Amber in Magic and Medicine

Elzbieta Mierzwinska

People have believed in the magical power of amber from time immemorial. This belief has survived until today – at present amber is applied in treating rheumatic and thyroid ailments, in the cosmetics industry and in other fields as well.

Prehistory and Antiquity


Amber pendants from the Stone Age which have survived to the present day are interpreted as amulets used in hunting magic by prehistoric inhabitants of the Baltic Sea region. They usually have the shape of tiles or round discs with geometric ornaments, notched zigzags and dots, occasionally with stylised images of people and animals, or are shaped as animal- and human-shaped figurines. The properties of amber, mysterious and inexplicable, especially its power of attraction, must have evoked fear and admiration in the primitive humans. No wonder, then, that people began to attribute magical properties to such an extraordinary stone. They probably believed that if they took an animal-shaped amber pendant or figurine on a hunting trip, it would attract real animals to the hunters, which would ensure a successful hunt and therefore their survival. Round discs with a motif of intersected points are interpreted as amulets which express the cult of the sun.

The Middle Ages


The opinion about the protective and medicinal power of amber, which had developed in the primitive and ancient societies, survived for millennia. Medieval medicine took over most of the beliefs about the positive effects of amber and added its own recommendations. Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1178), the prioress of the local Benedictine convent, a renowned German mystic and poetess, recommended taking amber as a beer, wine or water tincture for stomach ache, and as a milk tincture for bladder conditions. Powdered amber mixed with wine was also supposed to protect from the Black Death. Albert the Great, a 13 th -century Dominican theologian and philosopher, listed amber among six medications of the utmost effectiveness. It was also supposed to be the measure of virginal virtue, “for if her virtue is lost, having drunk an amber decoction, the maiden must immediately release it with urine” (from J. Haczewski's study O bursztynie /On Amber/, 1838). Arabian physicians, who enjoyed great esteem in medieval medicine, recommended amber for many diseases, which included diarrhoea and haemorrhage (Avicenna, al-Razi), while Arabian scholar al-Biruni emphasised the magical and protective power of amber by saying that “it repels the injury inflicted by the evil eye.”

Having taken hold of “the amber coast,” the Teutonic Knights drew enormous profits from the amber trade, but they especially treasured the white variety, to which exceptional medicinal properties were attributed. With his wishes “for this good stone to cast out the evil ones,” Prussian prince Albrecht Hohenzollern Prince of Prussia sent a white amber nugget to Martin Luther for his gall stones. In his scientific treatise on amber ( Succini historia, 1551), Andreas Aurifaber's court physician included 46 prescriptions on how to use amber for the following ailments: toothache, stomach ache, rheumatism, heart arrhythmia. Also, Nicolaus Copernicus would prescribe amber powder for heart ailments. The library of Uppsala University in Sweden has preserved an original prescription put down by the great astronomer and physician, which apart from amber contains a set of gemstones typical of the medicine of the period (emerald, sapphire, pearl, gold, silver, coral), as well as foundry powder, unicorn horn(?), ivory and plant substances.

The Modern Era


16 th -century medical treatises often attribute magical properties to amber as well; one of them reads: “if you put amber on the breast of your wife, while asleep, it will cause all her evil deeds to be revealed” (physician to Caesar Borgia Camillus Leonardus, Speculum Lapidum , 1502). Georgius Agricola, a renowned German humanist and physician (1494-1555), described in his treatise herbal concoctions containing white amber, while Polish doctor and botanist Stefan Falimirz in his herbal O ziołach i mocy ich /On Herbs and their Powers/ praises amber for being able to “gladden the hearts, avert melancholy and raise the spirits.”

Medical guidebooks recommended that amber best “be worn in a ring upon the little finger of the left hand; for, in stones [...], there is great efficacie, and vertue” (J. Harrington, School of Salerne , 1624), and also that places afflicted by the plague be incensed with amber smoke. Sources from the end of the 17 th century recorded a significant fact that no amber craftsman who worked in the cities of the Baltic died during the plague. Smoke from burnt amber, as well as powdered amber taken internally as tincture, were supposed to help in treating inflammations of the respiratory tract, watering eyes, headaches, sleep disorders and convulsions, menstrual ailments, haemorrhage and help in childbirth. In China, Baltic amber was mixed with opium and used as an effective sedative, painkiller and antispasmodic.

Polish folk medicine, especially in the Kurpie region, had amber as a very popular medicament which also protected against “spells.” It was used to remove objects from eyes, given to children to ease teething pain; it was used to treat rheumatism, eye and throat illnesses, or even infertility. In the 19 th century, pharmacies stocked various amber balms, ointments and tinctures. Jan Freyer, a doctor from Cracow, author of the first Polish monograph on amber ( O bursztynie /On Amber/ , 1833) mentions amber's “medicinal uses.”

He described how to make amber tinctures and also how to use amber oil and acid obtained in dry distillation in treatment. Amber was also advertised as an effective remedy against negative effects of tobacco smoking; this resulted in the mass production of pipes and cigarette-holders with amber mouthpieces.

The Present


Supported by scientific research, the faith in the beneficial properties of amber proved to be justified. Amber acid was discovered to act as a biostimulant: it stimulates the nervous system, regulates the work of kidneys and intestines, it is an anti-inflammatory and antitoxic agent. This ingredient is the basis for ointments and creams to treat rheumatic and asthmatic ailments, skin ulcerations and irritations, bronchial, throat and thyroid conditions. The acid and oil obtained from amber are also used in the cosmetics industry as they destroy free radicals and bacteria, have disinfectant properties and alleviate the effects of burns and insect bites. For these reasons, manufacturers have been trying to outdo each other by offering ever new ideas on how to use amber: you can buy mattresses and cushions, mats for pets filled with amber, insoles with amber fines, back and neck supports for drivers, amber incense sticks and many other objects of this kind.

 So it turns out that it is by no accident that amber from the Baltic has acted as a panacea for a multitude of conditions for thousands and thousands of years. Such a legend and justified belief surrounds it also today.