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Magnes the shepherd

Illustration of Magnes the shepherd from a 19th-century text

Magnes the shepherd, sometimes described as Magnes the shepherd boy,[1] is a mythological figure, possibly based on a real person, who was cited by Pliny the Elder (23 CE – 79 CE) as discovering natural magnetism. His name, "Magnes", the Latin word for magnetite, has been attributed as the origin of the Latin root that has passed into English, giving its speakers the words magnet, magnetism, the mentioned ore, and related formulations. Other authorities have attributed the word origin to other sources.

As set out in Pliny's Naturalis Historia ("Natural History"), an early encyclopedia published c. 77 CE – c. 79 CE,[2] and as translated from the Latin in Robert Jacobus Forbes' Studies in Ancient Technology, Pliny wrote the following (attributing the source of his information, in turn, to Nicander of Colophon):[3]

Nicander is our authority that it [magnetite ore] was called Magnes from the man who first discovered it on Mount Ida[note 1] and he is said to have found it when the nails of his shoes and the ferrule of his staff adhered to it, as he was pasturing his herds.[3]

The passage appears at Book XXXVI of Naturalis Historia, covering "The Natural History of Stones", at chapter 25 entitled "The Magnet: Three Remedies".[4] Although Pliny's description is often cited, the story of Magnes the shepherd is postulated by physicist Gillian Turner to be much older, dating from approximately 900 BCE.[5] Any writings Nicander may have made on the subject have since been lost.[6]

Written in approximately 600 CE, book XVI of Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville tells the same story as Pliny, but places Magnes in India.[7] This is repeated in Vincent of Beauvais' Miroir du Monde (c. 1250 CE)[8] and in Thomas Nicols' 1652 work, Lapidary, or, the History of Pretious Stones, wherein he describes Magnes as a "shepherd of India, who was wont to keep his flocks about those mountains in India, where there was an abundance of lodestones".[9]

Following from Pliny's account, the shepherd's name has been often cited as giving rise to the Latin root word and etymological source of the English word for magnet and the coterie of its related word forms such as magnetite, magnet, magnetism, magnesium, manganese and others.[10] Other authorities, including the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (c. 99 BCE – c. 55 BCE), have attributed the etymology of magnet, and progeny, to the name of the Lydian city, Magnesia ad Sipylum (Manisa, Turkey in modern times), where magnetic ore may have first been discovered or recognized.[11][12] Other ancient locations have been attributed as the origin, including the Greek province Thracian Magnesia, and the Ionian city of Magnesia ad Maeandrum.[13]

The idea that the legend of Magnes the shepherd could be the origin of magnet, et al., and the legend itself has been criticized. Pliny's story is characterized in Gillian Turner's book North Pole, South Pole: The Epic Quest to Solve the Great Mystery of Earth’s Magnetism (2011) as "no doubt embellished by centuries of retelling."[5] In the 1896 treatise Coil and Current; or the Triumphs of Electricity, the authors write:

'Magnet' is derived from the legend of Magnes, or from the territory of Magnesia. Pliny states that Magnes, the shepherd, discovered it, and the legend told of him is that while carrying a message over Mount Ida he felt his feet clinging to the earth, to the iron ore which lay thickly upon the hill. Hence the name of the Magnet. But Magnesia was a territory whence this native iron was for hundreds of years exported, and the name "Magnet" is, no doubt, due to this place.[14]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ There are two "Mount Idas" both featured in Greek Mythology: Mount Ida in the ancient Troad region of western Anatolia (Asia Minor) (in modern-day Turkey), and Mount Ida in Crete. Pliny does not specify to which mountain Nicander refers. Thus, upon recounting the tale of Magnes the Shepherd, some sources specify the mountain in Asia Minor,[5][15][16][17] and others the mountain in Crete.[13][18][19][20]


  1. ^ "Compasses Invented by Chinese". The Daily Herald. November 6, 1975. p. 23.
  2. ^ Roos, Anna Marie (2015). The Correspondence of Dr. Martin Lister (1639–1712). Volume One: 1662–1677. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers. p. 87. ISBN 978-90-04-26332-1.
  3. ^ a b Forbes, Robert Jacobus (1964). Studies in Ancient Technology. IX. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill. p. 179. OCLC 180355272.
  4. ^ Pliny the Elder (1857). "The Magnet: Three Remedies". The Natural History of Pliny. VI. Translated by John Bostock; H. T. Riley. London: H. G. Bohn. p. 355. OCLC 615995.
  5. ^ a b c Turner, Gillian (2011). North Pole, South Pole: The Epic Quest to Solve the Great Mystery of Earth’s Magnetism. Wellington, NZ: Awa Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-61519-132-1.
  6. ^ Nicander of Colophon (1953) [source text c. 185–136 BCE]. Translated by A.S.F. Gow, ed. & A.F. Scholfield (eds.). Poems and Poetical Fragments. Cambridge University Press. p. 216. ISBN 978-0-521-14114-7.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
  7. ^ The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press. 2006 [source text c. 600 CE]. p. 319. ISBN 978-1-139-45616-6.
  8. ^ Monthly literary register (1833). The Monthly magazine. London: Charles Tilt. p. 571.
  9. ^ Nicols, Thomas (1652). Lapidary, or, the History of Pretious Stones: With Cautions for the Undeceiving of All Those that Deal with Pretious Stones. Cambridge: Thomas Buck. p. 196. OCLC 12968778.
  10. ^ Weicker, Theodore (1901). "The Myth of Pliny". Merck Report: A Practical Journal of Pharmacy, Materia Medica, and Chemistry. X. New York: Merck & Company. p. 289. OCLC 243874912.
  11. ^ Deer, William Alexander (1962). Rock-forming Minerals: Non-silicates. London: Longmans. p. 69. OCLC 174165277.
  12. ^ Allom, Thomas; Walsh, Robert (1839). Constantinople and the scenery of the seven churches of Asia Minor. London: Fisher, son, & Co. p. 10. OCLC 332119.
  13. ^ a b Senning, Alexander (2006). Elsevier's Dictionary of Chemoetymology: The Whys and Whences of Chemical Nomenclature and Terminology. Amsterdam: Elsevier. p. 240. ISBN 978-0-08-048881-3.
  14. ^ Frith, Henry; W. Stepney Rawson (1896). Coil and Current; or the Triumphs of Electricity. London: Ward, Lock and Co. p. 4. OCLC 8158356.
  15. ^ Zornlin, Rosina Maria (1843). What is a voltaic battery?. London. p. 14. OCLC 319952401.
  16. ^ Houston, Edwin James (1908). The Wonder Book of Magnetism. New York: Frederick A. Stokes. p. 25. OCLC 13228559.
  17. ^ Schwarcz, Joe (2011). Dr. Joe's Health Lab: 164 Amazing Insights into the Science of Medicine, Nutrition and Well-being. Doubleday Canada. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-385-67157-6.
  18. ^ Mangin, Arthur (1875). W.H.D. Adams (ed.). Earth and its treasures. London: T. Nelson and Sons. p. 273. OCLC 5292299.
  19. ^ W.G. Whitman, ed. (1922). Science Education. V & VI. Salem, Mass.: W.G. Whitman. p. 335. OCLC 1570576.
  20. ^ The Chemistry Leaflet. 10. Lancaster, PA: Chemistry leaflet. 1936. p. 502. OCLC 1410271.