Question: When a tragic love affair between a goddess and a human occurred, what was left scattered among the Baltic shores?
For nearly as long as humans have existed, amber has been at the heart of history and culture. From the ancient Greeks to the Chinese, cultures from thousands of years ago have treasured this mysterious gemstone. These ancient people used varying myths and legends to explain where this enigmatic material could possibly come from, but none were as romantic as the tragic tale of Jurate and Kastytis. For those living in the Baltic coastal country of Lithuania—where amber is plentiful—the precious golden stone was chronicled in this story.
The legend is one of the most famous love stories in Lithuania. The tale, passed down orally from one generation to the next, has slight variations but the premise remains the same. According to the story, the God of Thunder, Perkunas, and his beautiful daughter Jurate lived underwater in the Baltic Sea in a dazzling palace of amber. Nearby, a human fisherman named Kastytis would cast his fishing nets into the water of the God’s underwater kingdom. It was forbidden for him to do so, so Jurate sent her handmaidens to ban Kastytis from the shore and protect her kingdom. But Kastytis didn’t listen and continued fishing. Eventually, Jurate herself had to swim to shore and tell him to immediately cease his fishing activities.
As all good love stories go, when she reached the shore and set eyes upon him, she instantly fell in love. She brought him back to her castle under the sea, but their love affair was short and tragic. Jurate was already set to marry the God of Water, and her father became furious when he discovered that she fell in love with a mere mortal. In a fit of rage, he destroyed the amber castle with a lightning bolt. When he did so, Kastytis was killed and Jurate became imprisoned among the amber ruins forever.
Now when a storm occurs and fragments of amber are washed ashore the Baltic beaches, the pieces are said to be the remains of the once glorious palace. Many of the amber shards that emerge are tear-shaped and believed to be the tears of the grieving Jurate. This legend has inspired many works of art in Lithuania from sculptures to poems, paintings, ballets, and even a rock opera. While today we know that amber was formed from the resin of trees millions of years ago, the fantastical myth of Jurate and Kastytis is still a treasured story to tell in Lithuania.
7 More Myths & Purposes of Ancient Amber:
- Decorative amber ornaments dating back to more than 13,000 years ago have been discovered on ancient tombs in northern Europe, making it the oldest natural substance used for such a purpose.
- Because amber is easily carved and polished, it was often used by ancient societies as amulets for protecting the wearer, warding off evil, and in folk medicine for curing diseases. Archaeologists have discovered amber at Stone Age gravesites that was carved into beads and pendants.
- The ancient Greek historian Nicias believed that amber was congealed droplets of sweat formed on the Earth from the sun. Other ancient writers depicted these droplets as the tears of gods and heroes or as solidified rays of the sun that were captured by the earth.
- In ancient China, people would burn amber during large celebrations—this was used by the host as a sign of wealth as well as to show respect to guests. The burning amber gave off an earthy and musky fragrance—a scent still used in fragrances and perfumes.
- Ancient Chinese people also believed that the souls of tigers turned into amber upon their death and that amber could be used as a healing agent to tranquilize the mind.
- The Vikings carved fragments of amber into animal shapes which they believed contained the strength of animals. Because amber frequently holds the remains of formerly living things like insects and small reptiles, many people believed amber possessed the essence of life itself.
- Pagans frequently wore amber necklaces which they believed were charged with powerful energies of the earth.
Uncover the long-held traditions surrounding amber in Lithuania and the rest of the Baltic region when you join us for Enhanced! The Baltic Capitals & St. Petersburg.