Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tears for Phaeton in the Baltic

A short paper was recently presented at the Amber Expo in Poland.  It's linked below with an excerpt.  Since amber was crack for Early Bronze Age Europeans and especially Beakers, a little proto-historic background might illuminate their beliefs about it in the pre-historic period.

In classical times, amber was called electrum or elektron, in Latin, Greek rsp., meaning 'the shining sun'.  Our modern word for electricity basically comes from this pho-Latin name devised by William Gilbert noting its ancient reputation from attracting particles and dander.  (ie. static to spindle whorls, etc)

Proto-Indo-European lexical and mythological reconstructions offer some insight into Greek elektron (J. Paul Getty Museum of Amber):

"The standard Greek word for amber was elektron.[52] The derivation of this word is uncertain, although scholars have suggested that it might have connections with helko, meaning “to draw or attract,” or with aleko, meaning “to ward off evil.”[53] The word is certainly associated with elektor, used in the Iliad to mean “the beaming sun,”[54] and is most likely derived from an Indo-European verb with the root-meanings “brilliant” or “to shine.” This quality of beaming, or reflecting the sun, is also suggested by the Germanic word for amber, glaes or glese, recorded in some ancient Latin sources as glaesum, the same word used for glass in this period.[55] The Indo-Germanic root for this word, *ghel, means “lustrous, shimmering, or bright” and gives us words such as glisten, glitter, glow, and yellow in English..."
Using Greek or Celtic mythology as proxies, amber was formed by the teardrops of Apollo Helios or his daughters at the tragic death of his son Phaeton or the Celtic equivalent.  Since Phaeton's mother was an Oceanid, amber washes up on salty beaches.  That amber attracts particles to it, shows how amber is of divine origin.

In many ways, the material evidences and habits of Beaker customs foreshadow European religion in the proto-historic period.  The comment that caught my attention is the ritual destruction of some artifacts.  I suspect the fragmentation is part of a wider phenomenon of sentimental bead exchange and deconstruction for family and friends upon burial.  If the beads are intentionally crushed, then that is something else.  In that case it might appear similar to some potteries which were also destroyed in some deposits.

Amber as one of the determiners of “elite” prestige in the eastern part of Central Europe in the Late Stone/Early Bronze Age. A contribution to the research on the extraction, working and use of amber, DARIUSZ MANASTERSKI1 , KATARZYNA KWIATKOWSKA, (2015)  Amber Expo

"At the end of the Neolithic, amber artefacts are known mainly from the amber workshops and burial sites of the Globular Amphora and Złota Cultures, where they expressed a collective manifestation of the entire group’s prestige... The tradition of Late Neolithic use of amber artefacts cannot be seen at the turn of the Early Bronze Age any more. These artefacts differ in both their shape and the layout of their components, but most of all they are related to specific individuals rather than to a community (see Renfrew 2001). Moreover, they are usually broken in pieces (through ritual destruction) and fragmented while being placed in ritual sites–including those of a funerary nature (Renfrew, Bahn 2002). Therefore, such behaviour may be considered an expression of new cultural trends which would reach the areas under consideration from broadly understood Western Europe and which were related to individual, rather than communal, prestige (Renfrew 2001). By identifying the cultural components visible in both amber artefacts and other accompanying items, one can infer the cultural environment related to the Bell Beaker Culture (see Manasterski 2009; Januszek, Manasterski 2012; Wawrusiewicz 2013). Some of these items, culturally alien to this area yet symbolising the “social standing” of their owners, may be interpreted as evidence of certain cultural patterns and behaviours being “imported.”"

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