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December 12, 2011

Baltic Amber


Freshmen year at my home university, I took “rocks for jocks” or Geology 101. Over the semester, I had to memorize the appearance and name of 60 different rocks so I could identify a random sample of 20 for the final exam. As December approached, I prayed for a tray holding “easy” stones to recognize like granite, coal, and one of my favorite stones, amber. The beautiful golden-hued amber is actually a resin made from the fossilization of pine sap.

60 million years ago, a forest of pines existed in the present location of the Baltic Sea. Sap that dripped to the forest floor was embedded in the local sediment and compressed by overlying deposits. After fossilization, the amber was transported and re-deposited in the Sea bed due to the movement of glaciers and ancient rivers. Today, amber can still be found washed up along the shore from the bottom of the Baltic. It is common to see “amber fishers” out in search of the stone after storms, especially along the coast of Poland.

Amber is mentioned in many myths and great works of literature, such as the Odyssey (a gold chain “strung with amber beads, bright as the sun” is given to Antinous as a gift). Recently, I read the famous Lithuanian legend about Jurate and the amber fragments still being recovered from the Baltic…

Perkunas, God of Thunder, had a gorgeous daughter named Jurate. She was a mermaid goddess who lived in an amber palace at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. She ensured the protection and health of all sea life and was deeply loved by her underwater world.

One day, a young, handsome fisherman named Kastytis cast his nets into Jurate’s kingdom. Her sea friends and fellow mermaids warn him to stop, but he will not. He is greedy to catch more fish. Angered, Jurate goes to confront him herself, but when they see each other they instantly fall in love.

Kastytis soon lives with Jurate in her amber palace, and they enjoy many happy years together. With the help of her followers, Jurate hides the affair from her father, who has already promised her to the God of Water, Patrimpas. When Perkunas finally discovers the lovers, he is enraged with anger and embarrassment. He throws a bolt of lightning into the Sea and destroys the amber palace with Kastyris inside. Then, he chains Jurate to the ruins for eternity.

When storms in the Baltic stir the sea, tear-shaped pieces of the amber palace wash on shore as Jurate continues to weep for her tragic love.

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