Monday, July 14, 2008
Dwarves and gnomes as magical races never were favourites of mine as a child, but in retrospect, I have to admit that I have much in common with those who delve deep within the earth for treasures. I love caves and have held a lifelong fascination with gems and minerals. The mysteries of the forge speak loudly to my soul as well, and I always loved edged weapons. The races who hold the power of magical transformations of substances in myth are the dwarves and smiths. Although in their own physical forms, they tend to represent the very antithesis of beauty, the objects they create are the most beautiful and potent known to humankind and to the gods themselves. It is the dwarves who craft the spear of Odhinn and the Brisingamen of Freyja.
The magic of transformation is at the heart of many myths and legends. In many cases, it is art and skill that make the transformation possible, but there are a couple of natural substances that truly embody Nature's own magical powers of transformation. These are Jet and Amber.
It is no accident that necklaces of Jet and Amber are the symbols of power of a Witch. Both are organic substances that, through the force of time and Nature, have acquired the qualities of gems. Fossils always are magical. Amber essentially is fossilised tree sap and Jet is fossilised coal. Another natural transformation of coal is the diamond, most valued of all gemstones. Jet, however, is equally magical if less valuable in financial terms.
Jet and Amber have been crafted into talismans and jewelry by humans since the dawn of time. A great proliferation of Jet and Amber can be found as early as the Bronze Age. Archaeological evidence from settlements prior to that are not as many nor as well preserved but use both of jet and amber was known in prehistoric eras as well.
Amber and jet are the embodiment of Light and Darkness. The light of the Sun can be seen in golden amber. The opaque darkness of Jet is the colour of Eternal Night. Yet, though they may appear to be opposites, both Amber and Jet share some of the same qualities. Both produce static electricity and generate heat when rubbed.
Although Jet and Amber are substances of land rather than sea, they often were found at the seashore by ancient people, having floated from one continent to another. This enhanced their association with magic.
Even in ancient times, there was a brisk trade in false gems, including Amber and Jet and it often required expert knowledge to distinguish the true from the false. Now, in our own era, amazingly enough, it still can be difficult to determine whether or not a piece of amber or jet is genuine. Many jewelers and antique dealers who traffic in these substances are not experts and misrepresent faux gems as genuine.
In the case of Amber, bakelite, glass and reconstituted amber all are mistaken for the real substance. Jet is even more problematic, mainly because of the proliferation of 'mourning jewelry' in the late Victorian era, involving the use of glass, vulcanite, bog oak and other substances. In fact, 'French Jet' is not jet at all, but is glass.
Experts in these substances may quibble with my definitions and argue that as vulcanite is made from rubber, it is organic. Most substances are created from some organic substance... Vulcanite actually is a name given to two very distinct substances. There is a mineral named Vulcanite but the Vulcanite used to make jewelry is made from rubber.
Many would ask: What difference does it make if it is beautiful? In fact, it is not a matter of monetary value, as bakelite and vulcanite nowadays can command a higher price than genuine amber or jet. For me, however, the organic natural quality of the substance as well as the layers of myth, legend and superstition that have accrued to it from every civilisation is part of its value.
Another aspect both of Jet and Amber is their softness, lending themselves to elaborate carving. Any scholar of magic knows that carving is an act of magic, imprinting the will of the creator on the object. When Odhinn speaks of the mysteries of the runes, one of the questions he asks is: 'Do you know how to carve them?' Carving in magical terms is not simply a matter of setting a sharp tool to the stone or gem. It is a ritual and the potency of the object depends partly upon the dedication of the carver.
Many people either do not believe in magic or find it rather off-putting. Where they do believe that objects can contain some vestige of power bestowed either by the creator or a former owner, it usually is considered negative rather than positive. Many tales and films deal with 'cursed' objects and however little an individual subscribes to 'superstition', there always is a hesitation to live in a house where a murder was committed or to own an item, however rare, beautiful and valuable, if former owners met with violent ends.
Jet more than Amber has been associated with Death during certain periods in history. The pinnacle of popularity may have been the late Victorian era, when mourning became a fine art due to the influence of Queen Victoria.
Whitby Jet was famed long before the Victorian era. The Romans sought it and traded in it and artifacts made from it can be found from almost every century. It was in the Victorian period, however, that Whitby Jet became overwhelmingly popular. Carved beads and cameos are among the items made from Whitby Jet and most of these were not particularly expensive at the time. Every servant girl could own a pair of Whitby jet earrings or a cameo if she wished although, like any substance that can be carved, the talent and skill of the artist partly determines its ultimate value.
The art of carving Jet still is being pursued in Whitby and any one who is interested in this fabulous substance should visit the Whitby Heritage Site:
Whitby Jet History Page
The link will take you to a page devoted to the history of Whitby Jet but the site is quite large and has much to offer its visitors.
Jet and Amber, like many organic substances, were ground and used as medicines during many periods of history. Although medicine in China has an unbroken tradition of using organic substances, it is only recently that Western medicine has returned to the practice. One now can find oyster shells and shark cartilage, for example, commonly mixed and bottled for daily use. While pharmaceutical organisations endeavour to glorify synthetic combinations over natural treatments, it is almost impossible to create anything that is truly superior to Nature.
There was a time when synthetic substances such as vulcanite, bakelite and plastics were extremely fashionable. Even now, there are collectors who are enamoured with them, but I never could see the attraction. I think there is something noble in the struggle to work with Nature. Moulded substances may be more versatile but the mystery and individuality of Nature has been removed from the equation.
What brought me back to my lifelong exploration of Amber and Jet, oddly enough, was a visit to a Cameo factory outside of Pompeii. I never studied cameos in any profound manner but classical subjects always have appealed to me. I rather thought that all cameos were rather similar in nature where their subject matter was concerned, that they generally were set mythological themes copied by the artisans decade after decade.
This is true up to a point, but it is very interesting to find that the styles of cameo carvings mirror the styles of their eras to some extent and there is a great difference between Regency cameos, Victorian cameos depicting the Goddess Diana, those made half a century ago and those being made now. The difference between genuine Roman cameos and modern ones is even more pronounced, but that is to be expected.
I suppose I should have realised that every art form reflects its era, however much it follows a tradition of its own. One can be dazzled by the idea of an 'antique' piece of jewelry to the point where one does not focus on subtle details. Even if one does concentrate on details, one cannot become an expert in a few days, but having looked at hundreds of cameos now, I do believe I have acquired some sense of discrimination.
Cameos have gone in and out of fashion from decade to decade far more than cut gems or metalwork. There was a time when cameos were considered 'old lady' jewelry and a young girl would not be caught dead wearing one. With the advent of the New Romantic movement and later the Goths, cameos and all 'Victoriana' in fashion regained a measure of popularity. Jet cameos, like anything black, can be quite expensive now. 'Mourning jewelry' of any kind, whether organic or synthetic, has an allure to wannabe vampires and Goths. To the genuine devotee of Victorian art, it has an eternal appeal.
The Victorians really did create a religion based on Death, although they would not have termed it as such. Where some ancient cultures created lavish houses for the dead, the Victorians brought the cult of the dead to the living, and romanticised the idea of decay and death. Lockets filled with the hair of the dead and bracelets woven from hair were only two examples of a close and personal embrace with death.
Mythological subjects were very popular during the Victorian era, and the Symbolists brought a reflowering to ancient myths in opulent and sometimes baroque style. Dionysus and the Bacchantes were among the more popular subjects in carved jewelry.
Cameos in the last three hundred years appear to be divided for the most part between classical mythological subjects, pastoral or landscape vignettes and idealised but mortal women. There are few 'realistic' portraits. Portraits of mortal women tend to follow an Art Deco style, although this changes a little from decade to decade.
In my own view, where mythological subjects are concerned, the cameos from the Regency and Victorian periods have far more power than those created later. The faces are beautiful but rather stern. The 'otherworldly' quality of the portraits hints of fearsome power rather than mere prettiness. A portrait of Diana or Artemis, for example, when shown with the crescent moon in her hair and a bow in the background, is a portrait of a goddess who can slay both mortals and gods with that weapon, despite complete femininity. The same subject portrayed in the mid-20th Century, on the other hand, tends to depict a girlish character whose bow and arrows are merely decorative.
Contemporary cameos follow the styles of the mid-20th Century more than earlier portraits for the most part. The fact that most shell cameos are made in Italia in traditional factories probably is the reason why there is a certain sameness to the portraits. They can be quite exquisite but they do not exhibit much originality. of course, it is not really fair to judge an entire art on samples that, although carved by hand, are created in factories.
I have a personal weakness for depictions of the young Dionysus. The cameos that interest me the most are those that depict Dionysus or Bacchantes. You can see how much the character of the god varies from cameo to cameo. Stern, almost intimidating in one, he has a very girlish beauty in another. This makes sense when you consider that Dionysus was a god who could embody both genders and who could bring both ecstacy and death in a single act.
Most of these cameos are made of shell, although some are fashioned of Angelskin coral. There are two cameos carved in jet that depict a Baccante, a follower of Dionysus.
Cameos are made from many different substances. Onyx, Sardonyx and other forms of Agate were popular even in the classical period and often were used to create 'seals'. In the early 20th century, a fashion for men's rings depicting a 'Roman warrior' or other generic 'warrior' developed and one still can find these being made and sold, although they are not as popular as they once were.
One reason that cameos of mythological subjects are particularly interesting to me is the way they embody traditional symbolism. Each of the classical gods and goddesses has a number of symbols that are associated with him/her. Apollo has the lyre; Artemis/Diana has both bow and crescent moon as her symbols; Ceres/Demeter has wheat; Bacchus/Dionysus has the grapevine and grape, as well as the leopard and leopardskin and thrysus as his symbols. His Bacchantes are depicted with grapes and grapevines twined into their hair.
In the case of Dionysus, however, the grape and grapevine are not decoration but rather are a part of his essence. Like the Christ, Dionysus IS the vine that must be cut in order to be reborn. His blood is the 'water of life', a form of mystical communion. The cameos that depict him as nothing more than a very beautiful effeminate man do him an injustice, however attractive they may be. The sea is linked to Dionysus as well. He is the Bull who came from the sea in his rebirth. He was crucified and torn to pieces on board a ship. To carve his image on coral or shell therefore is apt.
It is the shell and coral cameos that have the most mystical power, in my opinion, although they are quite different in substance from Jet or Amber. Shells used to carve cameos are not generally fossilised. They do not undergo a 'sea change' in terms of profound transformation. They were shells and shells they remain. Nonetheless, the shell is another very ancient talismanic item revered throughout the globe and throughout the centuries. Shell necklaces are included in some of the earliest graves discovered and the shell is believed to be the symbol of the Goddess, or more specifically a symbol of the labyrinth or womb of life, death and rebirth. To carve the head of a deity on a shell therefore seems appropriate.