Sicilian Amber – the Tears of the Sun God’s Daughters

On some of Sicily’s beaches after a big storm, if you’re sharp-eyed and lucky as well, you can find pieces of a rare type of amber called simetite. Some pieces of simetite have recently been found to contain hitherto unknown types of prehistoric insect.

It dates from the Miocene, a later period than the more widely found Baltic amber which originated in the Eocene. It was in the Miocene that the ancestors of humans first branched off from the other species of primates.

Ancient Roman Necklace with a Pendant Scarab made of simetite, 550–400 B.C. The necklace is simetite, gold, and carnelian, and it is in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Ancient Roman Necklace with a Pendant Scarab made of simetite, 550–400 B.C. The necklace is simetite, gold, and carnelian, and it is in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The ancient Greeks and Romans in Sicily searched for simetite and made it into jewellery, and they had a beautiful story to explain where it came from.

In Greek mythology, a female sea spirit called Clymene had a son called Phaethon. Phaethon’s father was Helios, the god of the Sun. Clymene’s husband, King Merops of Ethiopia, adopted Phaethon even though he knew the boy was not his own.

To the ancient Greeks, Ethiopian meant all black Africans, and Ethiopia meant all of sub-Saharan Africa, as far as the Greeks knew of it. The Greeks regarded Ethiopians as a superior variety of people, half way between humans and gods. Homer’s poetry, the Iliad and the Odyssey, contains tales of the Gods popping down to have lavish feasts  with their buddies the Ethiopians, sometimes marrying them, and engaging in sporting events with them, and he regularly mentions that the Ethiopians were the best archers in the world. He describes them as pious, just, noble and faultless.

Herodotus, in his histories (written in 440 B.C.) stated that there were 18 black pharaohs of Egypt, rulers from the Kushite Dynasty in Ethiopia which conquered Egypt. He described Ethiopia saying “There gold is obtained in great plenty, huge elephants abound, with wild trees of all sorts, and ebony; and the men are taller, handsomer, and longer lived than anywhere else.”

Ethiopia’s fabulous wealth and palaces full of gold, diamonds, sapphires, ivory and exotic animals made a staggering impression on foreign visitors and tales about them spread around the ancient world. The Ethiopians conquered Egypt and had so much wealth and power that, according to the Greek religion, there could be only one explanation: obviously, the gods loved them more than any other race of men.

One day Phaethon, the young prince of this paradise on earth, asked his mother who his true father was. She answered that he was Helios, the god of the sun. Phaethon told his friends this, but the other children mocked him and refused to believe it, for he had not inherited his father’s immortality  and was just a normal human.

Phaethon asked Helios if he really was his father, and Helios swore to grant him anything he asked, in order to prove it. Phaethon asked if he could drive his father’s chariot, the sun, across the sky for just one day. Helios did all he could to put him off this idea. The chariot was a blaze of flames and the horses snorted fire. Even Helios himself got scared sometimes, he told his son.

Phaethon was adamant. Helios was distraught, but he could not go back on his word.

When the fateful day came, the horses realised they were being driven by a lighter driver than usual and they bolted. Phaethon was terrified and dropped the reins. The horses veered off their usual course and stooped so close to earth that the planet, and the people loved by the gods, were changed forever.

The Ethiopians’ blood began to boil inside them and bubble to the surface, making their skin turn black. The rivers and lakes evaporated and the vegetation was scorched, creating the Sahara desert throughout much of the Ethiopian Empire. Ethiopia, the kingdom beloved of the gods, was being burned away.

Planet Earth herself screamed out to Jupiter, the king of the gods, for help. He did the only thing he could: he struck Phaethon down with a bolt of lightning.

The Heliades, sisters of Phaethon, were so sad at this tragedy that they wept tears which dried up in the blazing heat and became amber. The Heliades were trapped inside poplar trees – and there is another whole myth to explain that. I wonder if the Greeks who invented this story really knew that amber is tree sap that has dried in the sun.

Sicilian amber
Sicilian amber

The tears of the sun god’s daughters were so copious that they were scattered throughout the land. They remained as a permanent reminder of the tragedy that dried up the continent of Africa.

In ancient times, a lot of this Italian amber was found washed out at the mouth of the River Po, in northern Italy. In more recent times, it is still found washed down after very violent storms from the River Simeto near Catania in Sicily, from which it derives its name, simetite.

Although pieces of simetite can still be picked up from the beach near Catania, they are very rare nowadays. Some pieces are also found on the beaches between Punta Braccetto (the riviera of Santa Croce Camerina on the southern Sicilian coast) and Contrada Chiappa in the Pachino region, which is also known as the Amber Coast (Costa dell’Ambra).

The Pachino coast, Sicily
The Pachino coast, Sicily

Simetite jewellery is sold at very high prices by some of the exclusive jewellers in Taormina and other fashionable towns in Sicily. But if you should encounter a piece of jewellery made from Sicilian amber or simetite, remember how it originated: it is the tears of the sun god’s daughters, weeping for their dead brother, and for the destruction of the lush and beautiful countryside in the Empire of the noble Ethiopians.

I have been working on a tourist information website called Trip Tipp with a German, friend and she was the one who first told me about simetite.

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7 thoughts on “Sicilian Amber – the Tears of the Sun God’s Daughters

  1. What a great message! Exactly my cup of tea. Sicilian amber … I got to know it first when I read Goethe’s Italian Journey. Goethe was interested in mineralogy of any kind and had a look at some private collections of Sicilian collectors.

    An elaborate German Wikipedia article on Simetite tells that the source of the amber must be in the Sicilian mountains from where the rivers washed it down into the sea.
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simetit

    So, if this is true then the biggest pieces must be somewhere in the mountains! But nobody found them ever.

    The story of Phaeton plays a role in the Atlantis story … as a mythical encryption of the mechanism of climate change. Plato thought of the sun as the reason of climate change. The sun comes closer or goes more away from the earth and thus provokes hotter or colder climate on earth. Plato believed that this happend in cycles of approx. 3000 years.
    http://www.atlantis-scout.de/atlantis_timaeus_critias.htm

    Today we know that a major reason for global warming is maybe not carbon dioxide … but the sun! The mechanism is different than Plato thought: The sun does not come closer to us, but the sun just ejects more or less radiation, because of several overlaying solar cycles. The intensity of radiation then has an impact on the creation of clouds, and this has an impact on global warming. Prof. Svensmark is the leading scientist in the field:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henrik_Svensmark

    Of course, you are not obliged to believe this. Since we all pay an awful lot of money because of the belief in man-made climate change it simply can’t be wrong, can it?!

    See here the Web site of international scientists opposed to the idea of man-made climate change:
    http://www.climatescienceinternational.org/

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    1. I have been waiting to answer this comment, in a much more knowledgeable state after reading all the links you posted! An I am especially excited that you have an explanation/decoding of the Phaethon story on your own site. I love these decodings of old myths and I think they often have a lot of truth in them.

      My father was a global warming sceptic and I am too: I would not swear it isn’t happening, I am just not convinced there is hard evidence for it. Above all, I find it highly worrying that politicians have jumped onto it and, along with journalists, created a society in which scientists who voice dissent are ridiculed and risk ruining their careers. Institutional orthodoxy has no place in science.

      Anyway, I shall comment again once I have had time for some online reading….

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  2. Hello, thank you for this wonderful story, I found your blog while surfing on expat blogs. I am now an expat myself, I basically grew up on Costa dell’Ambra, where I used to spend my 3 months summer holidays at my grandparents’ and finding a mention of it here brings up so many sweet memories. Thanks and congratulations for the wonderful blog!

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      1. Hi again! It is not easy to find pieces of amber on the beach, you really have to search carefully. Since they are brought by the waves, you should try to find pieces of amber among all other things waves deposit on the sand (algues, little pieces of wood, smashed shells, plastic..), and you really need to be able to distinguish pieces of amber from other stuff, as amber can be also quite dark colored – you have to put it against the light to see the transparency.
        I have found very little pieces, from time to time, but I am not a good searcher (no patience here!). On the other hand, my grandfather found a big piece – walnut size – simply stepping on it,.and that piece of amber has become a ring a pair of earring for my grandmother 🙂
        I live in the south of France now, wonderful place here too, but of course the places of our childhood will always have a special spot in our heart..

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      2. Thank you so much for those tips! I am not a good searcher either, but with your advice I am definitely going to go there this summer for an amber-hunting outing. My little boy has amazingly sharp eyes so maybe he will be good at finding pieces. 🙂
        The south of France is very nice but I agree, the place we spent our childhood has something special that no other place can equal. I already see this in my son, who loves Sicily and shouts at me if I dare to criticise anything at all!

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