It has a strange and rather unglamorous beginning in, of all places, the digestive tract of a sperm whale. When the whale expels this strange by-product of its oceanic menu, it rises to the surface, there to float upon the waves until, perhaps after many years of drifting, it eventually is washed up on some distant shore. But in these years of drifting, a miraculous transformation takes place. From a waxy and rather smelly lump, it undergoes a mysterious change of its own. It becomes one of the sweetest of scents, formerly prized in the making of the costliest perfumes. We know it as ambergris.
In the Near East, ambergris is burnt as an incense. But in some countries such as the United States, even the possession of ambergris is considered to be an unlawful offense due to the protection of the species from which it comes. Two years ago here in the Netherlands, a sperm whale was found stranded on the beach of the island of Texel. Over eighty kilograms worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were found in the animal.
This marvellous substance was even thought to have medicinal value, as a cure for a variety of ailments from headaches to epilepsy. In days gone by Dutch gentlemen were said to sprinkle some on their breakfast eggs, and so enabling the substance to make the journey from the whale’s to the human’s digestive system via the oceans of the world!
I myself am lucky enough to have a few small grams of this precious substance, which I keep in a small covered pot. When I remove the lid, the released scent is astonishing, like the costliest perfume – which indeed it actually is! I rather wish that this post had a button that you, my reader, could click on which would allow you to share the experience with me. Not possible, I realise (but maybe Google are working on it, who knows?).
In the East the lotus is used as a symbolic way of illustrating the soul’s progress from darkness to light: the transforming progression of the lotus from the muddy river’s bed to emerge into the light as a beautiful bloom. Nature holds many such valuable lessons if we are open to them. Perhaps the journey of ambergris is also one such lesson. Adrift on the waves, a mysterious alchemy is worked upon the ambergris to transform it into the rarest of sweet perfumes. The stir of the great ocean is all that is apparently needed to accomplish this magic, and like many a true transformation, it asks no effort, only time.
Painting: Scent of Ambergris, by John Singer Sargent