How Kurpie used amber in folk medicine…
It has been almost a hundred years since Adam Chętnik collected these stories. If people still use something of this in Kurpie today? I do not know. It is true that from regions closer to the sea we have little information as to how amber was used in folk medicine. Mostly because people that could convey such a tradition was allmost gone during and after the Second World War. And earlier Polish-language sources do not especially deal with this topic. In etnoghraphical region of Kurpie, where amber is also common, we have actually uninterrupted settlement continuity since the 15th century, and also several hundred years of sustained tradition of obtaining and using amber.
I should mention about Adam Chętnik a little. Despite university work in the early XX century he dug, processed, loved and collected amber himself. And because he was an ethnographer by education and Kurpie by origin, he managed to collect not only a beautiful collection of amber (in early 50’s he created baltic amber collections of the Earth Museum in Warsaw and the Regional Museum in Łomża) but also all possible knowledge related to amber in Kurpie region. Among others, stories concerning the use of baltic amber in folk medicine.
But, going back to the topic, how did Kurpie heal themselves with amber? Well, they used it in many ways. Let’s start with the second traditional name of baltic amber in Poland – incense (Kadzidło). Kadzidło is also the name of a village considered to be one of the main centers of mining baltic amber in Kurpie region. Here I feel forced to make a small emendation. In most cases you will read or hear that burning amber smells beautiful. Nothing could be more wrong. Unless you find the stench of burned old tires beautiful, because this is the real smell of burning amber. To get beautifully fragrant smoke, you just need to heat the amber not burn it. Just like you do with myrrh or olibanum incense. For example, on a piece of aluminum foil over an embered shisha coal or candle.
Baltic amber was most often used as an incense in a church during holy mass, but not only. Whole houses were incensed with amber smoke, and sometimes entire villages suspected of “black death” in the air or other plague. Amber smoke was also used during childbirth, which was supposed to alleviate pain and perhaps, due to its somniferous properties, facilitate the endure of the whole process to a woman. And if its true to a myrrh that its smoke has antibacterial and antifungal abilities, it is more than probably that amber smoke got that properties too. It would perfectly explain its use in the cases described above. Smelling the amber smoke was also supposed to help in “squeezing inside”, I assume that it was about all sorts of colic and spasms of the bowels.
Generally less valuable species of amber were in use as an incense. Those that were unsuitable for jewelry processing, either due to the advanced process of weathering the lump, or too heavily contaminated with peat or other forest litter residues. Today this type of amber is called slag and is used in jewelry as well. However, for other medicinal applications, especially for consumption, only “bare” – it means barkless – crystal clear and honey-colored amber was in use.
Such amber was ground to dust and mixed with water. Drinking this mixture was supposed to help with stomach ulcers and all internal bleeding. Also, all types of wounds, burns and open fractures were rinsed thoroughly with this mixture. Internal ulcers were treated additionally by wearing cords of this honey yellow and transparent amber on the neck. During healing this diseased organs amber was about to came cloudy and white-gray. That amber was exchanged for a new, yellow and crystal clear one until the amber ceased to become cloudy.
Finally, just wearing amber, whether in the form of beads, larger nuggets, or bracelets, was not just for decoration. Amber was already put on the neck of newborns. This was to protect them against throat diseases and generally strengthen the body and immune system. Biting the amber teethers alleviated the pain during teething. Adults wore amber to strengthen the body and immune system, improve eyesight and against migraine pain. Baltic amber was also to help with rheumatism, impotence, infertility, all types of heart disease, cardiovascular system and hormonal imbalance, with particular emphasis on hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. This help for hormonal imbalance might be directly related to one of the last uses of amber jewelry. General improvement in humor and well-being.
When it comes to amber tincture, which is very popular today, Adam Chętnik didn’t mentions about this. Perhaps because highly distilled alcohol appeared in the Kurpie region in the village relatively late, about mid-nineteenth century. But maybe also because, as baltic amber experts, Kurpie people knew that mixing amber with alcohol is not the best way to obtain all the healing properties that amber can give us. But this is a topic for another story.
The above text is for information purposes only. It was not intended as a recipe for medicine or method of treatment. The use of baltic amber, as well as all other forms from the broadly understood alternative medicine, should take place after prior consultation with a doctor authorized to issue this type of opinion.