Amber Magic?

While magic is probably the one word broad enough to describe the ancient use of amulets, the modern public finds the term difficult. As H. S. Versnel puts it, “One problem is that you cannot talk about magic without using the term magic.”8

But even if it were possible to draw precise lines of demarcation between the ancient use of amber for adornment and its role in healing, between its reputation for warding off danger and its connection to certain divinities and cults, such categorizations would run counter to an understanding of amber in its wider context. Amber’s beauty and rarity were evident to an ancient observer, but its magnetic properties; distinctive, glowing, sunlike color and liquid appearance; inclusions and luster; and exotic origins were mysterious and awe-inspiring. Amber’s fascination and associative value prompted a wide range of overlapping uses.9 Pliny the Elder, for instance, put together an impressive list of uses for amber, including as a medicine for throat problems and as a charm for protecting babies.10 Diodorus Siculus noted amber’s role in mourning rituals, and Pausanias guided visitors to an amber statue of Augustus at Olympia. The main sources of amber in antiquity were at the edges of the known world, and those distant lands generated further rich lore. Myths and realities of amber’s nature and power influenced the desire to acquire it. As the historian Joan Evans has observed, “Rarity, strangeness, and beauty have in them an inexplicable element and the inexplicable is always potentially magical.”11 Beliefs about amber’s mysterious origins and unique physical and optical properties affected the ways it was used in antiquity and the forms and subjects into which it was carved.12

Excavations during the last half century, especially in Italy, have greatly improved our understanding of how amber functioned in funerary contexts. The emerging picture is also enhancing our understanding of how amber objects were used before their burial. A number of amber pendants, including the Getty objects, show signs of wear (figure 4). Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to whether the ambers were actually possessions of the people with whom they were buried, how the objects were acquired, and in which cultic or other activity they played a part. There is no written source until Pliny the Elder, around A.D. 79, to tell us how amber was used in life (in a religious, medical, magical, or other context).13 Only a few fragments of information from early Christian sources add to the Roman picture. All evidence before Pliny is archaeological and extrapolated from earlier sources—from Egypt, the Aegean, the ancient Near East, and northern Europe. In Egypt, and to a lesser extent in the ancient Near East, much more is known about how amuletic jewelry was produced, and by whom and for whom it was produced. In both regions, we find instances of amulets specifically designed for funerary use and of previously owned amulets continuing their usefulness in the tomb.

Female Head in Profile pendant, Italic, 500–480 B.C. Amber, H: 4.4 cm (1710 in.), W: 3.8 cm (112 in.), D: 1.6 cm (35 in). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AO.81.30. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 25.
Figure 4
Female Head in Profile pendant, Italic, 500–480 B.C. Amber, H: 4.4 cm (1710 in.), W: 3.8 cm (112 in.), D: 1.6 cm (35 in). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AO.81.30. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 25.

We might also ask how amber pendants in the form of age-old subjects (goddesses [figure 5], animals, or solar and lunar symbols) relate to older traditions. In the ancient Near East, Kim Benzel reminds us, symbolic jewelry pendants signified emblematic forms of major deities from as early as the third millennium B.C.:

Symbols of divinities have a long tradition of representation in various media throughout the ancient Near East. They were certainly meant to be apotropaic, but likely had far greater efficacy than the purely protective. An emblem was considered one mode of presencing a deity.… The power embodied in [such] ornaments thus would have been analogous to the power embedded in a cult statue—which is perhaps why in the later religions, along with idol worship, jewels were banned.14

Addorsed Females pendant, Etruscan, 600–550 B.C. Amber, H: 4.0 cm (135 in.), W: 10.2 cm (4 in.), D: 1.3 cm (12 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AO.81.1. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 3.
Figure 5
Addorsed Females pendant, Etruscan, 600–550 B.C. Amber, H: 4.0 cm (135 in.), W: 10.2 cm (4 in.), D: 1.3 cm (12 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AO.81.1. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 3.

The subjects of the Getty pre-Roman figured ambers vary, but without exception, they incorporate a protective as well as a fertility or regenerative aspect.15 It is easy to see that the same amulet that had helped to ensure safe entry into the world of the living could serve a similar function in smoothing the transition into the afterworld, or world of the dead. Many images allude to a journey (figure 6) that the deceased’s shade, or soul, takes after death, and these pieces are difficult to see as intended for the living: these must have been gifts or commissions specifically for the dead. The ambers that show wear do not indicate who used them. While there is no direct evidence as to whether the amulets found in burials were owned by the deceased during their lives, it is tempting to assume that this could have been the case. Were they purchases, part of a dowry, heirlooms, or other kinds of gifts? Ambers were made, at some point, for someone, whether bought on the open market or commissioned to order. Inscribed Greek magical amulets (lamellae) “that had been commissioned for specific purposes (or most feared dangers) came to represent for their wearer a multivalent protection, a sine qua non for every activity in life. And in the face of the liminal dangers of the afterlife passage … this same amulet that had come to protect all aspects of life would now be considered crucial in death, the apotropaic token of the soul.”16

Ship with Figures pendant, Etruscan, 600–575 B.C. Amber, L: 12 cm (4710 in.), W: 3.5 cm (138 in.), D: 1 cm (310 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 76.AO.76. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 7.
Figure 6
Ship with Figures pendant, Etruscan, 600–575 B.C. Amber, L: 12 cm (4710 in.), W: 3.5 cm (138 in.), D: 1 cm (310 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 76.AO.76. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 7.

The wear on many objects is undeniable. Some amber pendants are both worn and “old-fashioned” for the context in which they were found, and they cause us to remember that in antiquity there was a well-established tradition of gift giving during life and at the grave.17 Figured ambers, including those in the Getty collection, may have been worn regularly in life for permanent protection or benefit; others, on a temporary basis or in crises, such as childbirth, illness, or a dangerous journey. Others may have been grave gifts or offerings to divinities, perhaps to propitiate underworld deities. In some cases, deceased girls may have been adorned as brides—a common aspect of funerary ritual.

How these objects might have functioned in reference to clanship or other social identities, during either life or the rituals surrounding death, should also be considered. Among certain populations, there might have been a generally accepted role for amber, in the range of subjects into which it was formed and/or the objects it embellished. Some subjects might have been pertinent to clans or larger communities, in the way that shield emblazons might be. Some imagery might have been special to family groups, who may have traced their origins, names, or even good fortune to a particular deity, animal, totem, or myth. If an elite person whose family’s founder was a divinity or Homeric hero was buried with a ring with an engraved gem representing, say, Herakles (figure 7), Odysseus, or Athena, might the same have been done with figured ambers?

Engraved Scarab with Nike Crowning Herakles, Etruscan, 400–380 B.C. Banded agate, H: 1.8 cm (34 in.), W: 1.4 cm (916 in.), D: 0.9 cm (38 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.AN.123.
Figure 7
Engraved Scarab with Nike Crowning Herakles, Etruscan, 400–380 B.C. Banded agate, H: 1.8 cm (34 in.), W: 1.4 cm (916 in.), D: 0.9 cm (38 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.AN.123.

The extent to which some of these ornament-amulets had a role in established cult or folk religion is difficult to ascertain, but it should not be either exaggerated or denied. The diversity of subjects that appear in figured amber over time suggests that the material was used within many different symbol systems, but always for its protective or regenerative aspects. Some pieces do incorporate elements relating, for instance, to Dionysos or Artemis, but as such, they occupy a hazy territory between identifiable religious practices and what Einar Thomassen calls “the appropriation of ritual power for personal ends.”18 The use of these amulets may have been dictated to some extent by skilled practitioners, but it is likely that the original, specific use of a protective amulet often would have eroded into a more generalized portafortuna, or good-luck, role over time.19 The generally feared evil eye might have been warded off with any amber amulet.20

Worked amber and amber jewelry were well in evidence in northern Europe from the fourth millennium B.C. onward. The earliest evidence for worked amber in Italy is from the Bronze Age. We do not know where the amber found in graves dating to circa 1500 B.C. in Basilicata (near Melfi and Matera) was carved. In the later Bronze Age, Adriatic Frattesina, a typical emporium of the protohistoric era, was a place of manufacture. Already by this time, variety in style, subject, technique, and function was evident. Some of these early ambers are the work of highly skilled artisans; others are rudimentary in manufacture and indicate work by other kinds of amber-workers/amulet-makers, perhaps even priestesses, physicians, or “wise women.” It is tempting to think of multiple ritual specialists involved in amber-working and amuletmaking, though perhaps in not so pronounced a fashion as in contemporary Egypt—although there is evidence for widespread amuletic usage in Italy even into modern times. We might well envision a scenario that includes simple gem cutters, sculptors, multiple ritual specialists—from healers to hacks—those with fixed locations in urban settings, and itinerants. Such a variety of practitioners offering objects and ritual expertise is likely, especially for amulets in a material as inherently magical as amber.21


  1. Reference from E. Thomassen, “Is Magic a Subclass of Ritual?” in , pp. 55–66.
  2. , pp. 10–11, considers the amuletic and the magical aspects of amber separately from its medical uses. He distinguishes between early Greek and later (presumably Classical) Greek attitudes: “In early Greece the amuletic values of amber seem to have been recognized.… But in the Greek world generally the principal attraction of amber was its decorative qualities.” Strong also differentiates Italic Iron Age usage from the Greek: in that period, the “amber carvings … underline the magical aspects of the use of amber.”

    , p. 456, successfully undertakes a religious interpretation in his study of the seventh-century B.C. Tomb VI at Satricum, countering the “viewpoint that Oriental or Orientalising figurative amulets had only a very generic apotropaic function in Italy … and [that] they would not have been understood by the native population. Related to this viewpoint is an explicit reluctance against any interpretation which takes nonmaterial, sc. religious, aspects into account. Even the symbol of the nude female is frequently denied a specific meaning.” , p. 268, n. 19, suggests that beliefs surrounding amber, other than fashion or taste, might explain the long-continuing repetition of subjects among certain groups of figured ambers. , p. 78, n. 247, notes the supranormal aspects of figured amber, drawing attention to the relationship of the subject and the animating, electrical properties of amber. The amuletic, magical, or apotropaic properties of pre-Roman amber objects are noted by S. Bianco, A. Mastrocinque, A. Russo, and M. Tagliente in , passim; , pp. 45, 100 ; A. Russo in , p. 22 ; , p. 65; , p. 659 (and elsewhere); , p. 110; , vol. 1, pp. 229ff., who (as quoted by ) sees “all amulets [as having] had a similar, not exactly defined magic power; possibly they served against natural dangers such as animal bites, or against supranatural dangers such as the evil eye”; ; , pp. 86, 88; and , vol. 3, part 1, esp. cols. 301–3, s.v. “Bernstein” (by Blümner). For the Mycenaean period, see , p, 141, “who rightly insists first on the quasimagical properties of amber (not just the prestige),” as A. Sherratt notes in “Electric Gold: Reopening the Amber Route,” Archaeology 69 (1995): 200–203, his review of . Compare, however, the more cautious opinion of , p. 259: “Most amber is in ordinary bead form; since it is consistently found alongside standard beads of other materials, we cannot prove that the Mycenaeans thought of it as having any special amuletic value.”

  3. is the edition used throughout this text.
  4. J. Evans, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Particularly in England (Oxford, 1922), p. 13.
  5. The subjects and forms of many pre-Roman figured ambers have precedents thousands of years older. The earliest surviving animal and human subjects in amber from northern Europe are dated to the eighth millennium; see, for example, M. Iršenas, “Stone Age Figurines from the Baltic Area,” in Proceedings of the International Interdisciplinary Conference: Baltic Amber in the Natural Sciences, Archaeology and Applied Art, ed. A. Butrimas (Vilnius, 2001), pp. 77–86; M. Ots, “Stone Age Amber Finds in Estonia,” in , pp. 96–107; M. Irinas, “Elk Figurines in the Stone Age Art of the Baltic Area,” in Prehistoric Art in the Baltic Region, ed. A. Butrimas (Vilnius, 2000), pp. 93–105; and I. Loze, “Prehistoric Amber Ornaments in the Baltic Region,” in , pp. 18–19. An amber duck found in a Danish Paleolithic context of 6800–4000 B.C. is the earliest example of a pendant type popular in Greece and Italy in the seventh century B.C. and first known in the eighth. (See n. 194 for further discussion of ducks in amber.) Such objects support the hypothesis that amber was traded with the south in both finished and unfinished forms. H. Hughes-Brock, “Mycenaean Beads: Gender and Social Contexts,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 18, no. 3 (August 1999): 293, suggests, “Some imports probably arrived with the specialist processes already completed nearer the source, e.g., preliminary removal of the crust of Baltic amber.” Why not finished objects?
  6. S. Eitrem, Opferritus und Voropfer der Griechen und Röme (1915; repr., Hildesheim and New York, 1977), p. 194, discusses the amuletic virtues of amber in Rome.
  7. K. Benzel, in , p. 25, with reference to pp. 350–52 in the same catalogue. Benzel cites J. Spacy, “Emblems in Rituals in the Old Babylonian Period,” in Ritual and Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the International Conference Organized by the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 17–20 April 1991, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 55, ed. J. Quaegebeur (Leuven, 1993), pp. 411–20; Z. Bahrani, “The Babylonian Visual Image,” in The Babylonian World, ed. G. Leick (New York and London, 2003), pp. 155–70; and Z. Bahrani, The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria (Philadelphia, 2003), p. 127. See also H. Wildberger, Isaiah 1–12: A Commentary, trans. T. H. Trapp (1991; repr., Minneapolis, 2002).
  8. Amber itself, and most of the subjects of figured amber, have fertility aspects. Modern Westerners tend to discuss the fertility and fecundity beliefs and rites of earlier peoples in the context of an increase of humans, hunt animals, edible botanics, agricultural products, and domesticated crops, which limits our understanding of fertility imagery, both its making and its use. That fertility magic was used to control reproduction (via, e.g., birth spacing) as well as spur procreation was first brought to my attention by R. White (public lecture 1999). See White 2003 (in n. 2, above), p. 58, where he cites G. H. Luquet, L’art néo-calédonien: Documents recueillis par Marius Archambault (Paris, 1926), and P. Ucko and A. Rosenfeld, Paleolithic Cave Art (London, 1967). Luquet was among the first to raise doubts about the idea that Paleolithic peoples were motivated to increase human fecundity through magical acts. Ucko and Rosenfeld were among the first to write that hunters and gatherers are generally more interested in limiting population growth than in increasing it. Compare the discussion by J. Assante, “From Whores to Hierodules,” in Ancient Art and Its Historiography, ed. A. A. Donohue and M. D. Fullerton (Cambridge, 2003), p. 26, where she contrasts “Yahweh’s command to be fruitful and multiply, and the Bible’s emphasis on progeny in general,” with the Mesopotamian “gods of prebiblical flood myths who did not destroy mankind because they sinned but because they overpopulated and made too much noise.” Assante cites A. Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Concept of Overpopulation and Its Solution as Reflected in the Mythology,” Orientalia, n.s., 41 (1972): 160–77.
  9. D. Frankfurter, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1995.04.12 (review of ).
  10. The literature on gifts and gift giving in the ancient world is extensive. Although previous ownership of excavated objects is ordinarily difficult to establish, two Etruscan finds and one Etrusco-Campanian find might be seen as exempla of presentation, parting, and exchange articulated around banquets. Were these items exchanged among guests/friends? Were they components of a dowry or bride wealth, ransom or prizes, or funerary tributes? , p. 69, cites the silver vessels deposited circa 660 B.C. with an aristocratic lady in the Regolini-Galassi Tomb at Cerveteri, inscribed with a male name in the genitive, and suggests that these luxury objects were the property of her husband. The seventh-century gold fibula, with its inscription in granulation, from Casteluccio-La Foce (Siena), in the Louvre (Bj 816), is a gift-ornament that recalls the fibulae of the peplos offered to Penelope (Odyssey 18.292–95). For the Louvre pin, see Cristofani, in , no. 103; and , p. 6809, fig. 47. The inscription on an Etrusco-Campanian bronze lebes found in Tomb 106 at Braida di Vaglio, which belonged to a woman of about sixty (the tomb also included two amber figured pendants, a satyr’s head and a Cypriote-type Herakles), is another important example; for the inscription, see M. Torelli with L. Agostiniani, in , p. 63, and appendix I, pp. 113–17. These inscriptions are further evidence of networked elites taking advantage of their literacy.
  11. Thomassen 1999 (n. 8, above), p. 65.
  12. Compare , p. 37: “There is a tendency for all protective images, regardless of their ‘original’ purpose or the specific crisis that led to their manufacture, to assume a wider and wider role in the protection of a place, until they achieve a status as some vague ‘all-purpose’ phylactery against any and all forms of evil.”
  13. See n. 152.
  14. The scenario of multiple ritual specialists recorded by the tenth-century A.D. compiler Ibn al-Nadim, who pronounced Egypt “the Babylon of the magicians,” might provide a later model for pragmatic ritual expertise at all levels and the range of activities of itinerant artisans and healers in pre-Roman Italy. He records, “A person who has seen this state of affairs has told me that there still remain men and women magicians and that all of the exorcists and magicians assert that they have seals, charms of paper … and other things used for their arts”: Ibn al-Nadim, Kitāb al-Fihrist, trans. Bayard Dodge, The Fihrist of al-Nadim: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture (New York, 1970), p. 726 (quoted in D. Frankfurter, “Ritual Expertise in Roman Egypt and the Problem of the Category ‘Magician,’” in Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, ed. P. Schäfer and H. G. Kippenberg [Princeton, 1997], p. 30).


Baltica 2000
Baltica 2000: International Folklore Festival. Exh. cat. Riga, 2000.
Beck and Bouzek 1993
Beck, C. W., and J. Bouzek, eds. Amber in Archaeology: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Amber in Archaeology, Liblice, 1990. Prague, 1993.
Beck et al. 2003
Beck, C. W., I. B. Loze, and J. M. Todd, eds. Amber in Archaeology: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Amber in Archaeology, Talsi, 2001. Riga, 2003.
Bottini and Setari 2003
Bottini, A., and E. Setari. La necropoli italica di Braida di Vaglio in Basilicata: Materiali dallo scavo del 1994. With appendix by M. Torelli. 60, serie miscellanea 7. Rome, 2003.
Bottini 1993
Bottini, A. “La Tomba 955 di Lavello-Forentum.” In Due donne dell’Italia antica: Corredi da Spina e Forentum, edited by D. Baldoni, pp. 63–69. Exh. cat. Padua, 1993.
Bouzek 1993
Bouzek, J. “The Shifts of the Amber Route.” In Amber in Archaeology: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Amber in Archaeology, Liblice, 1990, edited by C. W. Beck and J. Bouzek, pp. 141–46. Prague, 1993.
Cristofani and Martelli 1983
Cristofani, M., and M. Martelli, eds. L’oro degli Etruschi. Novara, 1983.
D’Ercole 1995
D’Ercole, M.-C. “Observations sur quelques ambres sculptés archaïques d’Italie méridionale.” 1995: 265–90.
Faraone 1992
Faraone, C. A. Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual. New York, 1992.
Fuscagni 1982
Fuscagni, S. “Il pianto ambrato delle Eliadi, l’Eridano e la nuova stazione preistorica di Frattesina Polesine.” Quaderni urbanati di cultura classica 12 (1982): 101–13.
Hölbl 1979
Hölbl, G. Beziehungen der ägyptischen Kultur zu Altitalien. 2 vols. Leiden, 1979.
Haynes 2000
Haynes, S. Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History. Los Angeles, 2000.
Hughes-Brock 1985
Hughes-Brock, H. “Amber and the Mycenaeans.” Journal of Baltic Studies 16, no. 3 (1985): 257–67.
Beyond Babylon 2008
J. Aruz, K. Benzel, and J. M. Evans, eds. Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. Exh. cat. New York, 2008.
Jordan et al. 1999
Jordan, D. R., H. Montgomery, and E. Thomassen, eds. The World of Ancient Magic: Papers from the First International Samson Eitrem Seminar at the Norwegian Institute at Athens, 4–8 May 1997. Bergen, 1999.
Kotansky 1994
Kotansky, R. Greek Magical Amulets: The Inscribed Gold, Silver, Copper, and Bronze “Lamellae.” Part I, Published Texts of Known Provenance. Opladen, 1994.
La Genière 1961
La Genière, J. de. “Ambre intagliate del Museo di Salerno.” Apollo 1 (1961): 73–88.
Magie d’ambra 2005
Magie d’ambra: Amuleti e gioielli della Basilicata antica. Exh. cat. Potenza, 2005.
Mastrocinque 1991
Mastrocinque, A. L’ambra e l’Eridano: Studi sulla letteratura e sul commercio dell’ambra in età preromana. Este, 1991.
Negroni Catacchio 1989
Negroni Catacchio, N. “L’ambra: Produzione e commerci nell’Italia preromana.” In Italia, omnium terrarum parens: La civiltà degli Enotri, Chone, Ausoni, Sanniti, Lucani, Brettii, Sicani, Siculi, Elimi, edited by C. Ampolo et al., pp. 659–96. Milan, 1989.
Eichholz 1962
Pliny. Natural History: Books 36–37. Translated by D. E. Eichholz. Loeb Classical Library 419. Cambridge, 1962.
Richter 1940
Richter, G. M. A. Handbook of the Etruscan Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1940.
Strong 1966
Strong, D. E. Catalogue of the Carved Amber in the Department of the Greek and Roman Antiquities. London, 1966.
Treasures 1998
Treasures from the South of Italy: Greeks and Indigenous People in Basilicata. Exh. cat. Milan, 1998.
Waarsenburg 1995
Waarsenburg, D. J. The Northwest Necropolis of Satricum: An Iron Age Cemetery in Latium Vetus. Amsterdam, 1995.