber takes on a different role. Amber is associated with memory.
When my grandmother died, she left behind an inheritance of amber: pre-war amber bead necklaces and brooches. My mother invited me, my sister, our cousins, and my brothers’ wives in to my grandmother’s bedroom, one by one, to select something from my grandmother’s horde. In this way, we all carry a piece of her amber along with us, until it is time for us too to pass it on.
Laima Vincė, a New York native, is a Lithuanian-American non-fiction and children’s book author, Fulbright scholar in creative writing at Vilnius University, journalist, memoirist and translator. For more information about her work, visit her website at www.laimavince.com and to order her acclaimed memoir “Lenin’s Head on a Platter” go here. Two translations she did of Lithuanian authors can be found here and here.
Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.