archaeoastronomy and language

Electrum in Antiquity

Mitylene (Asia Minor) hectae electrum coins, ca. 500 B.C. (image public domain)

By John Saul


In former times the word electrum designated two substances which to us are very different. One was amber and the other was an alloy of gold and silver. There may have once been a serious reason behind this seemingly odd usage, a possibility explored in this paper. 

Amber pieces from the Baltic (image public domain)


A convenient place to open an investigation is in myths that were current in times when the matter was presumably less obscure. One such story is the account of young Phaethon who crashed the Solar Chariot and who in death became associated with amber. Ovid (43 B.C.-17 A.D.), who seems to have provided the most complete source of information, tells of doubts concerning the identity of Phaethon’s true father (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I-II). Some claimed that Phaethon’s father was the Sun God, but others said that it was King Merop(s), an obscure figure. To settle the matter, Phaethon went to the House of the Sun God, with its six signs of the zodiac on the right-hand door and six: on the left-hand door. He tricked the Sun God into allowing him to drive the chariot across the heavens for one day. This ended catastrophically when Phaethon was killed as he crashed into the River Eridanus. 

Many classical writers equate the Eridanus with the Po River of northern Italy, long claimed to be the source of amber. This contention is factually wrong, for amber is not found in the Po. And yet the Po has its source in Liguria, and the Latin word ligurius is translated as amber by Josephus, and in the Septuagint and Vulgate (G. Kunz, Curious Lore of Precious Stones). But Liguria has no amber either. 

Phaethon was mourned by his relative, King Cygnus of Liguria, and by his own sisters, the Heliades, who metamorphosed into riverbank trees that wept tears of amber. Their name, Heliades, seems to evoke Helios, the ancient Greek Sun God of the Golden Age. But, the very late classical author Claudian (370-404 A.D.) identified these sisters with the Hyades – a group of stars located about one third of the way through the zodiacal constellation of Taurus. 

Taurus had, in fact, already been evoked obliquely in the story of Phaethon, because Merop(s) – who either was or was not Phaethon’s father – is just a masculine form of the name “Merope”, another star often considered to be within in the general constellation of Taurus. Merope is not located in the Hyades group, however, but in the Pleiades – a star-cluster also generally located in Taurus, roughly two-thirds of the way across it.

Something is going on here; something peculiar, even disturbing. The confusion is intentional.Things had been written which were known to be false. Neither the Po nor Liguria is a source of amber; yet the area, Liguria, has an amber name. Matters would have been still more puzzling for the Greeks and Romans, for Ovid never actually named the Sun 

God. He did use the word” Heliades”, thus seemingly evoking Helios, the Greek Sun God of the Golden Age. But he also used the honorary title “Phoebus” (meaning bright), and Phoebus was not a title for Helios. It was the title for Apollo, the Sun God of the Silver Age. Thus a Roman reader of Ovid would have seen three possible fathers for Phaethon: Merop(s), Helios, and Phoebus Apollo. But Ovid was in wonderful command of his material and would not have been unaware of this conundrum.

So, we are confronted here with something hidden, something which concerns amber. It was not just hidden from us, but from most Romans and Greeks as well. Before trying to make sense of this ancient secret, we should note that in the idiom of myth, cosmic crashes, universal floods, and great falls usually signify the end of a World Age, for instance, as in the story of the fall of Troy.  

There are many different mythological accounts of how the city of Troy was founded. All accounts agree on one tiling: the city had been founded by a relative of Electra. In myth, Electra was the ‘provider of amber’, and electron in Greek and electrum in Latin was the Classical name for amber. But Electra is also the name of another star in the Pleiades, in fact, one of Merope’s nearest neighbours. 

Troy fell “the night the Pleiades went down” and it fell, according to Aeschylus, “amid gales of incense rich in gold”. These words were written about 500 B.C.for the play Agamemnon – the audiences of which would have been familiarwith amber-based incense. When Troy fell, Electra became so upset that she “wandered off” to the far northern sky, and was metamorphosed into a male star. And there is something dreadfully wrong here, once again. It is not just that the story is odd (many myths are), but this story contains an internal inconsistency because our forbears knew perfectly well that celestial wanderings are un-starlike. The planets – which were taken to include the Sun and the Moon – are the heavenly wanderers, not the stars. 

Let us leave the obscurity of mythology to consider a familiar gemmological matter that is rarely discussed. That is, we take for granted the fact that certain stones and metals should be considered to be valuable. Most people would be in trouble if pressed to say exactly why we place value on gold, or lapis, or amber; though gemmologists might hazard a guess that the value given to gold and gemstones is somehow related to ancient astronomy or astrology. 


This idea finds support from within the field of gemmology, for instance, in The Lapidary of Alphonso X where it is proposed that gems should be classified on the basis of colour “cast into the 12 signs of the zodiac”. Despite its name, and medieval Arab-Iberian context, The Lapidary of Alphonso X is derived from a far older source. This source is believed to be “Chaldean”, which is to say Neo-Babylonian from Mesopotamia, although chronologically beginning with the Sumerians. 

Of the ancient Sumerians, it was said that the informing thought of their world view was “What is above is below”. This same archaic principle shows up in other cultures as well. For example, in China “everything terrestrial”was held to have “its prototype, its primordial cause, its ruling agency in heaven”; while in the Occident the same idea is encapsulated in the most familiar saying of the Western alchemists – “As it is above, so shall it be below” . The same concept shows up elsewhere. In the Jewish Zohar, we read that “the inferior world is a reflection of the superior”, while the Micmac Indians of the Canadian Maritime Provinces say that “In all things as it was and is in the sky, so it is on earth”. Likewise, “Many Colombian cultures conceptualise the sky as a blueprint for past, present and future occurrences on earth …” (cf. Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image, citing Alfred Jeremias; E.J. Eitel, Feng Shui; Stansbury Hagar, Journal of American Folk-Lore, XIII, 49, 1900; G. Reichel Dolmatoff, cited by R. Opperman, Archaeoastronomy. College Park, Maryland, 1981).

Sumerian science, which constituted the very beginning of science as best we can tell, seemed to be straightforward. It consisted of the compilation of endless lists. The Sumerians attempted to make an inventory of the world and, therefore, compiled lists of animals, trees, flowers, colors, fish, stones, metals, snakes, water creaturess, birds, parts of the human body, etc. They also inventoried the heavens above. Thus it seems safe to presume that their next step would have been to try to find celestial counterparts for the various items in the “World Below”, as applications of the principle ‘As above, so below’. This is an infinite and impossible task, which can be viewed in various ways: philosophical, astrological, religious, scientific or even (in certain contexts) gemmological. Stones and gems were to be matched up with suitable stars, constellations and planets. Examples that seem reasonably clear are: the birthstones ‘cast into’ the zodiacal sectors; and lapis lazuli as a material representing the entire nightime sky. Yet, further progress in this interpretation is difficult or impossible, for we lack the general rules that were applied by our ancestors in matching up stones with celestial counterparts. Even if we were now to accept the wandering star Electra, as the celestial counterpart of amber or electrum, we would have to do so on the basis of uncertain logic. The word electron / electrum designated both amber and the metallic alloy of gold and silver. When Aeschylus said the Pleiades went down “amid gales of incense rich in gold”, he was probably referring to electrum in both senses. His reference to incense evoked amber, while the “rich in gold” evoked electrum, the metal. 

Although deciphering the manner in which gems and stones were long-ago related to the heavens seems generally impossible at this time, doing the same thing for the metals is relatively simple, for the metals were held to correspond to the wandering planets. Gold corresponded to the Sun, while silver corresponded the Moon. Silver also could represent Jupiter or Zeus – who was more often allied with tin. Iron was for the red planet Mars. Metallic mercury was of the planet Mercury, because it was very changeable, just like a mercurial person. At one time Mercury was a morning star; at another time it was an evening star, to the right of the Sun or to the left of the Moon. Saturn was lead. Saturn is the outermost of the planets and it moves around very, very slowly, like ‘a lead-footed person’. Copper is “the Cyprian” (the planetary goddess Venus) in such contexts, through some ancient association with the copper-rich island of Cyprus (which means copper in Greek). 

Sitting here today, the difference between metals and stones is entirely clear. But, was this always the case? For instance, in the past, it may have been less than obvious whether hematite and pyrite were metals or stones. And what of the colourful heavy metal ores (especially lead) mined at ancient Laurion, near Athens? Were they metals or stones? The ancient answers, and the ancient definitions, seem to have been very different from from our own. The metals, it seems, were the wanderers. When a rock was heated and something flowed or wandered away from it, it was seen as the terrestrial equivalent of a planet. Other stones – those that did not melt – were more like the fixed stars. Therefore, hy this long-ago application of the principle “As above so below”, strange as it sounds to us today, amber was considered as a metal. Amber, gold, and silver have, of course, been known from very earliest times. Sometime later, apparently before 2700 B.C., the metallic alloy of gold and silver, now known as electrum, was recognized (H.E. Stapleton, Ambix 5, 1953) and, by any logical scheme of things, would have been placed in some sense between gold and silver. But suppose that the place between gold and silver had already been occupied by (the metal!) amber? 


The concept of World Ages is known from sources as different as Hesiod (7th c. B.C.), Maimonides (1135- 1204), and today’s Cree Indian elders.The tradition of a Golden Age is very widespread. In many accounts, the Golden Age was ruled by Saturn (Kronos), as heavenly Regent for the Golden Sun. At a hard-to determine later time came the Silver Age, ruled by Jupiter (Zeus), deity and planet, whose metal was silver or tin. Though various accounts and traditions differ, subsequent mythic Ages included Bronze (an alloy of tin plus copper), and Iron. The sequence of mythological Ages is usually characterised by a decrease in the quality of the lives of those who then resided on the earth. Whereas the first Age knows only immortal gods, and is represented by the immutable metal gold; subsequent Ages see Titans (earth-born giants), Heroes (the first beings to be subject to Eros), and now in our own Age – mere mortals. Each Age had its planetary ruler. Thus each Age could be characterized by that planet’s metal. That said, the ancient authors were often in disagreement concerning the sequences of Ages, planetary rulers, and metals.  


Clearly, once electrum, the metallic alloy, had been discovered and its nature recognized, it would have seemed appropriate to some to insert an Age of Electrum metal between the Ages of Gold and Silver; even if this mythological space was already occupied by the earlier insertion of an Age of an older Electrum – an Age of Amber. 

In consequence, it seems that the original Golden Age was split into three parts: gold, first electrum, and second electrum. Likewise the region of the zodiac containing the Bull-constellation of Taurus was divided into three with Taurus itself, the Hyades and again the Pleiades. Some support for this conclusion is found in the prologue of the oldest known written myth, The Epic of Gilgamesh, where it is said that the great gods had made Gilgamesh’s beauty “perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull. Two-thirds they made him god and one-third man”. 

Yet why should these things have been secret? Why Ovid’s need to conceal the facts as antiquity knew them Perhaps it was because too many clear words would have shown the impossibility of organising the affairs of men on Earth Below so as to accord with Heaven Above. But, to some extent – perhaps to a very great extent – the state religions and governments of Sumer, Babylon, Greece and Rome rested on this organising principle. 

In 17 A.D. Ovid died on the coast of the Black Sea, a bitter man in unexplained exile (other than offending the Imperial Family) !!!

Editor’s Note: this article is reprised (with minimal editing) with permission from Australian Gemmologist 19 (1996) 285-91 at the suggestion of its author John Saul. Even though this article predates our first issue, we did publish on the word electrum and its two ancient meanings in our initial 2010 issues.