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 creature and plant remains interred within amber; however, its use in burials may be evidence enough.

The standard Greek word for amber was elektron.52 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.”53 The word is certainly associated with elektor, used in the Iliad to mean “the beaming sun,”54 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.55 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.”56

When 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.57 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.58 This association is evident from the first extant occurrences of elektron, in Homer’s Odyssey.59 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.”60

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.61 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).62 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.”63

Necklace with a pendant scarab, Italic or Etruscan and Greek, 550–400 B.C. Amber, gold, and carnelian. L: 39.5 cm (15916 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AO.77.1. Gift of Gordon McLendon.
Figure 19
Necklace with a pendant scarab, Italic or Etruscan and Greek, 550–400 B.C. Amber, gold, and carnelian. L: 39.5 cm (15916 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AO.77.1. Gift of Gordon McLendon.

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, called 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.”64

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.65 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).66 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.

Lynx urine hardens into a stone. In Bestiarius GKS 1633 4º, 6r, English, 15th century. Parchment, H: 21 cm (814 in.), W: 13.5 cm (5310 in.). Courtesy of The Royal Library of Denmark.
Figure 20
Lynx urine hardens into a stone. In Bestiarius GKS 1633 4º, 6r, English, 15th century. Parchment, H: 21 cm (814 in.), W: 13.5 cm (5310 in.). Courtesy of The Royal Library of Denmark.

It was probably another attempt at etymology that persuaded Strabo that excessive quantities of amber could be found in Liguria.67 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 Eileithyia (goddesses associated with childbirth, light, and the moon) at Delos.68

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”).69 Pliny also singles out Callistratus as the first to distinguish chryselectrum, or “gold amber.”70 Dioscorides, in his A.D. 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.71 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 “Ancient Literary Sources on the Origins of Amber,” below). Some authors, such as Pliny, use more than one term for the material, depending on the context.


  1. The word elektron was also used in antiquity to describe the alloy of silver and gold (modern electrum). Both the fossil resin and the alloy are found in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, but the earliest surviving source to discuss both materials is Herodotus. Independently, , p. 224, postulated that elektron was originally used for the resin and then transferred to the metal because the two materials shared certain optical properties. Much has been written on the relationship of resin and metal; these references are noted and reviewed in and . See also C. L. Connor, The Color of Ivory: Polychromy on Byzantine Ivories (Princeton, 1998), p. 106, nn. 9–10; and H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, and H. Stuart-Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford, 1968), s.v. “elektron” (in Greek), p. 768.

    Gold and silver alloys have been known as long as the individual metals. Naturally occurring alloys likely were used alongside human-made ones. The electrum alloy is much harder than either gold or silver. Pliny (Natural History 33.23.80) says, “All gold contains silver in various proportions.… Whenever the proportion is one-fifth, the ore is called electrum.” J. Ogden, “Metals,” in , pp. 162–64, discusses the makeup of gold alloys in Egypt over time and the range of color in surviving objects made from gold-silver alloys. Traditionally, an alloy with more than 75 percent gold present is described as gold. If it is a gold-silver alloy with less than 75 percent gold, it is electrum, and, according to Stos-Gale and Gale’s more recent nomenclature (Z. Stos-Gale and N. H. Gale, “Sources of Galena, Lead and Silver in Predynastic Egypt,” Revue d’Archéométrie 3, suppl. [1981]: 285–96), “gold-silver alloys with 5–50 percent gold should be termed aurian silver (those with less than 5 percent gold are simply termed silver with low gold).” They go on to state: “The traditional division between electrum and gold at 75 percent gold level falls most inconveniently at just about the median composition for much Egyptian gold-work. Also the variable copper presence will have a major effect on colour” (ibid.). Compare , p. 401: “Electrum is a light-coloured alloy, though the precise percentage of silver required to constitute it varies according to authorities: as low as 8–10% or over 20% or even over 40%.… The commonest natural impurity of any degree is silver: anything up to 50% being called gold, thereafter the alloy is seen as basically a silver. It is largely a matter of semantics how such mixtures are termed, there being no hard and fast definition.… Pure gold probably never occurs naturally.… It is rare to find 98–99% purity.” See also J. F. Healy, Mining and Metallurgy in the Greek and Roman World (London, 1978), pp. 201ff.

    Neb hedj, or “white gold,” was long known in Egypt; its dual nature “meant that it was used sometimes with the significance of gold and at other times as if it were identical with silver,” which early on was associated with the moon (, p. 84). For discussion of early electrum usage in Mesopotamia, see P. R. S. Moorey, “The Archaeological Evidence for Metallurgy and Related Technologies in Mesopotamia, ca. 5500–2100,” Iraq 44, pt. 1 (Spring 1982): 13–38; and P. R. S. Moorey, Materials and Manufacture in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Evidence of Archaeology and Art, International Series 237 (Oxford, 1985).

    For other sources on amber’s ancient names, see ; J. Puhvel, “On Terms for Amber,” in Studia Celtica et Indogermanica: Festschrift für Wolfgang Meid zum 70. Geburtstag, eds. P. Anreiter and E. Jerem (Budapest, 1999), pp. 347–50; G. M. Catarsi, “Ambra: Mito e realtà,” Padusa 31 (1997): 167–81; , esp. nn. 28–33; G. Bonfante, “The Word for Amber in Baltic, Latin, Germanic, and Greek,” Journal of Baltic Studies 16, no. 3 (Fall 1985): 316–19; M. E. Huld, “Greek Amber,” in From the Realm of the Ancestors: An Anthology in Honor of Marija Gimbutas, ed. J. Marler (Manchester, CT, 1997), pp. 135–39; A. Grilli, “Eridano, Elettridi e via dell’ambra,” in Studi e ricerche sulla problematica dell’ambra I (Rome, 1975), pp. 279–91; A. Grilli, “La documentazione sulla provenienza dell’ambra in Plinio,” in Acme (Annali della Facolta di lettere e filosofia dell’Universita degli Studi di Milano) 36, no. 1 (1983): 5–17; and works by J. M. Riddle, including “Pomum ambrae: Amber and Ambergris in Plague Remedies,” in Quid Pro Quo: Studies in the History of Drugs (Hampshire, UK, 1992), pp. 3–17, 111–12, and “Amber in Ancient Pharmacy: The Transmission of Information about a Single Drug,” in Dioscorides on Pharmacy and Medicine (Austin, TX, 1985).

  2. Huld 1997 (n. 52, above), p. 135. See n. 69 for other ancient and modern names based on amber’s magnetic properties.
  3. Iliad 6.513, 19.398.
  4. Tacitus, Germania 45.
  5. Another old German word for amber is the Oberdeutsch Agtstein (from aieten, “to burn”). See Blüemner, , vol. 3, part 1, s.v. “Bernstein”; and J. Barfod, “Von der Heilkraft des Bernsteins,” in , pp. 84–87.
  6. E. Schwarzenberg, Crystal (private publication, 2006), p. 36: “Even after Aristotle had taught Greece to conceive of diaphaneity as light in potential, and of light as the presence of fire in the transparent [Aristotle, De Anima 2.7], diaphanous bodies were not thought of as passive, as just allowing light’s passage, but as contributing actively to its propagation.”
  7. In early Greece, as earlier in Egypt and the Near East, gods and some heroic figures are described with adjectives translated as “bright,” “golden,” “shining,” “luminous,” and “glistening.” E. Parisinou, Light of the Gods: The Role of Light in Archaic and Classical Greek Cult (London, 2000); and W. D. Furley, Studies in the Use of Fire in Ancient Greek Religion (New York, 1981) provide useful discussions of the iconography of light and fire and their divine connections. Although neither work discusses amber, many references are apt. “In the epics of Homer, the gods are described as bright, shining, luminous”: , p. 55, who cites A. A. Donohue, Xoana and the Origins of Greek Sculpture (Atlanta, 1988); J.-P. Vernant, “Mortals and Immortals: The Bodies of the Divine,” in Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays, ed. F. Zeitlin (Princeton, 1991), pp. 27–49; and R. L. Gordon, “The Real and the Imaginary: Production and Religion in the Graeco-Roman World,” Art History 2 (1979): 5–34. Divinities shine with an otherworldly radiance, and declare their presence with brilliant light and the blaze of flame and fire; see also , p. 96–101. Demeter, in divine epiphany, floods the halls “with radiance like lightning”: Homeric Hymn to Ceres 276–80 (H. Foley, ed., The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary, and Interpretive Essays, 3rd printing, with bibl. added [Princeton, 1999]). Compare also the biblical Ezekiel’s vision, in which the metaphor for brightness is amber: “Then I beheld, and lo a likeness as the appearance of fire: from the appearance of his loins even downward, fire; and from his loins even upward, as the appearance of brightness, as the colour of amber” (Ezekiel 8:2). Brilliant amber is employed metaphorically by the second-century A.D. satirist Lucian of Samosata, alluding to a desirable one’s appearance: “Her entire body devoid of the least hair … has more brilliance than amber or glass from Sidon.” See Different Desires: A Dialogue Comparing Male and Female Love Attributed to Lucian of Samosata, trans. A. Kallimachos (© 2000), Diotima: Materials for the Study of Women and Gender in the Ancient World, (accessed October 10, 2009).

    F. Barry, “Painting in Stone: The Symbolic Identity of Coloured Marbles from Antiquity until the Age of Enlightenment,” Ph.D. diss. (Columbia University, 2005), analyzes the history of the appreciation of luster and brilliance in marble and other stones. As noted in n. 51, I. J. Winter (in and ) has written extensively on the subject of shine, light, and brilliance as positive attributes of physical matter in Mesopotamia. She underlines (, p. 123) the importance of light and “light bearing,” and notes that the quality of emanated light is of the highest value: “In all cases, it is apparently the combination of light-plus-sheen yielding a kind of lustrousness that is seen as particularly positive and auspicious, so that persons and things that are holy, ritually pure, joyous or beautiful are generally described in terms of light.” In Sumerian, the word for “pure” carries the physical manifestation of “shine.” B. André-Salvini, “L’idéologie des pierres en Mésopotamie,” in , illuminates how in Egypt, brightness was immediately associated with the brightness of the sun, and thus with life. , n. 2, sums up: “The shining appearance which associated precious metals with the celestial bodies was a quality which may well have been seen as symbolic in other areas such as the high polish given to some stone statues and the varnish given to wooden objects.”

    Tjehnet, an Egyptian word meaning “dazzling”—that which is brilliant or scintillating, such as the light of the sun, moon, and stars, glistening with a light symbolic of life, birth, and immortality—was employed as an epithet of brilliance and bestowed on many gods, including Hathor, Thoth, and Horus, whose light-filled appearances were likened to celestial light (extracted from F. D. Friedman and R. S. Bianchi in , pp. 15, 28–29). Tjehnet applies to precious metals and faïence or, more correctly, glazed composition. It was not a cheap substitute material for precious and semiprecious stones but was valued in itself for amulets of the living as well as the dead. The light-filled material could promote the deceased’s rebirth and help to impart life. Hathor is named in Late Period and Ptolemaic texts as Tjehnet, the Scintillating One. In Italy, from the Bronze Age onward, faïence beads and pendants are often joined with amber in necklaces and other kinds of adornment for (ultimately) funerary objects. Faïence may have had a similar meaning in both Italy and Egypt, and the interest in it may have arisen from its Egyptian origin and its authenticity, as well as from the transformed nature of the material and its color. Strings of glistening materials—amber, glass, faïence, and gemstones such as carnelian—all shared the divine qualities associated with luster; they were all manifestations of brilliance and were divine.

    A number of miniature kouros amulets of glazed composition, found at Rhodes and now in the Louvre, are very close in form to the amber kouros in the British Museum (BM 41: , pp. 15, 65–66, no. 41, pl. XIX), and to a number of ivory kouroi (discussed in n. 248); in each case, the material may have been the determining divine attribute.

  8. On elektron in the Odyssey, see A. Heubeck, S. West, and J. B. Hainsworth, A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1988), p. 197.
  9. Odyssey 4.71–75. Others question whether this passage refers to the ancient resin or to the metal.
  10. Odyssey 15.455–62.
  11. Odyssey 18.294–96.
  12. The Shield of Herakles 2.141. Did Phidias’s Athena also include amber embellishment? , p. 4, n. 11, refers to an epigram ascribed to the mid-fourth-century South Italian tyrant Mamerkos (Mamerkos ad Plutarch, Timoleon 31 [Anthologia Graeca, Appendix, Epigrammata Dedicatoria 84, line 1]), in which the complex compound adjective chryselephantelektrous (Greek for “of gold, ivory, and electron”) is used to describe Athena.
  13. . For other pertinent discussions of the marvelous, see F. I. Zeitlin, “The Artful Eye: Vision, Ecphrasis and Spectacle in Euripidean Theatre,” in Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture, ed. S. Goldhill and R. Osborne (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 138–96; and .
  14. Theophrastus, De Lapidibus 5.28–29.
  15. Theophrastus is not the only expositor of this story. Pliny dismisses a number of variations, including a belief held by Sudines and Metrodorus that amber comes from a “lynx” tree in Liguria. On this, see , p. 48–49.
  16. Strabo, Geography 4.6.2–3.
  17. , pp. 15–17. In the Asklepieion inventory, a lyggourion [sic] on a chain brought by Satyra is noted for the year 276/5. In the inventory of the Artemision at Delos, a lyngourion set in gold (a ring) is first listed for the years 278/69. At the Delian shrine of Eileithyia, a lyngourion set in a gold ring is first recorded in the inventory of 269. A connection of lyngourion (whether amber or not) with Aesclepius, Artemis, and Eileithyia may be owed to its sanative properties. As noted in the text, Artemis and Eileithyia are both associated with childbirth, the protection of the young, and the moon. Aesclepius’s connection to childbirth and healing is established by his own birth. According to Pindar (Pythian 3), he was rescued from his dead mother’s womb while she was being cremated on her funeral pyre.

    The stone’s bright color may have been another reason for its association with Artemis. On Eileithyia, see 3 (1986), s.v. “Eileithyia” (R. Olmos), pp. 126–32; and S. Pingiatoglou, Eileithyia (Würzberg, 1981). In ancient lapidaries, lyngourion is one of the three magic stones said to protect both infants and pregnant women; this suggested to S. I. Johnston (, p. 366, n. 12) that the same type of demon was believed to harm both. For the lapidaries, see R. Halleux and J. Schamp, Les lapidaires grecs: Lapidaire orphique, kérygmes, lapidaires d’Orphée, Socrate et Denys, lapidaire nautique, Damigéron-Evax (Paris, 1985); and L. Baisier, The Lapidaire Chrétien: Its Composition, Its Influence, Its Sources (Washington, DC, 1936), p. 90.

  18. , p. 56, and , passim, discuss additional names for amber that derive from its electromagnetic properties. The Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and demotic Greek names for amber are variants of (or sources for) kāhrubā, or “straw attractor.” See also extensive commentary by the tenth-century Al-Beruni, The Book Most Comprehensive in Knowledge on Precious Stones, trans. H. M. Said (Islamabad, 1989), pp. 181–83: “Its name [referring to amber] kāhrubā testifies to its characteristics, as it attracts straw towards itself and at times even the soil that is found in them. But this can happen only if it is rubbed and warmed.… It is called alqatrūn and adhmītūs in Roman [i.e., Greek]. It is known as daqnā and hayānūfrā in Syriac.” Al-Beruni, in the introduction to the section on p. 15, quotes Abū Nasr al-‘Utbī: “God has conferred upon everything a specific attribute and characteristic [and uses three examples, the third being] … amber draws straws.”
  19. Pliny (Natural History 37.12 and 43) also discusses chrysoelectri, or “golden amber,” in his section on true gemstones: “Their color passes into that of amber, but only in morning light. Those from Pontus are betrayed by their light weight. Some of these stones are hard and reddish, while some are soft and full of flaws.” Eichholz, in his commentary (, p. 268, n. a), clarifies: “Perhaps mostly hessonite, but like the Tibarene stone, the less heavy Pontic stones were probably citrine.”
  20. For more on Dioscorides’ discussion of amber, see and Riddle’s later publications on the subject (in n. 52, above).


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