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p450 Electrum

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp450‑451 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ELECTRUM (ἤλεκτρος and ἤλεκτρον), is used by the ancient writers in two different senses, either for ambera or for a mixture of metals composed of gold and silver. In the former sense, it does not come within the scope of this work, except as a substance used in the arts, and also on account of the difficulty of deciding, with respect to several of the passages in which the word occurs, in which of the two senses it is used. If we could determine which was first known to the Greeks, the mineral or the metal, the subject would be simplified; but the only means we have of determining this question is the slight internal evidence of a few passages in Homer. If, as we shall endeavour to show, those passages refer to amber, a simple explanation of the twofold used of the word suggests itself; namely, that the word originally meant amber, and that it was afterwards applied to the mixed metal, because its pale yellow colour resembled that of amber. Etymologically, the word is probably connected with ἡλέκτωρ, the sun, the root-meaning being brilliant. (Pott, Etym. Forsch., pt. I p237: this derivation was known to Pliny, H. N. XXXVII.2 s11: Buttmann's derivation from ἔλκω, to draw, is objectionable both on philological and historical grounds: the attractive power of amber, when rubbed, is said, and no doubt correctly, to have been discovered long after the mineral was first known.)

The word occurs three times in Homer; in two cases where mention is made of a necklace of gold, bound, or held together, ἡλέκτροισιν, where the plural is almost alone sufficient to prove that the meaning is, with amber beads (Od. XV.460, XVIII.295). In the former passage the necklace is brought by a Phoenician merchant. The other passage is in the description of the palace of Menelaus, which is said to be ornamented with the brilliancy of copper (or bronze) and gold, and electrum, and silver, and ivory (Od. IV.73). Now, since the metallic electrum was a mixture of gold with a small portion of silver, the enumeration of it, as distinct from gold and silver would seem almost superfluous; also, the supposition that it means amber agrees very well with the subsequent mention of ivory: moreover, the order of the words supports this view; for, applying to them the principle of parallelism, — which is so common in early poets, and among the rest in Homer, — and remembering that the Homeric line is really a distich divided at the caesura, we have gold and amber very aptly contrasted with silver and ivory:

Χρυσοῦ τ᾽ ἡλέκτρου τε

καὶ ἀργύρου ἠδ᾽ ἐλέφαντος.

In this last passage, Pliny understood the word to mean the metallic electrum (H. N. XXXIII.4 s23); but his authority on the meaning of a passage of Homer is worthless:b and indeed the Latin writers seem generally to have understood the word in the sense of the metal, rather than of amber, for which they have another word, succinum. In Hesiod's description of the shield of Hercules (V.141), the word again occurs, and we have gypsum, and white ivory, and electrum, connected with shining gold and cyanus, where amber is the more natural interpretation; although here again, the Roman imitator, Virgil, evidently understood by it the metal (Aen. VIII.402). For the discussion of other passages, in which the meaning is more doubtful, see the Lexicons of Liddell and Scott, and Seiler and Jacobitz, and especially Buttmann's Mythologus, Supp. I. Ueber das Electron, vol. II pp337, foll.

The earliest passage of any Greek writer, in which the word is certainly used for the metal, is in the Antigone of Sophocles (1038), where mention is made of Indian gold, and the electrum of Sardis, as objects of the highest value. There can be little doubt that what is here meant is the pale gold deposited by certain rivers of Asia Minor, especially the Pactolus, which contained a considerable alloy of silver. We have here an example of native electrum; but the compound was also made artificially. Pliny states that when gold contains a fifth part of silver, it is called electrum; that it is found in veins of gold; and that it is also made by art: if, he adds, it contains more than a fifth of silver, it becomes too brittle to be malleable. Among its properties are, according to the same author, the reflecting the light of a lamp more brightly than silver, and that a cup of native electrum detects the presence of poison by certain signs. One cannot but suspect that the last statement is copied from some Greek writer, who made it respecting amber, on account of the similar property that used to be attributed to opal (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.4 s23, with Harduin's note; comp. IX.50 s65; Paus. V.12 §6). Isidorus also distinguishes the three kinds of electrum, namely (1) amber; (2) the metal, found in its natural state; (3) the metal artificially composed of three p451parts of gold and one of silver, proportions differing from those mentioned by Pliny (Isid. XVI.24).º

Electrum was used for plate, and the other similar purposes for which gold and silver were employed. It was also used as a material for money. Lampridius tells us, that Alexander Severus struck coins of it; and coins are in existence, of this metal, struck by the kings of Bosporus, by Syracuse, and by other Greek states (Eckhel, Doct. Num. Vet. vol. I pp. xxiv, xxv).c


Thayer's Notes:

a See for example Strabo, IV.6.2, who explicitly says so; and the details in Diodorus (V.23.1‑4).

b As much as I like and admire Pliny, I regret I have to agree. There are many passages in the Natural History that are clearly meant as paraphrases or translations of Greek authors far closer to his own time, which when compared to them are equally clearly seen to be garbled. It is known that Pliny worked in part by collating and rewriting works by many authors, with amanuenses that would read to him; my suspicion, based on my own personal background as an interpreter, was that Pliny spoke little or no Greek, and some of these assistants were in fact my fellow interpreters hired as sight translators, i.e., to read out in Latin the texts of Greek books. For some applications it is a very efficient method of working, but it relies on very good interpreters, and leaves no trail that might be gone back over later and corrected.

c For a 17th‑century counterpart of this article, with some different material, see Chapter 15 of Henry Peacham's The Valley of Varietie. The confusion between amber and electrum has left many traces even today, among others in the Bible and its translations; see for example this interesting commentary on a well-known passage of Ezekiel.


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