The Infantile Mind: Pliny on Where Amber Comes From

Pliny, NH 37 40-42

“[Sophocles] has described how [amber] is made on the other side of India from the tears of the birds called the “daughters of Meleager” as they weep for Meleager. Who doesn’t wonder at the fact that he believed this or expected to convince others to do so. What mind is so infantile or foolish that it could believe that there are birds who weep every year and shed such large tears or that they left Greece where Meleager perished and went to weep for him in India?

What, then? Don’t the poets offer us many tales equally fantastic? Indeed they do, but when it comes to this substance, which is imported daily and fills the market revealing the poet’s lie, this is a grave offense to human intelligence and and unendurable misuse of our ability to lie.

It is known that amber comes from islands in the Northern Oceans and that the Germans call it glaesum and, as a result of this, one of the islands which the natives called Austeravia was named Glaesariam by us when Caesar Germanicus was on campaign there with his fleet [16 CE]. Amber is created, moreover, as the pitch of a particular type of pine drips down in the same way as gum from cherry trees or resin in local pines bursts out because of an excess of liquid.”

hic ultra Indiam fieri dixit e lacrimis meleagridum avium Meleagrum deflentium. quod credidisse eum aut sperasse aliis persuaderi posse quis non miretur? quamve pueritiam tam inperitam posse reperiri, quae avium ploratus annuos credat lacrimasve tam grandes avesve, quae a Graecia, ubi Meleager periit, ploratum adierint Indos? quid ergo? non multa aeque fabulosa produnt poetae? sed hoc in ea re, quae cotidie invehatur atque abundet ac mendacium coarguat, serio quemquam dixisse summa hominum contemptio est et intoleranda mendaciorum inpunitas.

Certum est gigni in insulis septentrionalis oceani et ab Germanis appellari glaesum, itaque et ab nostris ob id unam insularum Glaesariam appellatam, Germanico Caesare res ibi gerente classibus, Austeraviam a barbaris dictam. nascitur autem defluente medulla pinei generis arboribus, ut cummis in cerasis, resina in pinis erumpit umoris abundantia.

British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 10v

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