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Ambergris: divine chemistry, death trade, or just #31 on the list?
May 2, 2003 2:23 AM   Subscribe

It was known as "dragon's spittle perfume" by the ancient Chinese and encountered by Sinbad in "The Thousand and One Nights". It was recorded by Marco Polo and mentioned in the literature of Shakespeare. Called "floating gold", "Neptune's niece", and a process of "divine chemistry", Ambergris, or "Grey Amber", was once harvested as a rare and costly perfume additive and coveted as an aphrodisiac. But...
posted by taz (9 comments total)

 
despite its romantic history, it is actually the product of "the often morbidly distended gut of sick sperm whales", a reaction to the sharp, indigestible beaks of the squid and cuttlefish they have consumed. Probably because of the presence of these undigested beaks in the fragrant, waxy substance found near seashores, many ancient people believed that ambergris came from the droppings of exotic sea birds, leading to such depictions as this wonderfully amusing image. Also belying the allure of its mythology is the fact that the value of ambergris was a major reason sperm whales were slaughtered wholesale before whaling bans and international laws against the ambergris trade rescued them from the edge of extinction.

Strike #31 off the list.
posted by taz at 2:24 AM on May 2, 2003


Ambergris is also the name of the fictional city in which the works of Jeff Vandermeer are set. It's a marvellous creation, a twisted Venice of the mind, akin to Gormenghast at one end of the scale and Lankhmar at the other. The book "City of Saints and Madmen" is a good place to start, and the book's first story "Dradin, In Love" is available on-line here for free! I can't get enough of this guy's writing...
posted by jfinnis at 2:36 AM on May 2, 2003


Strike #31 off the list.

Nicely done, taz. How does oven glass fit into this, is the question.
posted by hama7 at 4:24 AM on May 2, 2003


it is actually the product of "the often morbidly distended gut of sick sperm whales", a reaction to the sharp, indigestible beaks of the squid and cuttlefish they have consumed.

Everything I didn't know I needed to know I learned from MetaFilter.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:06 AM on May 2, 2003


yeah, yeah. it's whale vomit. next.
posted by crunchland at 5:22 AM on May 2, 2003


I thought I remembered a rather detailed chapter about ambergris and the "harvesting" thereof somewhere around the middle of Moby Dick, so I Gutenberged and Googled and found Chapter 91: The Pequod Meets the Rose-Bud and Chapter 92: Ambergris. Taz's comprehensive link also cites Chapter 20.
posted by Songdog at 6:14 AM on May 2, 2003 [1 favorite]


My mind is boggled by the sheer number of man-hours that have been spent in the last hundred years or so on this subject. Really, any subject - platypus spurs, figureheads on sailing vessels - could yield such a bounty. The curious human brain is a wonderful thing.

BTW, I have a full tin of sperm oil on a shelf of antique medicines. I think it was used for lubricant.
posted by kozad at 9:09 AM on May 2, 2003


You're right, kozad, and this 1893 manual was quite adamant about the point.
posted by taz at 10:08 AM on May 2, 2003


Thanks, taz.
posted by kozad at 8:15 AM on May 3, 2003


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