Ambergris is produced in the hindgut of the sperm whale, Physeter catodon L. It is usually associated with the beaks of the whale's principal food, the common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis. It consists of 80% ambrein, a cholesterol derivative which may be either an indigestible component of the squid or a secretion of the whale's gut in response to the constant irritation caused by the sharp beaks of the squid. It is thought that the production of ambergris is pathological in nature but there is limited evidence for this assumption. In the gut of the whale it is a black, semiviscous and foul-smelling liquid. On exposure to sunlight and air it quickly oxidizes and hardens to a pleasantly aromatic, marbled, grayish, waxy, pellucid substance in which the squid beaks are still embedded. When warmed it produces a very pleasant, mild, sweet, earthy aroma. From ancient times it has been used in the West as a fixative for rare perfumes since it has the effect of making other fragrances last much longer than they would otherwise. It is said that a single drop of tincture of ambergris applied to a paper and placed in a book will remain fragrant after 40 years and that once handled, the fingers will smell of it even after several days and several washings.
Before 1,000 AD the Chinese referred to ambergris as lung sien hiang, "dragon's spittle perfume," because it was thought that it originated from the drooling of dragons sleeping on rocks at the edge of the sea. In the Orient it is still known by this name and is used as an aphrodisiac and as a spice for food and wine. The Japanese have also known ambergris from ancient times and called it kunsurano fuu, "whale droppings," a curiously onomatopoeic term to the Western ear! It was used to fix floral fragrances in perfumes.
Ambergris was known to the Arabs as 'anbar and was originally called amber in the West It was used by the Arabs as medicine for the heart and brain. The Arabs believed that raw ambergris emanated from springs near the sea. In the Thousand and One Nights, Sinbad is shipwrecked on a desert island and discovers a spring of stinking crude ambergris which flows like wax into the sea where it is swallowed by giant fishes and vomited up again as fragrant lumps to be cast up on the shore.
The Greeks also believed that ambergris came from springs in or near the sea. They believed that it enhances the effects of alcohol when smelled before drinking wine or when it is added to wine. Many a bacchanal profited from a pinch of ambergris, no doubt.
Ambergris from Sea Bird Droppings
In the West, true amber (yellow amber or Prussian amber, the succinum of the Romans and the [elektron] of the Greeks) and ambergris were thought to have the same or similar origins, probably because both were fragrant, rare, costly, somewhat similar in appearance and found cast up on seashores. To the earliest Western chroniclers, ambergris was variously thought to come from the same bituminous sea founts as amber, from the sperm of fishes or whales, from the droppings of strange sea birds (probably because of confusion over the included beaks of squid) or from the large hives of bees living near the sea. Marco Polo was the first Western chronicler who correctly attributed ambergris to sperm whales which he saw hunted on the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean but which he also thought vomited it up after having eaten it in the depths of the sea.
In 1783 the great botanist Joseph Banks presented a paper by Dr. Franz Xavier Schwediawer, a German physician living in London at the time, before the Royal Society which ended, forever, Western confusion over ambergris and its origins. It correctly identified ambergris as a production of the often morbidly distended gut of sick sperm whales and associated its production with the beaks of the whale's principal foods, squid and cuttlefish.
Trade in ambergris has been banned worldwide for years by treaty and by various national marine mammal protection acts. The romance of ambergris is now only a distant memory. Once it was eaten with eggs for breakfast at the tables of Dutch burgers and English squires. Now that sperm whales are returning to our seas a curious beachcomber may once again hope to find a lump of ambergris some day.
Lumps of ambergris found in the gut
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