Of gods and dung: the origins of “ammonia”

Scientists know ammonia as:

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Ancient Egyptians also knew ammonia with their own, equally complex symbols:

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Well, in a manner of speaking. Or writing. The story of the word ammonia is one of modern science and ancient history – and of camel dung and supreme deities.

Ammonia

Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman coined ammonia in 1782 when he identified the substance as the gas that can be obtained from sal ammoniac. Previously, ammonia was called spirit of hartshorn in English, as it was distilled from the nitrogen-laden horns and hooves of animals, which is much more pleasant than other sources of the chemical.

Literally meaning “salt of Ammon,” sal ammoniac is a crystalline salt which was once derived from the dung of camels, apparently. (And you thought ammonia smelled bad.) Ancient Libya had a shrine to Jupiter Ammon. Worshippers would hitch their camels to pay their respects as they passed through the area, known as Ammonia. Meanwhile, their camels would pour their own libations: chemically rich excrement. Enterprising, and adventurous, individuals collected the soiled sands to produce sal ammoniac.

Following their conquest of Northern Africa, the Romans mapped their king of the gods, Jupiter, onto an Egyptian supreme deity, Amun. The Greeks rendered Amun as Ammon, which the Romans adapted for Jupiter Ammon.

Amun was often depicted with a ram’s horn, which paleontologists later thought resembled the spiraling shells of an extinct mollusk, the ammonite. The name Amun, whose hieroglyph is featured above, may derive from a word meaning “invisible” or “hidden” – not unlike the very gas in which his name surprisingly lives on.

m ∫ r ∫

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One thought on “Of gods and dung: the origins of “ammonia”

  1. Fascinating! There’s probably scope for a long article – if not a book! – about the uses of ancient gods’ names in different languages. There must be hundreds of them – volcano, Wednesday, panic, jovial and venereal spring to mind.

    Like

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