Macho men of the ancient Middle East ingested a powdered form of it to increase strength and virility; the elderly sipped it in teas to combat brain and heart ailments. Physicians from turn-of-the-last-millennium Britain vowed it could treat colds, headaches and epilepsy. According to Scientific American, the Portuguese "took over the Maldives in the sixteenth century in part to gain access to the island's rich bounty of the redolent stuff." Even today, finding a lump of it is like finding a lump of waxy, black, stinky gold: recent fist-sized finds have yielded as much as $18,000 when sold. So what is it already?
It's ambergris, or in layman's terms, whale poo. (Not vomit, as some have thought.) It's formed when a male sperm whale ingests squid, whose pointy, hard beaks irritate the whale's stomach, which responds by coating the beaks in a fatty substance. This eventually ends up in the water again, more or less undigested (by obvious means), and once the sun bakes it a little bit, the floating masses become one of the most prized pieces of flotsam in the sea. (Its value is dependent on how much time it's spent floating; according to ambergris broker Bernard Perrin (in SciAm), "it ages like fine wine.")
These days it's used mostly by perfume companies (fragrances like Chanel No. 5 depend on it), and there are still people in the world who use whale waste as an aphrodisiac. But can it really cure heart disease and epilepsy? Scientists are doubtful. But here are some fun ambergris facts that we're more sure about:
"¢ In "Paradise Regained," Milton describes Satan tempting Christ with meat pastries steamed in ambergris.
"¢ Madame du Barry supposedly washed herself with it to make herself irresistible to Louis XV.
"¢ The Arabic anbar refers to this very whale-based substance and is the root of the word amber.
"¢ Its name is derived from the French "ambre gris," or gray amber.
"¢ In "Moby-Dick," Melville called it the "essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale."