Orichalcum or aurichalcum is a metal mentioned in several ancient writings, including a story of Atlantis in the Critias dialogue, recorded by Plato. According to Critias (460 – 403 BC), orichalcum was considered second only to gold in value, and was found and mined in many parts of Atlantis in ancient times. By the time of Critias, however, orichalcum was known only by name.
Orichalcum may have been one type of bronze or brass, or possibly some other metal alloy. In 2015, metal ingots were found in an ancient shipwreck in Gela (Sicily), which were made of an alloy primarily consisting of copper and zinc, i.e. a form of brass.
In numismatics, orichalcum is the golden-colored bronze alloy used for the sestertius and dupondius coins. In many fictional pop culture contexts, such as novels and video games, orichalcum is the name given to a valuable ore that can be mined and crafted into powerful armor and weapons.
The Romans transliterated "orichalcum" as "aurichalcum," which was thought to literally mean "gold copper". It is known from the writings of Cicero that the metal they called orichalcum, while it resembled gold in colour, had a much lower value.
Orichalcum has variously been held to be a gold/copper alloy, a copper-tin or copper-zinc brass, or a metal no longer known. However, in Vergil's Aeneid it was mentioned that the breastplate of Turnus was "stiff with gold and white orachalc".
In later years, "orichalcum" was used to describe the sulfide mineral chalcopyrite, and to describe brass. However, these usages are difficult to reconcile with the text of Critias, because he states that the metal was "only a name" by his time, while brass and chalcopyrite continued to be very important through the time of Plato until today.
Joseph Needham notes that the 18th century Bishop Richard Watson, a professor of chemistry, wrote that there was an ancient idea that there were "two sorts of brass or orichalcum". Needham also suggests that the Greeks may not have known how orichalcum was made, and that they might even have had an imitation of the original.
In 2015, a number of ingots believed to be orichalcum were discovered in a sunken vessel (in the coasts of Gela in Sicily), which has tentatively been dated as being 2600 years old. Analyzed with X-ray fluorescence by Dario Panetta, of TQ - Tecnologies for Quality, the 39 ingots turned out to be an alloy consisting of 75-80 percent copper, 15-20 percent zinc, and smaller percentages of nickel, lead and iron.
According to the Critias by Plato, the three outer walls of the Temple to Poseidon and Cleito on Atlantis were clad respectively with brass, tin, and the third outer wall, which encompassed the whole citadel, "flashed with the red light of orichalcum". The interior walls, pillars and floors of the temple were completely covered in orichalcum, and the roof was variegated with gold, silver, and orichalcum. In the center of the temple stood a pillar of orichalcum, on which the laws of Poseidon and records of the first son princes of Poseidon were inscribed. (Crit. 116–119)
Orichalcum is also mentioned in the Antiquities of the Jews - Book VIII, sect. 88 by Josephus, who stated that the vessels in the Temple of Solomon were made of orichalcum (or a bronze that was like gold in beauty). Pliny the Elder points out that the metal had lost currency due to the mines being exhausted. Pseudo-Aristotle in De mirabilibus auscultationibus describes orichalcum as a shining metal obtained during the smelting of copper with the addition of "calmia" (zinc oxide), a kind of earth formerly found on the shores of the Black Sea.
In numismatics, the term "orichalcum" is used to refer to the golden-colored bronze alloy used for the sestertius and dupondius coins. It is considered more valuable than copper, of which the "as" coin was made.
Some scientists believe that orichalcum may also have been used for jewelry for poorer people, as it had a similar appearance to gold.
In popular culture
Orichalcum is often mentioned in a number of high fantasy works and video games of fantasy theme, as one of the more valuable ores, along with fictional mithril. Notable examples include Exalted, Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, Star Ocean, Golden Sun, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Guild Wars 2, Terraria, and Bravely Default.
Orichalcum is a power source in the adventure game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It is mentioned several times in various entries in the Final Fantasy videogame franchise as well as in Kingdom Hearts II, where it was used as the primary ore in forging the Ultima Weapon. In Kid Icarus: Uprising, Lord Dyntos tells Pit that his vehicle, the Great Sacred Treasure, is made of orichalcum.
- Polehampton, Edward (1815). The Gallery of Nature and Art; Or, a Tour Through Creation and Science. R. Wilks for C. Cradock & W. Joy. p. 272.
Whether, if a person should offer a piece of gold to sale, thinking that he was only disposing of a piece of orichalcum, an honest man ought to inform him that it was really gold, or might fairly buy for a penny what was worth a thousand times as much
- NeedhAM, Joseph (1974). Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology; Part 2, Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Magisteries of Gold and Immortality. Cambridge University Press. p. 227-228. ISBN 978-0521085717.
- Nicholas F. Zhirov. Atlantis: Atlantology: Basic Problems. The Minerva Group, Inc, 2001. ISBN 0-89875-591-3
- Media related to Orichalcum coins at Wikimedia Commons