©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Ancient Names for Amber, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 16 October 2019.
Ancient Names for Amber
The words used for amber in antiquity often suggest not only the qualities for which it was valued, but also theories of its origin and the uses to which it was put. Today, although amber is still widely sought out for jewelry, magic, and medicine, its floral and faunal inclusions may be its greatest attraction (as reflected in the title of the 1996 exhibition and book Amber: Window to the Past). There is scarce textual evidence before Roman times to indicate an ancient fascination with the creatures and plant remains interred within amber; however, its use in burials may be evidence enough.
The standard Greek word for amber was elektron. The derivation of this word is uncertain, although scholars have suggested that it might have connections with helko, meaning “to draw or attract,” or with aleko, meaning “to ward off evil.” The word is certainly associated with elektor, used in the Iliad to mean “the beaming sun,” and is most likely derived from an Indo-European verb with the root-meanings “brilliant” or “to shine.” This quality of beaming, or reflecting the sun, is also suggested by the Germanic word for amber, glaes or glese, recorded in some ancient Latin sources as glaesum, the same word used for glass in this period. The Indo-Germanic root for this word, *ghel, means “lustrous, shimmering, or bright” and gives us words such as glisten, glitter, glow, and yellow in English. The current German word for amber, going back to thirteenth-century Middle Low German, is similarly evocative: Bernstein means “burning stone.”
When the Pliny the Elder or one of his contemporaries admired a valuable piece of amber, the first thing to strike their eyes would have been the suggestion of fire (imagine igneam) or the material’s gentle glow (mollis fulgor). The amber’s color was certainly evocative—of wine, honey, wax, embers, or fire—but was of secondary importance to its shine. This glow had been the defining characteristic of amber for centuries.
Brilliance in amber, ice, rock crystal, or any stone was possible only because of its transparency. The ancients believed that transparency was possible because light was let through a material: thus transparent materials had performative powers. The brilliance of amber, enhanced by the rich connotations of its names, ensured it a place in ancient literature alongside other rare, prized, and luminous materials—sight-arresting materials such as gold, silver, and ivory, whose magnificence often was associated with something beyond the merely human, with the heroic or divine. This association is evident from the first extant occurrences of elektron in Homer’s Odyssey. When Telemachus visits Menelaus’s palace in Book 4, he is awestruck: “Mark the flashing of bronze throughout the echoing halls, and the flashing of gold, of amber, of silver, and of ivory. Of such sort, methinks, is the court of Olympian Zeus within, such untold wealth is here; amazement holds me as I look.”
It is the flashing of the jewels, more so than the jewels themselves, that puts Telemachus in mind of Zeus; the word he uses is steroph—the flash of a lightning bolt. Telemachus’s association of the brightness, the shine, the brilliance of Menelaus’s palace with divinity seems almost instinctive.
Elektron occurs two other times in the Odyssey: once in Book 15, when the swineherd Eumaeus, telling the story of his kidnapping to Odysseus, remembers the cunning Phoenician mariner who turned up at his ancestral home with an eye-catching golden necklace strung with amber pieces. In addition, in Book 18, when the suitors vie with one another in the extravagance of their gifts to Penelope, Eurymachus’s contribution is “a richly crafted necklace of gold adorned with sun-bright amber” (figure 19). Another early occurrence of elektron is in the Pseudo-Hesiodic Shield of Herakles. In this passage, as in Homer’s description of Menelaus’s palace, amber takes its place in a list of rare and precious materials, to dazzling effect: “He took his glittering shield in his hands, nor had anyone ever broken it or damaged it with a blow; it was a marvel to see. The whole orb glowed with enamel, white ivory, and amber, and it shone with gleaming gold.”
In each of these passages referring to the use of amber—the ornamentation of a seemingly Olympian palace, necklaces intended for elite women, and the shield of a hero—amber is inextricably bound up with the light of the sun, and it is associated with gods, heroes, and a social elite. The reflection of sunlight, in the halls of a king or on the armor of a hero, was a powerful reminder of the heavens and the heavenly; brilliance and luster were primary qualities to be looked for in a precious material such as gold, ivory, silver, or amber. The brilliance of the amber and other materials in Herakles’ shield, combined with the perfect craftsmanship that it represented, calls attention to its poikilia, the adornment and embellishment all fine works should display, and made it a thauma idesthai, a “marvel to behold”—what Raymond Prier has defined as “an intermediation between the polarities of men and gods, visually linguistic symbols of power.”
Although the most common, elektron was not the only Greek name for amber. It is likely that the substance referred to as lyngourion (there are other variants of the spelling—liggourion, for example) was a form of amber. Its derivation and its relationship to amber (elektron) were much discussed in antiquity and continue to be debated today. The earliest evidence for lyngourion is in Theophrastus’s late-fourth-century B.C. lapidary, where he notes similarities between lyngourion and elektron but does not consider them the same material. He seems to have had direct knowledge of some amber, which was dug up in Liguria and which he apparently considered a nonorganic substance. Theophrastus’s lyngourion is as hard as amber, which he includes among stones possessing a power of attraction, and possesses the same powers of magnetism, but, according to him, it has a different origin: it is the hardened urine of wild lynxes, which “is discovered only when experienced searchers dig it up” (figure 20). This origin story is doubtless the result of a fanciful attempt to explain the etymology of the word (lyngourion = lynx urine), a story that would have been additionally convincing because of the substance’s color.
It was probably another attempt at etymology that persuaded Strabo that excessive quantities of amber could be found in Liguria. Strabo makes no distinction between lyngourion and elektron, using the terms interchangeably. Pliny the Elder is as unimpressed with Strabo’s talk of Liguria as he is with the lynx-urine story. Pliny lists a variety of sources containing variations on one or both of these themes, but his final word on lyngourion is that “the whole story is false, and no gemstone bearing this name has been known in our time.” Although Pliny may have been justified in his skepticism (Liguria was no more a producer of amber than the lynx was of gemstones), lyngourion appears to be a term applied to highly transparent varieties of amber, while elektron was used more generally. Gemstones of lyngourion are first attested in third-century inventories of the Asklepieion on the south slope of the Acropolis and in the shrines of Artemis and the Eileithyia (goddesses associated with childbirth, light, and the moon) at Delos.
Several other terms for amber occur in Pliny the Elder’s treatise: he cites Philemon as referring to a white, waxen form of amber from Scythia as electrum, and a tawny variety (from another part of Scythia) as sualiternicum. Pliny also attributes to his contemporary Xenocrates of Aphrodisias the claim that sucinum and thium are the Italian words for amber, and sacrium the Scythian word. Nicias, Pliny tells us, says that the Egyptians called amber sacal (perhaps meaning simply “rock”), and that the Syrian word was harpax (because of its magnetic qualities; the Greek harpax means “a thief” or “one who snatches”). Pliny also singles out Callistratus as the first to distinguish chryselectrum, or “gold amber.” Dioscorides, in his first-century Materia Medica, describes two types of amber: elektron chrysophoron (golden amber) and elektron pteruyophoron (“because it draws feathers to it”); and he uses the word aigeiros, which means “poplar,” as a synonym for amber. The poplar is associated not only with Herakles (the hero brought back poplar branches from the underworld), but also with the tale of Phaethon—the most prevalent myth about the origin of amber (see below). Some authors, such as Pliny, use more than one term for the material, depending on the context.
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Ancient Names for Amber