Amber Mythology: from the Romans to Jūratė and Kastytis
Amber is undoubtedly a unique creation of nature. Although reminiscent of stone, it is of a different substance altogether, and fossils trapped in amber droplets are fascinating with their preserved secrets from the past. But interest in Amber is not new: the Aestii, who collected it in ancient times and widely spread knowledge about the Baltic people living on the coast of the Baltic Sea, where also intrigued by it.
Amber in Ancient Rome
Amber was particularly valued in Ancient Rome. Here, for a small amber statue, one had to pay more than for a healthy slave, and in those days, that was a huge amount of money. The wealthy of Rome appreciated the beauty and exotic nature of this so-called Nordic gold, and scientists admired its physical properties. Both in Ancient Rome and in the Baltic countries, it was believed that amber had a positive effect on health, and amber powder was especially valued in medicine.
Amber also was mentioned in the version of the myth about Phaethon written down by the poet Ovid. It was said that Phaethon sought assurance that the sun god Phoebus really was his father and asked Phoebus to let him ride his chariot for one day. However, Phaethon was not able to control the chariot, came too close to the earth and set it on fire, so Jupiter had to throw a lightning bolt at the chariot, and Phaethon crashed into the river Eridanus and died. His mother Clymene and his sisters turned into trees from grief, and their tears fell from the branches of the trees. Hardened from the heat of the sun, the tears turned into amber and fell into the river, and the river washed amber onto the shore so that people could use it for jewellery.
The Lithuanian Legend about Jūratė and Kastytis
Probably almost everyone in Lithuania has heard the story of Jūratė and Kastytis’s unhappy love story. According to the legend, the mermaid Jūratė, the daughter of Perkūnas, lived in an amber palace built at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, managing the waters and protecting the fish. Once upon a time, where the river Šventoji flows into the Baltic Sea, the courageous seaside fisherman Kastytis cast his nets. Jūratė sent her mermaids to warn Kastytis that he should not disturb the waters of the sea and scare her fish, but the fisherman resisted the mermaids’ seductions, did not obey the goddess and continued fishing. Jūratė wanted to see who dared to disobey her and appeared on the surface of the water. When she saw Kastytis, she was won over by his beauty and courage, and the young fisherman also instantly fell in love with Jūratė and surrendered to her charms. He stayed in the amber palace at the bottom of the sea.
The lovers’ happiness did not last long, as the god Perkūnas became aware of Jūratė’s love for an ordinary mortal and destroyed the amber palace with his lightning. The palace collapsed, Kastytis was killed and Jūratė was chained to the wall of the ruins for punishment. Her lamentations are so sorrowful and emotional that they move the very depths of the sea. Then the water throws ashore the remains of the amber palace and small pieces of amber – Jūratė’s tears – as clear and transparent as the love of the goddess and mortal fisherman.
The Story of Unhappy Love Eternalized in Granite
The legend of Jūratė and Kastytis, like amber itself, has some eternal charm and depth, so it constantly attracts the attention of various artists. It has served as an inspiration for operas, musicals and paintings, and in 1958 the artist Nijolė Gaigalaitė came up with the idea of portraying the tragic love story of Jūratė and Kastytis in granite. Of course, the sculpture was created for Palanga, the town of these lovers, although Gaigalaitė did not know the exact place where they might have met.
The idea of the Jūratė and Kastytis sculpture seemed attractive for Palanga, and a respectable place in front of the sea bridge, where Basanavičius Street crosses Love Alley, was designated for the future artwork. At that time Alfredas Paulauskas, the chief architect of Palanga, designed the square for the legendary lovers, and Nijolė Gaigalaitė began to sketch the sculpture. The author’s friend’s relative Gailutė became the model for Jūratė. Several people were models for the spectacular Kastytis statue, but the most interesting thing was that Rimantas Mickevičius, an athletic Palanga rescue station employee, became the model for the torso and face.
In 1959, Nijolė Gaigalaitė completed her first sculpture, which made the name of the young artist known. In 1961, the construction of the square was completed, and the sculpture was unveiled. Nijolė Gaigalaitė was able to capture the beauty, sensitivity and tragedy of the Jūratė and Kastytis love story, while the architect Alfredas Paulauskas completed the sculptural composition with a pool with an undulating outline, just like the sea itself. In 1965, it was decided to supplement this composition with a fountain designed by the architect Albinas Čepis – the first fountain in Palanga. The trio of the sculptor and architects created a fantastic composition, which soon became one of the most famous symbols of the city of Palanga.