Magic of amber

a versatile material
amber throughout history

The Magic of Amber

One of the most used components in jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia is amber. This fossilized resin has been popular as adornment since prehistoric times, and has been attributed with a variety of magical capacities throughout millennia. It is the go-to substance in a surprisingly large field of problems!

Rings and dice

Amber was already highly valued by the Romans, who attributed a great deal of capacities to this material. It was thought to help against throat diseases, to alleviate fever, solve ear aches and problems with sight, and cure stomach pains and problems in the urinary trajectory. [1] Notably, amber was believed to be specifically effective for women and children; when a woman dreamt of amber ringer rings, this was considered a beneficial omen. [2] Its scent may also have played a role in its magical powers: rubbing an amber object firmly produces a resinous fragrance. Evidence of amber dice that have been rubbed vigorously in the past may show that gamers sought to influence their throw by activating the magical powers of amber [3], although, as we shall see, I think its static capacity may also have helped to attract winners’ luck. The fragrance of amber may also be the reason why it was sometimes burned in ritual settings: archaeology only recovers the remains, but it may have been its smell that was the central element.

Sip some amber

Amber continued to be much appreciated in the Middle Ages. What people in Europe thought of its powers only becomes clear in the 13th century, when it is listed in a book on the healing capacities of stones as excellent remedy against stomach ache.[4] A piece of amber was to be put in wine, beer or water and left to sit there for some time, after which you would take it out and drink the fluid – this method of transferring the magical capacity of a substance to a fluid that can be consumed has existed for millennia. The use of amber against urinary problems was also still very much alive in the Middle Ages: imbuing milk with amber as described above would lighten your load. Here again, the magic works following the lines of analogy, this time because of its yellow hues.

The amber law of attraction

In Arabic, amber is called kahramān. Here another magical use reveals itself: the name is related to kahrabah, meaning electricity. When real amber is rubbed, it becomes slightly static. This makes it an excellent substance to attract the love of a husband, as the Bedouin in Palestine believed. [5] Amber also is very powerful against the evil eye in general. The combination of its fragrance (as was already the case with the Romans) and its quality to keep evil at a distance makes it a highly valued prayer bead: these are also held, rubbed and passed through the fingers many times. [6]

Like in many other parts of the world, amber is used to dispel teething pains. [7] In a way of analogous magic similar to that of earlier periods and cultures, it is considered a warming and invigorating substance. This is why the Amazigh also consider it very useful against rheuma and respiratory inflictions, as well as against skin diseases. Additionally, to the Amazigh amber represents the warmth of the sun, and as such forms a natural pair with silver elements that invoke the power of the moon. As amber was so highly valued for its beneficial properties as well as visual expression of wealth, amber beads were often strung with small felt pieces in between to keep the beads from damaging. [8]

Long lines

What is noticeable, is that the qualities of amber occur in more or less similar forms time and again. It was believed to be useful against ear aches in both ancient Rome and modern Egypt, it works its magic against stomach aches and respiratory problems from the Maghreb to the Levant, and has helped babies through their teething pains since the Middle Ages. Amber has captivated the human imagination since forever!

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[1] Koster, A. 2013. The Cemetery of Noviomagus, p. 174

[2] Davis, G. 2018. Rubbing and Rolling, Burning and Burying: The Magical Use of Amber in Roman London, in: Parker, A. & S. McKie 2018. Material Approaches to Roman Magic. Occult Objects and Supernatural Substances. Oxbow Books, Oxford, p. 71

[3] Idem, p. 75

[4] Hildegard von Bingen, Heilsame Schöpfung, übersetzt und eingeleitet von Ortrun Riha, Beuroner Kunstverlag 2016, p. 278

[5] Biasio, E. 1998. Beduinen im Negev, Zürich, p. 221

[6] Idem, p. 221-222

[7] Draguet, M. 2021. Berber Memories, p. 350

[8] Berber Women of Morocco, Fondation Pierre Bergé/Yves Saint Laurent 2014, p. 73

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.