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What is Orichalcum?

The ancients have always, in one way or the other, attributed magical, legendary, or divine origins and properties to objects. Due to this, many of the metals that have been described by the ancients today are now considered legendary, that is, of no definite modern equivalent, although some historians have tried to reinterpret the wild descriptions into something more plausible. One of these legendary metals is referred to as orichalcum, a golden-hued metal that was said to have originated in the Lost Island of Atlantis. The name orichalcum derives from the Greek word oreikhalkos, which translated to ‘mountain copper’. It was called aurichalcum by the Romans, changing the meaning to ‘gold copper’, which was said to be second in gold to value. Pliny the Elder lists aurichalcum as a type of copper, stating that it was of excellent quality but that the supply was quite exhausted by his day. [1]

While many modern historians now believe that orichalcum is an alloy of gold or copper, or an alloy of copper and some other metal, so made to resemble gold, some ancient writings are unclear as to the appearance of orichalcum, with one author, Cicero, stating that it was golden-hued, but not gold itself[2] , contrasted by Vergil who stated in the Aeneid that it was whitish in hue[3] . The earliest historical mention of the metal is in a homeric hymn dedicated to Aphrodite by the poet Hesiod in 630BC. The most famous account of the metal is found in one of the Dialogues of Plato entitled Critias, where Plato describes orichalcum as one of the metals that coated the walls of the Atlantean Temple of Poseidon and Cleito. It was reportedly widely employed in the construction of the temple, with the floors, the roofing, and one of the temple pillars being made of orichalcum[4] . Once again, there is a discrepancy as to the appearance of the metal, as Plato describes it as possessing a ‘red light’.

While historians have contested the true meaning or composition of orichalcum, many historians suggest that it is some type of alloy of gold and copper similar to tumbaga, while others believe it is an early form of brass. This is either of these theories is plausible and doubtful both at the same time due to the inconsistencies that the description alone poses. Even Plato himself states in Critias that during their time, orichalcum was no more than just a name, while brass and other golden-hued alloys continued to be commonplace.

If ever a metal was more mysterious, orichalcum definitely counts as one such metal. Due to its inherent mystery, many legends have sprung up regarding orichalcum, such as it being the metal chosen for vessels in the Temple of Solomon[5] , to it being some hybrid alien-made alloy. Theosophical beliefs further claim that orichalcum is a pink-hued metal that was mined in Atlantis and endemic only to the area. Orichalcum was said to possess mystical properties, so much so that Sanat Kumara, the Lord of the World, had a stave or magic want made out of it which he referred to as his ‘Rod of Power’[6] .

A near-real life ‘orichalcum’ was used by the ancient Romans for the creation of sestertius and dupondius coins, which was actually just a type of bronze alloy. Many historians believe that it was possible that orichalcum coins would have been melted down and used as jewelry by the lower classes, as it possessed a similar aesthetic appearance to, if not the same properties as, gold.

General pop-culture has even played with the near-unidentifiable properties of the orichalcum metal, with the most well-noted plot device mentioning it being in the Japanese manga and later, anime Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, where it was referred to as the ‘Seal of Orichalcos’, a magical circle activated using fragments of a greenish-hued gem said to be ores of orichalcum[7] . To this day, the true ‘identity’ of orichalcum remains debatable.

Orichalcum - References:

[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History. Book 34 chapter II. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D34%3Achapter%3D2
[2] Polehampton, Edward (1815). The Gallery of Nature and Art; Or, a Tour Through Creation and Science; quotation from the Collected works of Cicero.
[3] Publius Vergilius Naso. Aeneid, The.
[4] Plato, Critias (116-119); The Dialogues.
[5] Titus Flavius Josephus; The Antiquities of the Jews (Book VIII; sec. 88)
[6] Leadbeater, C. W. (1925); The Masters of the Path Adyar (pages 268-269)
[7] http://yugioh.wikia.com/wiki/Orichalcos

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