FOR MEMBERS

Why is Spain called Spain?

Why is Spain called Spain?
Ancient words for Hyrax, metal forging and snakes are just three of the origin theories behind the name "España" (Spain). Photos: JOHANNA LEGUERRE/AFP, Alex MITA/AFP, Felix Reimann/Wikipedia
You may have never stopped to think about it, but where does Spain - or España - get its name from? 

Ah, España, Spain, Espagne, Spanien, Xībānyá (Chinese). 

Each language has its own individual way of saying “Spain” but the monikers all clearly share a common root and pronunciation. 

So what does the name Spain mean? Is it ‘land of the sun’ or ‘country of swarthy people’? Does it have anything to do with spas or spanners?

All those suggestions may seem unlikely but as things stand, there are several theories as to where Spain got its name from, none of which you may expect. 

Land of gold forging for the Phoenicians?

Many historians and linguists say the origins of the name España are Phoenician, claiming that around the fifth century BC the Middle Easern civilization referred to the Iberian peninsula as “I-span-ya”.

What did these ancient words mean? Some linguists say it referred to Spain as “land to the north”, as seen from the African coast, believing “spn” (sphan in Hebrew and Aramaic) meant “north” in Phoenician. 

Phoenician merchants traded throughout much of Spain's eastern and southern coastline, founding Cádiz in the process. Image: Wikimedia
Phoenician merchants traded throughout much of Spain’s eastern and southern coastline, founding the city of Cádiz in the process. Image: Wikimedia

However, the most widely accepted theory suggests that “I-span-ya” translates to earth where metals are forged , since “spy” in Phoenician (the root of the word “span”) meant to forge metals. 

A recent study by Semitic philology experts Jesús Luis Cunchillos and José Ángel Zamora from Spain’s National Research Council determined that the name has its origin in the Iberian Peninsula’s reputation for having gold mines. 

 

The Rod of Asclepius is a serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god Asclepius, a symbol of health and medicine to this day. Photo: Wikipedia

Land of snakes for the Greeks?

Initially, the Greeks referred to the Iberian Peninsula as “Ophioússa Peninsula”, which means “land of snakes”. 

Whether Spain had a bigger snake population than it does now we simply don’t know, but representations of serpents were common in paintings, sculptures and mythology from Ancient Greece, indicating that they gave a lot of importance to them. 

Later on in history, Ancient Greeks reportedly changed the name to “Iberia”, which refers to the Ebro River that runs from the north of the mainland to the Eastern coast. 

Some claim “iber” simply meant “river” and as Greek explorers heard locals as far down as Andalusia frequently use the word, they ended up adopting it to refer to this part of the world. 

Land of rabbits for the Romans?

If we go back to the word “I-span-ya” that the Phoenicians and Carthagians are supposed to have used to refer to Spain, others claim that Spain’s moniker was rather established by the Romans, and that the root of the name was “span”, meaning rabbits or hyrax, leading to the name “Hispania”. 

Some historians believe that at the time Spain either had an abundant hyrax population, small buck-toothed mammals about the size of rabbits, or that it was just a mistake when translating the semitic root “spn” which refers to forging metals. 

Rock hyraxes are present throughout many parts of Africa to this day, so there’s every likelihood they populated parts of Spain in antiquity.

 

The border for the Basques?

There is also a claim that “Hispania” derives from the Basque word “Ezpanna” meaning “edge” or “border” in Euskera, a reference to the fact that the Iberian Peninsula constitutes the southwestern corner of the European continent as well as the Mediterranean.

Despite all the etymological research and the fascinating theories, the origins of the name “España” are still uncertain, but all of them seem to share a common thread in that the associations made with Spain in ancient times – whether gold, rabbits or snakes – are very different to what springs to mind when we think about the country today.


Member comments

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.