Amber has always fascinated mankind and therefore it has tens of different names. Throughout centuries, various nations were using amber for jewelry, amulets, in medicine and even as money.
Treasured in its raw state, made into ornaments or sewn onto clothing, amber was dedicated to divinities and used in the ceremonies of death and burial. For millennia, amber has been appreciated as a gemstone and highly valued for its beauty, rarity, fragrance and inclusions of animal and plant material, caught in the ancient resin as if still alive.
If you want to know more about the use of amber in history of different nations, check our post on ancient amber.
As every nation was using amber differently, so every nation had its own name for amber. The words used for amber in antiquity were often suggestive not only of the qualities for which it was valued, but also of the theories of its origin and the uses to which it was put.
So, let’s take a closer look to why and how our ancestors were calling this amazing, fascinating gemstone.
In this post you will find
India – Kah ruba
Nowadays, there is the whole separate group of amber names among the Asian countries that sound fairly alike. The Turkish name for amber – karabe, Arabic word kahroba, Hindi – kaharuva, Persian – kahraba, which translates roughly to electricity and is based on amber’s electrostatic property of attracting straw, feathers and etc. Undoubtedly, it is hard to identify which word came first, but there is a strong argument towards idea that initially all mentioned above amber names came from the Indian or Asian Indian kah ruba, which means raw rubber.
Following argument is based on the information provided by Ctesias, physician, who lived in the 5th century BC. Ctesias was the author of treatises on rivers, and on the Persian revenues, of an account of India entitled Indica (Ἰνδικά), and of a history of Assyria and Persia in 23 books, called Persica (Περσικά).
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Pliny the Elder, again, in its Natural History, cited that Ctesias stated following:
There is in India a river called Hypobarus, a word which signifies “bearer of all good things”;
this river flows from the north into the Eastern Ocean, where it discharges itself near a mountain covered with trees which produce electrum;
these trees are called “siptachoræ”, the meaning of which is “intense sweetness.”
Persian Empire – Ambergris, Ambar, Kahroba
Nowadays, there are various suggestions when and how did the most famous name for this fossil resin occur. Mostly, scientists agree that the English word amber derives either from Arabic – anbar or Middle Persian, Middle Latin – ambar or Middle French – ambre.
However, what most scientists forget in this regard is that the following name emerged probably due to the very massive and interesting confusion. We will try to explain you all the details.
Few words were used in Persian Empire to refer to amber and amber-related things – anbar, ambar, ambergris and kahroba.
According to the belief of ancient Persians, ambar or ambergris was a waxy, aromatic substance produced in the intestines of stomach of the sperm whale and was widely used in perfumery. It is often mentioned in Persian literary and medical sources.
Medieval medical texts describe the best ambergris (ambre gris or “grey amber”) as yellowish-grey and unstreaked (quite like Indonesian amber by description). Inferior varieties, excreted by the whale and found floating in the water, were black and streaked.
Another substance, called by ancient Persians kahrobā, which we now know comes from Indian Kah ruba, was a brittle, yellowish gum secreted by a tree of the pine genus and was thought to be a variety of ambergris.
The two substances called by Persians – kahroba and ambergris, conceivably became associated or confused because they both were found washed up on beaches. So, basically ancient Persians confused amber (fossil resin) with ambergris (sperm whale stomach wax). Moreover, they might as well confused real Indonesian amber that probably was washed upon the shore and is traditionally yellowish-grey with ambergris.
To put it clearly:
Ambergris as it was called in Persian Empire and still called nowadays, is almost certainly formed from a secretion of the bile duct in the intestines of the sperm whale, and can be found floating on the sea or washed up on the coast even today. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of dead sperm whales.
Because the beaks of giant squids have been discovered within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the substance is produced by the whale’s gastrointestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that it may have eaten. The sperm whale usually vomits these, but if one travels further down the gut, it will be covered in ambergris.
Ambergris takes years to form and is rare. Once expelled by a whale, it often floats for years before making landfall. The very small chance of finding ambergris, and the legal ambiguity involved led perfume makers away from ambergris.
In Persian Empire, Ambergris was melted, refined, compressed into pellets (šamāma), and burned on a fire to sweeten and purify the air. It was also compounded in wax candles with aloes and musk.
Ambergris was used in the treatment of catarrh colds, chest diseases, and mental illness. It was compounded with musk and used to reinforce opium and to prepare antidotes to poison. Small doses of fresh ambergris, which was scarce and expensive, were thought to enhance body temperature and sexual potency and to help one gain weight.
Although, we are not sure how ambergris was influencing person’s health, we still know that amber was used in the similar ways since the beginning of times. Check our Amber Healing Properties post. Following fact, makes us believe that those medical text might as well confuse ambergris with real amber in some points.
Royal scribes perfumed letters by mixing powdered ambergris or musk with ink or by affixing an ambergris-smeared seal, and ambergris was thrown to the crowd in ceremonies of royal largess, together with gold dinars and other valuables. Few year ago, a boy from UK found a chunk of ambergris worth $63,000.
It is also funny to know, that despite the name ambergris was sometimes shortened to ambar, all ambergris-related worlds had clear association with Arabic word anbar. Confusion all right, yeah?
An aromatic powder called “anbar-e mortafe” (rising ambergris), made from ambergris, tree moss, rose water, aloes leaves, and aloes wood, was kept in clothing or in lockets (ʿanbaṛča or ʿanbarīna).
In Persian lyric poetry, powdered ambergris is strewn before the beloved, whose hair is called “anbar-e larzān” (quivering ambergris) or arzān (precious ambergris); and her breath, words, sighs and physical features are “ambergris-like” (ʿanbarīn).
Breezes are called ʿanbar-sūz, ʿanbar-fešān, or ʿanbar-ḡobār for their fragrance.
The gardens of springtime exhale the “ambergris-like perfume of the beloved’s street,” and the blossoming of the “ambergris-strewing” flowers and boughs is the envy of “ambergris-natured” paradise.
Negro slaves were often called ʿAnbar for their dark complexion, and one of the ancestors of the Arab tribe of the Banū Tamīm bore the name.
Ancient Egypt – Sacal
The first documented citation of the Egyptian name for amber was found in the works of Pliny the Elder. In his Natural History, philosopher mentions that Nicias, Athenian politician and general, states following:
Amber is a liquid produced by the rays of the sun; these rays, at the moment of the sun’s setting, striking with the greatest force upon the surface of the soil, leave upon it an unctuous sweat, which is carried off by the tides of the Ocean, and thrown up upon the shores of Germany.
In Aegypto nasei simili modo — vocari sacal.
In Egypt it is similarly produced, and is there called “sacal”.
Ancient Greece – Electron
The standard Greek word for amber was electron. The derivation of this word is uncertain, although scientists have suggested that it may have connections with helko, meaning “to draw or attract“, or with aleko, meaning “to ward off evil“. What is not a surprise, taking into account amber electromagnetic properties and its typical use for creation of amulets.
Nevertheless, the world is certainly associated with elector, used in the Legend of Phaethon to mean “the beaming sun” and is most likely derived from an Indo-European verb with the root meaning “brilliant” or “to shine”.
The most interesting part related to the Greek amber name – electron – is that Ancient Greeks were the first ones, who noticed the electromagnetic properties of amber for attracting pieces. Therefore, world electron, considered to give a name to the word “electricity”.
Ancient Greece – Lyngurium
Another, quite specific name that is also considered to be an ancient name for amber is Lyngurium. Lyngurium or Ligurium is the name of a mythical gemstone believed to be formed of the solidified urine of the lynx (the best ones coming from wild males). Honestly, this is not a joke. Check that!
Following explanation was first introduced by Theophrastus of Eresus, Greek philosopher and naturalist, he successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school (c. 371-285 BC). in his work on stones, De lapidibus, He states:
…carved into signets and is hard as any stone, [and] has an unusual power. For it attracts other objects just as amber does, and some people claim that it acts not only on straws and leaves, but also on thin pieces of copper and iron. The lyngurium is cold and very clear.
A wild lynx produces better stones than a tame animal, and a male better ones than a female, there being a difference in the diet, in the exercise taken or not taken, and, in general, in the natural constitution of the body, in as much as the body is drier in the case of the former and more moist in the case of the latter.
The stone is discovered only when experienced searchers dig it up, for when the lynx has passed its urine, it conceals it and scrapes soil over it.
So, as well as various medical properties, lyngurium was credited with the power to attract objects, including metal. And even through, comparison with amber is made, for me it seems likely that what was thought to be lyngurium was either a type of yellow amber.
In this regard, I am not the only one. In the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder discusses the stone, but makes it clear that he does not believe in it, or at least its supposed origin:
I for my part am of the opinion that the whole story is false and that no gemstone bearing this name has been seen in our time. Also false are the statements made simultaneously about its medical properties, to the effect that when it is taken in liquid it breaks up stones in the bladder, and that it relieves jaundice if it is swallowed in wine or even looked at.
Ancient Rome – Succinum
Ancient Romans at its times had no doubt that amber was a product of the islands of the Northern Ocean (Baltic region), and that it was the substance by the Germans called “glæsum”.
Moreover, according to the Pliny the Elder, Romans knew precisely what origins of amber were and therefore had a specific name for it – succinum. Consequently, that gave a rise to the current name of the most important healing ingredient in amber – succinic acid. Check our previous post, to learn more about effects succinic acid has on the body and health.
In its Natural History, Pliny the Elder wrote:
Amber is produced from a marrow discharged by trees belonging to the pine genus, like gum from the cherry, and resin from the ordinary pine.
It is a liquid at first, which issues forth in considerable quantities, and is gradually hardened by heat or cold, or else by the action of the sea, when the rise of the tide carries off the fragments from the shores of these islands. At all events, it is thrown up upon the coasts, in so light and voluble a form that in the shallows it has all the appearance of hanging suspended in the water.
Our forefathers, too, were of opinion that it is the juice of a tree, and for this reason gave it the name of “succinum:” and one great proof that it is the produce of a tree of the pine genus, is the fact that it emits a pine-like smell when rubbed, and that it burns, when ignited, with the odor and appearance of torch-pine wood.
Germany – Glaseum, Bernstein
The quality of beaming, or reflecting the sun, is also suggested by the old Germanic word for amber, glaes, or glese, recorded in some ancient Latin sources as glaseum, the same word that was used in the period for glass.
Exactly due to the following name, Ancient Romans, when Germanicus Cæsar commanded the fleet towards Baltic region, gave to one of German islands the name of Glæsaria, which by the barbarians and German tribes was known as Austeravia.
The current German word for amber, going back to thirteenth-century Middle Low German, is Bernstein and means “burning stone”. The reason for the following name lies in the nature of the amber.
Before nineteenth century, during which scientists finally proved that amber is hardened resin of pre-historic trees, people had various ideas regarding the origins of amber. Mostly, scientists were considering amber a resin thanks to the Pliny the Elder, but common people, who had no access to the works of famous philosopher were still regarding it as a stone.In XIII century, villagers in Baltic region were using #amber to heat homes. #AmberNames #Bernstein Click To Tweet
In thirteenth century, when following name for amber emerged, people were seeing amber as a stone, but already knew about its burning abilities.
Typically, in colder German regions, in some parts of Lithuania and Latvia, villagers who were not aware about the price of amber, were burning it to heat their homes. Therefore, term “burning stone” provides us with information not only about the properties of amber, but also about the way of life in Baltic region in thirteenth century.
Following name gave a raise to current African, Belorussian (бурштын), Dutch, Flemish, Hungarian, Polish (bursztyn), Swedish, Ukrainian (бурштин) and Yiddish names for amber.
Syria – Harpax
According to the same work of Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Nicias mentioned that in Syria the women made the whirls of their spindles from amber, and used name harpax to refer to it. Following name comes from the circumstance that amber attracts leaves towards it, chaff, and the light fringe of tissues. In Greek harpax means “a thief” or “one who snatches”.
China – Hupo, Tiger’s Soul
When it comes to China, amber name has obtained an exclusively specific meaning. Amber in China was widely used in medical purposes and we will prepare one of the future posts talking specifically about all practices Chinese people use amber for. Join us in order not to miss it.
But when it comes to the amber names, there is an ancient saying in China:
When the tiger dies, its soul enters the earth and transforms into stone.
By this saying, Chinese people refer to the droplets of amber. So the material is called tiger’s soul: hupo (the po is the bodily soul; there are also spirit souls, called hun, that can roam about, but the po goes into the ground).
Lithuania – Gintaras
Nowadays, there is the whole separate group of amber names among the Slavic countries that sound fairly alike – Polish – Jantar, Ukrainian, Belorussian – Янтар (Yantar), Russian– Янтарь (Yantar’), Latvian – Dzintars and Lithuanian – Gintaras.
Cyrillic version for word amber – янтарь, in the form of ентар (entar), was borrowed, probably from the Lithuanian language (lit. gintaras) and is known in Old Russian language from the middle of the 16th century (first documented in 1551) . Ukrainian, Belorussian, the Czech, Serb-Croatian and Slovenian names of amber were already borrowed from the Russian.
Both in Greek and in Lithuanian, the word “amber” is raised to the oldest forms of the verb “to protect“, linking it with natural belief in the magical properties of the stone from which the amulets were made mostly.
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References: Wikipedia, Faya Causey “Amber and the Ancient World”, Pliny the Elder “The Natural History” (translated by John Bostock).