We continue our journey through the world of amber and depart today in beautiful ancient Greece and Lithuania. Wandering on the white sandy beaches of the Baltic sea, I could imagine that our ancestors must have written some mythological stories or legends about the fascinating stone which comes from the ocean floor. I think that our ancestors were struck by the romanticism of the Baltic coastline in winter, inspired watching the waves crash on the banks, depositing pieces of amber. In ancient times nature´s phenomena were attributed to being acts of the gods, precious gems like amber were said to come from the hand of the gods to make the divinities seem even more mysterious.
So I went in search of the explanations given by storytellers of antiquity. I found two mythological stories explaining the appearance of amber, one coming straight from ancient Greece and another equally dramatic, coming from the Baltic countries of northern Europe.
Phaethon and the chariot of the Sun
We will first dive into the Greek mythological tale of Phaethon and his misfortunes. This young man loved to brag to his friends that he was the son of Helios the Sun God. They mocked him and refused to believe his boasting. Phaeton asked his mother Clymene, the daughter of the Sea Goddess Thetis, for the truth about his father. Clymene sent him straight to Helios’s solar palace so Phaethon could ask for himself if he was his son. After a long journey, Phaeton finally arrived at the home of his father and was dazzled by the beauty of the place.
“The palace of the Sun towered up with raised columns, bright with glittering gold, and gleaming bronze like fire. Shining ivory crowned the roofs… ” Ovid, Metamorphoses
He finally met Helios who confirmed that he was in fact Phaethon’s father, but Phaethon wanted to bring some proof to his friends. Phaeton, taking advantage of his father´s generosity, demanded Helios to let him go for a ride in his golden chariot. The same chariot of the sun that Helios drove through the sky each day, warming and lighting up the earth from dawn till dusk. Helios immediately regretted the promise he made to his son, but could not take his gift back.
Phaeton seized the reins and began his journey around the earth, but the horses immediately understood Helios was not at the reigns and bolted. They left the ground with such speed that the earth descended into frost, the chariot tore through the sky. Aristotle described the Milky Way as the trace left in the sky by the flight of Phaeton.
” The Nile fled in terror to the ends of the earth, and hid its head that remains hidden….” Ovid, Metamorphoses
Trying to correct his course, he turned the chariot again towards the earth, forests and towns caught fire and the sky was covered with black smoke. The Olympian gods were furious; Zeus threw a lightning bolt to Phaeton´s chariot to stop put an end to the disaster. The chariot broke to pieces and landed in the river Eridanus (the present river Po in Italy) and this is where Phaeton came to his unfortunate end. The sisters of Phaeton, the Heliades, mourned their brother tirelessly on the banks of the river. The Gods seeing their sorrow, turned them into poplar trees and turned their tears into amber.
Are the wonderful organic stones of amber that we can find on the Baltic beaches the tears of the sisters of Phaeton? Not according to the people of Northern Europe…
Jurate the Baltic Sea Goddess
Jurate was the goddess of sirens who lived at the bottom of the Baltic Sea in a palace made of Amber. She lived in harmony with the marine wildlife. One day she noticed a fearless fisherman, named Kastysis, who threw his nets too close to her kingdom. She sent sirens threaten the fisherman, but with no success as he continued to fill his nets. Jurate took it upon herself to stop Kastysis from fishing so close to her palace. Upon meeting Kastysis and noticing his strength, beauty and courage, she fell in love with him and took him to live with her in the amber palace at the bottom of the sea.
But Jurate had promised to marry Perkunas, the god of thunder and the father of all Gods. When he discovered Jurate’s love affair with a mere mortal he unleashed a ferocious storm on Jurate’s amber palace in anger. The lightning shattered the amber palace into thousands of fragments, killing the fisherman. The pieces of amber which wash up on the shore to this day are said to be both the remains of the palace, and Jurate’s amber tears from losing her lover.
Amber seems undeniably linked to the tears from the tragic loves of our ancestors. While walking along the beach, crossing the white sand dunes, one cannot help but to be slightly melancholy but at the same time feel a sweet nostalgia. This nostalgia has probably influenced the storytellers and legend makers of amber, the “tears of the Gods”.