With the discovery and decipherment of ancient Babylonian and Sumerian texts in the 19th century a theory was offered that the name of the river constellation Eridanus, which appears in the poem Phaenomena by Aratus in the 3rd century BC, was due to the ancient Sumerian city Eridu.

A far more likely origin of the name, to me, would seem to be the IE river deity name/word *danu, which has provided names to a number of rivers known to the Greek world (like Danube), and at least one Celtic river deity.

Can anyone through any light on this subject? Does "Eridanus" look like an IE derivation?

(One problem with the "Eridu" theory is that how it might be transmitted to Greece is quite mysterious. The Greeks got their Zodiacal constellations, and others nearby in the sky, from the Late Babylonians. But there is no constellation in any Babylonian texts corresponding to Eridanus or bearing that or a similar name. Somehow knowledge of a Sumerian city name lost circa 2000 BC would have to be transmitted to Greece 1700 years later, without leaving a trace in Babylonian texts.)

  • The modern D-N names of the Danube are of Celtic origin and were borrowed into the modern languages including Greek via Gothic. Also, have a look at this: constellationsofwords.com/Constellations/Eridanus.html
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 23, 2015 at 2:19
  • Wikipedia says that in Ancient Greek Ἠριδανός meant amber.
    – Anixx
    Feb 23, 2015 at 8:56
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    The D-N naming patterns of rivers in the region (Dniester, Dneipr, Don, Donets, also) all originate from Proto-Indo-European, passing down from that ancestor language through later members of the language family which includes, but is not limited to, Celtic.
    – user6626
    Feb 24, 2015 at 13:07
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    The word PIE *DhEN shows up in IE languages spanning Eurasia in words that mean "river" or "fast flowing" and showing up in at least one other IE language as a "river god" makes Eridanus seem part of the same pattern. Eridanos appears in Hesiod (our earliest Greek source along with Homer) as one of the Potamoi (river gods) without any reference to constellations. My question is: can we discount the claim of Sumerian origin on linguistic grounds?
    – user6626
    Feb 24, 2015 at 13:29
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    If Éridanos is from PIE *dhen-, would it not yield Érithanos? Actually Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/θνῄσκω#Ancient_Greek) cites this stem as one of the possible sources for thnéskó and thanatos.
    – Eleshar
    Dec 30, 2016 at 20:08

1 Answer 1


The Sumerian hypothesis has no basis in fact, and you have raised valid objections against it. As for Indo-European: Ἠριδανός has a short α in the third syllable. It thus cannot be connected either with IE *dān- ‘river’ (which has a long ā) or with IE *dhen- ‘to flow’ (which would be *θεν- in Greek).

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    fdb: Thanks for your illuminating response, it is exactly what I was looking for. I am writing an article about Eridanus, and would like to be able to credit you for your input ("personal communication" in footnotes, for example). My email is [email protected]
    – user6626
    Feb 26, 2015 at 15:15
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    Ἠριδανός can certainly still be connected to both *dān- (if that is indeed its PIE form, which is far from universally accepted) and *dʰen-; it just cannot be inherited directly from them, unless you accept that PIE had ablauting *a (in which case *dān- would be lengthened grade, *dan- full grade, and *dn̥- zero grade). Additionally, unless I’m misremembering, the ‘flow’ root is usually reconstructed as *dʰenh₂- with a final laryngal (it’s a seṭ-root in Sanskrit, for instance). Apr 3, 2015 at 13:19

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