Mental Floss

11 Element Names Inspired by Folklore and Mythology

Ellen Gutoskey
Thorium next to its namesake.
Thorium next to its namesake. / (Thor) Nationalmuseum; (Thorium) HT Ganzo/iStock via Getty Images

Some elements, like californium and moscovium, are named after places. Others pay tribute to important scientists, from Albert Einstein (einsteinium) to Pierre and Marie Curie (curium). And then there are those whose monikers reference—some more obviously than others—famous gods and other mythological characters. Read on for 11 interesting examples.

1. Promethium

prometheus god
Hercules about to rescue Prometheus from his daily liver extraction. / Grafissimo/iStock via Getty Images

While developing an atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II, chemist Charles Coryell and his subordinates Larry Glendenin and Jacob Marinsky worked to identify elements produced during the nuclear fission of uranium [PDF]. One of them turned out to be element 61—an as-yet-undiscovered rare earth metal long suspected to sit between neodymium and samarium on the periodic table.

It was Coryell’s wife, Grace Mary, who suggested naming the radioactive element after Prometheus, the Greek Titan who stole fire from the Olympians and gave it to humans. The deed didn’t go unpunished: Zeus had him bound to a mountain, where an eagle would come to peck out his regenerated liver on a daily basis. As Glendenin explained in 1976, the name promethium “not only symbolizes the dramatic way in which the element is produced as a result of harnessing of the energy of nuclear fission, but also warns of the danger of punishment by the vulture of war” [PDF].

2. Titanium

titanium bar
A bar of titanium crystals. / Alchemist-hp, Wikimedia Commons// CC BY-SA 3.0

The credit for discovering titanium goes to British mineralogist William Gregor, who detected a mystery metal in a sandy black mineral called menachanite in 1791. It didn’t get a name until four years later, when German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth identified the same metal in a different mineral: rutile. Klaproth soon heard about Gregor’s finding and realized the two metals were the same unknown element, which he named “titanium” after the Titans—a group of Greek deities associated with strength and power. Titanium lives up to its name: It doesn’t corrode easily and boasts a high tensile strength, particularly when compared with its low density.

3. Nickel

spheres of pure nickel
Pure nickel. / 35007/iStock via Getty Images

As the story goes, when German miners unearthed a reddish mineral that looked like it contained copper—but didn’t actually contain copper—they called it kupfernickel. Kupfer means copper, and nickel refers to a mischievous, mythological demon (or sometimes the devil himself). In 1751, Swedish chemist Axel Fredrik Cronstedt figured out what was really in this devil’s copper: a lustrous new metal that he named nickel. (The other ingredient in kupfernickel, which we know as niccolite or nickeline, is arsenic.)

4. Cobalt

Hödekin kobold illustration
A 19th-century illustration of Hödekin (also known as Hütchen), a helpful domestic kobold from German folklore. / duncan1890/iStock via Getty Images

Cobalt was named after another kind of trickster from German folklore: kobolds, which were sprites or goblins believed to haunt mines (or help around the house). Cobalt, like nickel, often pairs with arsenic to create mineral compounds; and when German miners tried to extract the unnamed metal from its ore—not an easy task in the first place—poisonous arsenic oxide often came with it. They reportedly blamed kobolds for these difficulties, and started calling the troublesome substance “kobold.” By the time Swedish chemist Georg Brandt successfully isolated the element in the 1730s, the name had already been spelled in various ways in other languages—including cobalt in English.

5. Tantalum

'The Torment of Tantalus' by Bernard Picart, 1733
'The Torment of Tantalus' by Bernard Picart, 1733. / Rijksmuseum // Public Domain

In Greek mythology, Tantalus was a son of Zeus whom the gods doomed to spend eternity standing in a pool of water he couldn’t drink, with fruit just out of reach. (His offense varies by account, but one story claims that he killed and served his own son to the gods at a feast just to see if they’d notice.)

When Swedish chemist Anders Gustaf Ekeberg identified a new hard, gray metal in 1802, he found it was almost impossible to get it to dissolve in acid. So he called it tantalum “partly to follow the custom of adopting names from mythology, and partly to allude to the fact that the oxide of this metal is incapable of feeding itself even in the middle of a surplus of acid.”

6. Niobium

niobium crystals
Niobium crystals. / Dnn89, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Before it became niobium, element 41 was known as columbium. The name was a nod to the New World; British chemist Charles Hatchett had first identified the shiny grayish metal in a mineral sample unearthed decades earlier in New England. Hatchett’s discovery happened just a year before Ekeberg found tantalum, and some scientists concluded that the two very similar metals were actually just the same element. In the 1840s, German chemist Heinrich Rose determined that they weren’t [PDF]. He called columbium “niobium” after Tantalus’s daughter, Niobe, and that name was eventually adopted internationally (though columbium remained popular in the U.S. for years).

7. Thorium

'Tor's Fight with the Giants' by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1872.
'Tor's Fight with the Giants' by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1872. / Nationalmuseum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1815, Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius believed he’d discovered something new in mineral samples collected in Norway and Sweden. He named the substance Thorjord, or “Thor’s earth,” after the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder. Thorjord turned out to just be yttrium phosphate, but Berzelius got to honor the deity again when he identified what was a new element—thorium—in the late 1820s.

8. Cerium

dwarf planet ceres
An image of Ceres taken from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. / NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

It wasn’t the only time Berzelius named an element after a god—though cerium’s mythological namesake is slightly more indirect than thorium’s. After discovering the silvery rare earth metal in 1803, Berzelius and his colleague Wilhelm Hisinger christened it cerium after the asteroid (now considered a dwarf planet) Ceres, which had just been spotted two years prior. That Ceres got its name from the Roman goddess associated with agriculture and bountiful harvests. (So did the word cereal.)

9. Palladium

palladium crystals
Palladium, a common (and slightly harder) alternative to platinum. / Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

In 1802, the year after Ceres was discovered, a slightly smaller asteroid was spotted and named Pallas—for Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. Since British chemist William Hyde Wollaston succeeded in isolating a new element around that same time, he paid homage to the asteroid by calling the metal palladium. Before deciding on that moniker, however, he’d briefly considered naming it ceresium, which could have thrown a wrench into Berzelius and Hisinger’s future plans.

10. Vanadium

vanadium in different oxidation states
Vanadium in different oxidation states. / W. Oelen, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Though Spanish mineralogist Andrés Manuel del Río had technically already discovered vanadium—which he called “erythronium”—in 1801, he concluded that it was actually just a form of chromium. So it didn’t get recognized as a new element until Sweden’s Nils Gabriel Sefström identified it as such in 1830. Sefström renamed it “vanadium” in honor of Vanadis, an Old Norse goddess known for her beauty. Vanadium upholds that legacy by turning different colors depending on its oxidation state.

11. Iridium

iris appearing to turnus in scene from virgil's aeneid
Iris taking a message to Turnus in Virgil's 'Aeneid.' / duncan1890/iStock via Getty Images

Iridium was also named for its ability to produce colorful compounds. “I should incline to call this metal iridium, from the striking variety of colours which it gives, while dissolving in marine acid,” British chemist Smithson Tennant wrote after discovering the element circa 1803. Tennant didn’t specify exactly how he came up with the word iridium, but it’s often said that it was inspired by Iris, Greek goddess of the rainbow (the word iris is also Greek for rainbow).