If there’s one thing that's guaranteed to stall the progress of my work, it’s research. If I cast aside my figurative pen and submerge myself in the vast reference tool that is the internet, then the hours slip by without friction and I emerge with a head full of fascinating arcana, little of which is relevant to the job at hand. To wit: the play I'm working on called Ambergris.
In the last week, I've learned more about ambergris the substance than I could ever hope to employ, but I've also been lured down snaking tributaries ... overhung with rare crystalline fruit ... ripe to the point of bursting ... which I could not help but pluck ...
I learnt of shilajeet, an uncommon tar that seeps from hidden cracks among the Himalayan mountains during the summer thaw. Even the apes of this region know of its restorative properties for - together with humans - they sup from these mysterious wells and are known to age at half the rate of their fellows.
I discovered the noble pen shell, a massive Mediterranean mussel which secretes extremely fine golden threads with which it affixes itself to rocks. In antiquity, these threads were collected and woven into an exceptionally sheer fabric named byssus or sea-silk, which - owing to its utter luxuriance and its tremendous price - was favoured by Pharaohs, Satraps, Caesars, Padishahs and any potentate worth his salt in the ancient world. Only one human still practices the art of weaving byssus. The noble pen shell is on the brink of extinction.
I made a note of lacryma cervorum - the stag’s tear - a viscous substance found in the corner-pit of the animal’s eye and possessed of magical properties similar to those of the bezoar.
But let me reveal some secrets of the ambergris ... that ‘marine sulphur, found at the sea-shore’ ..., which has broken from the ‘fountains and caverns of the sea’ ... Which ‘is grey, sweet and smooth' ... and which, when ‘pricked with a needle sweats out fatness, softens in the heat, and when moist appears black’.
If it is true, as tradition dictates, that ambergris is most likely to be found in the hindgut of the sickest whales, then it is no shock that the following individual, taken by whalers, contained the precious substance ...
There was ‘an unusual combination of lesions and ... behavioural abnormalities’ in a bull whale ‘taken... off Iceland’. There was ‘heavy combative scarring of the head, grossly roughened and thickened skin on the lower left flank, cutaneous maculae, genital papillomatosis, partial duodenal obstruction by plastic debris, colo-rectal obstruction by ambergris, cystic degeneration of the right kidney, and a deeply ulcerative gastric nematodiasis. Sealskin was found in the stomach. Gross and histopathologic observations suggested that the disease complex in this animal may have been related both to habitat degradation and health risks naturally associated with its ecology and age.’
Ignorance of its origins have in the past spawned some curious tales ...
‘Ambergris is not the scum or excrement of a whale, but issues out of the root of a tree ... which shoots forth its roots towards the sea, seeking the warmth of it, thereby to deliver the fattest gum that comes out of it, ... otherwise by its copious fatness [the tree] might be burnt and destroyed ... [the] fat gum it is so tough that it is not easily broken from the root, unless [by] its own weight and the working of the warm sea. . . . If you plant the trees where the stream sets to the shore, then the stream will cast it up to great advantage.'
“In [a] ridiculous and wholly fictional account of a ... sea journey in search of the lost Capt. Jacob Cole, Clifford describes using a diving suit to find ambergris on the bottom of the sea and digging it out of the sediments with a pick axe.’
At one time it was ‘assumed that the sperm whale was a hunter rather than a manufacturer of ambergris, and that he swam ... about the broad ocean, gobbling up the treasure wherever he could locate it.” “In vain it was to rake for ambergriese in the paunch of this leviathan’ ... as ‘they sometimes swallow great lumps thereof in the sea’ before vomiting it out.
‘Marco Polo was the first Western chronicler to [correctly connect ambergris with sperm whales, but he ] also thought [the whales] vomited it up after having eaten it in the depths of the sea.’ Current wisdom has it - as far as I can tell from my readings - that the ‘morbid concretion’ exits not from the mouth but the anus [or its cetacean equivalent].
‘Ambergris was an article of imperial trade in Audoghast in northwest Africa before 1,000AD. In the 10th century Ibn Haukal, an Arab trader, classed it in value with gold and black slaves and referred to its reputed aphrodisiac properties.”
‘Avicenna ascribed its formation to the belchings of undersea volcanos. Kublio thought it was bird guano. Nero's wife Poppaea Sabina is reputed to have had oil of ambergris poured in her bath in 54AD.”
‘The Crusaders, "who will not be suspected of effeminacy," were largely responsible for its introduction to Europe from their contact with the Arabs.” Louis XV is said to have used ambergris to flavour his favourite dishes. The favourite dish of France's King Charles II was eggs and ambergris.
‘Ambergris is used in the manufacture of cassolettes, little perforated ivory boxes made to contain powdered odoriferous substances to carry in the pocket or reticule. It was also used in the production of peau d'Espagne, or Spanish Skin, used for perfuming writing paper and envelopes. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have worn a cape made of peau d'Espagne.’
The ‘pasty pathological growth’ also had pharmacological uses ...
It was ‘sealed up in a vessel hermetically, and digested for forty days. The ripened blend, we are informed, perfumes forever what it touches, eases the headache, takes away defluxions from the eyes, comforts cold and aged people, prevents apoplexy and epilepsy, strengthens all parts of the body, and causes fruitfulness’.
And as I've quoted in an older post ...
“It is ... an excellent Corroborative; it is discutient, resolutive, alexipharmic, and analeptic; it strengthens the heart and brain, revives and recreates the spirits natural, vital, and animal. Its sweet Sulphur is ... a good preservative against the Plague". From The Art of Healing and Praxis of Chymistry.
Then there is the curious Goa Stone ... It was ‘a universal remedy introduced in seventeenth century England, originating ‘from Goa and ... found in the form of oval balls weighing up to one pound ... [they were] generally encased in decorated gold or silver spheres. The formulation consisted of a number of powdered ingredients which included precious stones, bezoar, musk, ambergris and gold leaf, levigated into a fine, impalpable powder and formed into oval balls with mucilage’.
And the Pyxis, ‘an ivory box fashioned from the natural cylindrical shape of a tusk, probably used to hold gifts of ambergris, musk and camphor’. One example ‘is carved with a host of elaborate scenes, including one showing two horsemen, accompanied by cheetahs and birds, picking dates off a tree’.
In 1912 the discovery of a 450 kg. lump of ambergris saved a Norwegian whaling company from liquidation.
During the writing of my last play Mysterium I deliberately indulged myself. The work ‘sweats’ with strange archaic language and is bursting with fascinating anecdotes and obscure details. It was an unusual play with an unusual style, and its richness and density was generally well received - but with Ambergris I am planning for the narrative, the characterisation, and all those other elements which traditionally make a play a play, to be paramount.
The play is progressing wonderfully, but it is stretching into infinity. I am at page one hundred and ten with miles to go before I sleep. Fortunately, I now have Sails of Oblivion - the perfect repository for all the fascinating little gewgaws I encounter along the way.
[Please excuse me for not attributing the quotes and sources in this post. It was simply a matter of time.]