Speaking of rare metals, I’m sure you’ve noticed that fringe historians love them. Ancient astronaut theorists think aliens are obsessed with gold, mining it to power their rogue planet and eating it as a combination immortality elixir and sex aid. Heck, fringe historians love gold so much, people with strange ideas about the past like Steve Quayle and Glenn Beck practically insist that you buy gold, preferably from them or their sponsors, where they get a cut.
It was therefore not surprising but nevertheless disappointing to see that this month’s Fortean Times had an article by freelance writer Jerry Glover giving credulous coverage to the ridiculous claim made by fringe theorists and media hacks back in January that “Atlantean” orichalcum, or mountain copper, had been discovered in an undersea exploration off Sicily. Plato mentioned orichalcum in his Atlantis dialogues as being used in Atlantis, though his use of the term suggested he was referring to a mythical substance and not the metal in use in his day. Italian authorities likened the metal to the Greco-Roman-era brass of the same name, but the media mangled the story, and Glover seems uninterested in finding the truth. Instead, Glover repeats the media mistake nearly verbatim, conflating the Greco-Roman alloy with the fabulous metal of Platonic usage, even though he actually cites the existence of the Roman use of the word to mean brass in his article. Unsurprisingly, Glover sees orichalcum as evidence for Atlantis rather than, say, the existence of Turnus, whose orichaclum-laden breastplate is equally fictitious (Virgil, Aeneid 12.87).
It’s interesting that Glover seems to have done some of his research from Wikipedia, apparently misreading the online encyclopedia’s grammar. Consider this line from Wikipedia’s article on orichalcum as it appears as of this writing: “Orichalcum is first mentioned in the 7th century BC by Hesiod, and in the Homeric hymn dedicated to Aphrodite, dated to the 630s” (emphasis added). And now Glover’s paraphrase: “Hesiod provides the earliest specific naming of Plato’s metal in his Hymn to Aphrodite and possibly the Shield of Heracles from c. 630 BC…” Glover makes Hesiod into the author of the hymns. This is doubly strange because Hesiod is not the author of the Homeric Hymns, which postdate him, and because in Antiquity, though, as the name suggests, they were thought to be the work of Homer, Hesiod’s purported rival. The reference to orichalcum occurs in line 9 of Homeric Hymn 6: To Aphrodite, where the Hours give Aphrodite earrings of the metal upon her emergence from the sea. Did Glover misunderstand the author of the hymns because the translation he uses, by H. G. Evelyn-White is called Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica, which due to the graphic design of the Loeb text, looks a lot like Hesiod: The Homeric Hymns and the Homerica?
I have no idea why Glover attributes orichalcum to the Shield with only a half-hearted effort, as though he doesn’t know whether it’s true. On line 122 Heracles’ leg greaves are said to be made of orichalcum, which the most popular English translator, H. G. Evelyn-White, hid from English readers by rendering the word as “shining bronze.” (C. A. Elton, oddly, was more literal in his verse translation in 1832, translating it as “mountain brass.”)
There is an interesting sidelight on the question of what ancient authors meant when they used the name of metals. In the Shield at line 142, writing of the shield itself, the poet says that “its whole orb was a-shimmer with enamel and white ivory and electrum (elektron), and it glowed with shining gold” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White). Electrum is not orichalcum, since the former is white and the latter reddish, but in the 1960s, John M. Riddle argued that electrum wasn’t electrum but amber, which was also orichalcum. Writing in The James Sprunt Studies in History and Political Science, he notes that in Timaeus 80c Plato writes of the static electricity in elektron, by which most editors and translators have taken him to mean amber. The long and short of it is elektron didn’t have to be electrum but could also be amber, with its gold coloring. These two meanings are found in Greek and are then carried over into Latin, beginning with Virgil, who uses the word in both senses; Ovid, who uses it only to mean amber; and Pliny the Elder, who uses it both ways. Then, just to confuse everyone further, the apparently Nazi-affiliated Atlantis proponent Jürgen Spanuth proposed that orichalcum was also amber, while others thought orichalcum and electrum to be the same.
Regardless of whether the Shield’s elektron was amber, it couldn’t be orichalcum because orichalcum was already mentioned in line 122 as a different metal, which Glover would have known had he investigated the underlying texts rather than secondary (and unnamed) sources. In other words, his “probably” qualifier tells us that he doesn’t know the originals of the texts he cites in Evelyn-White’s English translation.
Nevertheless, we can be pretty sure that he orichalcum wasn’t a prehistoric metal of rare device since in the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer makes no mention of the metal among the gods’ treasures, nor does it appear in Hesiod’s most famous works, the Theogony and the Works and Days. (The Atlantipedia, based on fringe texts and old encyclopedias, claims Homer mentioned it, taking the Homeric Hymns for the work of Homer.) In other words, the metal only shows up after the Greeks encounter the Near East and have access to a wider range of metals and alloys, one of which is probably the inspiration for the name later applied to ordinary brass.