The Complex Case of Castor’s Etymology
How are castor oil, castrate, Castor & Pollux and the Canadian beaver related as words?
Our North American beaver is Castor canadensis. There is only one other species extant, the European beaver, Castor fiber. But 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene era in what would become Canada there was the humungous Castoroides ohioensis, a giant beaver the size of a bear. Luckily for our ancestors the giant beaver was a herbivore and chomped trees not hunter-gatherers.
Latin borrowed castor ‘beaver’ from Greek kastor ‘beaver.’ Yes, it’s the same word as the name of the twins up in the constellation, Castor and Pollux. Those who pronounce on the subject of Greek etymology— admittedly a small, eccentric tribe—have offered some mighty strange origins of Kastor's name. I don't buy their tangled notions of linguistically improbable mutations, nor shall I stoop to quote them. It is sufficient to state that in some ancient Greek ritual or myth, now lost to us, Kastor changed into a beaver and back again. I don't think such an audacious meta-morphosis required a trip to a Swedish gender clinic. There are, after all, references in Greek mythology to such anthropocastoric transformations. Nemesis, for example, changed into a beaver or otter once, in order to better pursue fish. Does the beaver eat fish? No. But you will find in the information below just how deeply ignorant of the beaver's life cycle and habits most of Europe remained for thousands of years.
Nevertheless, if you wish to pursue the more byzantine crannies and anfractuosities of Castor's putative etymology, I draw your attention to the works of Monsieur Boisacq and Mr. Keightley. What they present is manic dictionary riffling, not etymology based on evidence. The origin in the next paragraph is evidence, not blather.
Castor & Pollux
There is one compelling suggested origin of the Greek word for beaver, kastor. It appears to be cognate with a Sanskrit word for musk, kasturi. We know that at some early time in their history Indo-European peoples began to kill beavers and made some kind of odorous extract from two glands in the beaver’s groin. These glands which both sexes possess, are scent glands that secrete a sexual attractant. Once they were supposed to contain an oil with which the beaver would preen its fur in order to keep it waterproof. Whatever use the rodent made of it, Europeans called this beaver extract castoreum.
Castoreum & Castor Oil
This extract and this word were known to the ancient Greeks too, for the source of the Latin castoreum is a word found, among other works, in the first-century Greek writings of Plutarch, kastoreion ‘beaver secretion used in medicine.’ Castoreum was used as an aphrodisiac and also as a specific against impotence and constipation, both probably considered blockages of the humours by ancient physicians. In medieval pharmacopias and even today in dubious healthfood catalogues, quacks claim castoreum helps quell epileptic attacks. For such a nostrum, there is not a milligram of medical evidence.
Although castoreum stuck around until modern times, in the 18th century a replacement called castor oil became popular. We even know the date of castoreum's decline. A certain Doctor Peter Cavane of Bath publish-ed a 1764 study of castor oil entitled Dissertation on the Oleum Palmae Christi. Castor oil shot to the top of the British pharmacy hit parade immediately. This syropy plant oil was a much better purgative than castoreum, although castor oil's atomic-blast cathartic effect would not find much approval among today's family doctors, one hopes.
The name castor oil was merely an attempt to remind patients of castoreum. Other than its phoney name, castor oil had nothing to do with beavers. It is an oil expressed from the seeds of a nasty plant called Ricinus. One of the ancient names for this poisonous horror of a plant, still found in gardens all over the world near young children and little family pets was Palmae Christi ‘palms of Christ’ referring to its giant reddish leaves which appear to hang on the plant like the open palms of Christ. What a blasphemous name for a toxic plant!
Castor oil is not toxic but from the same plant comes ricin, a poison that can be fatal. I have never allowed castor oil in my medicine cabinet. And, no, I don't need a chemistry lesson telling me that castor oil is safe. The Egyptians used castor oil in lamps. The Greeks rubbed it on their skin as an emollient.
In the 20th century, castoreum, the extract from beaver scent glands, was still being used in expensive perfume-making. Today it has been duplicated by chemical synthesis. Synthetic castoreum is an ingredient in the following well-known perfumes, according to their manufacturers. Shalimar by Guerlain, Emeraude by Coty, Magie Noire by Lancôme, Givenchy III by Hubert de Givenchy: all these perfumes contain synthetic castoreum.
Before that, for hundreds of years, castoreum was part of the European materia medica and a jar of castoreum extract could be found on the shelves of most contin-ental pharmacies throughout the 19th century.
But more than 2,000 years ago, confusion arose about where exactly one found this extract. Many ancient commentators thought this “musk” was derived from the beaver’s testicles. They seem to have confused the excised scent glands with excised testicles.
In Aesop’s Fables, begun in the sixth century BCE in Greece, we already find the silly but common hunter’s fallacy that a cornered beaver would bite off its own testicles and scamper away.
Here is the gist of Aesop: “The beaver, a four-footed animal that lives in pools, knows that he is hunted for his testicles, which are used to cure ailments. When pursued, the beaver runs for some distance, but when he sees he cannot escape, he will bite off his own testicles and throw them to the hunter, and thus escape death.” Yeah, right. No mammal as yet seen on earth scampers away after losing its testicles.
A Latin verb added greatly to this myth and helped it endure in its silliness all through medieval times, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and well into Victorian England. And that misleading verb was castrare ‘to castrate, to remove the testicles.’ Persons of modest acquaintance with Latin assumed that the word castor must be related to the verb castrate and to the Latin word for army camp castrum. Why, that must be why the beaver is named Castor, because he castrates himself when hunted. Not really.
As it happens there is a connection between these Latin words, but no one I know in history deduced it until the great English etymologist Eric Partridge did so. In Origins (6th ed., 1966) Eric Partridge hypothesized that the Old Latin word kastrom held the long-lost connection between castor and castrate. Now kastrom is the Old Latin form of castrum ‘army camp.’ The root is Proto-Indo-European *kez or *kas ‘to cut off.’ A camp was an area cut off, perhaps by trenches, where an army might encamp and pitch tents. Castrare is ‘to cut off the testicles.’ When we come to the word for beaver castor, the myth of biting off its testicles re-enforces a derivation from castrare. Not many Romans, if any, knew Sanskrit cognates like kasturi ‘musk’ or ‘castoreum.’Kasturi seems much the most likely etymological brother of castor. So it’s complicated but fascinating to watch how language is deeply influenced and altered by myth and belief, however faulty the reasoning. Strange it is, but typically human, that for possibly 3,000 years not one hunter ever cornered a beaver and watched to observe if it would bite off its own testicles. For, of course, when cornered, beavers do no such thing—ever. Canadians do; but beavers don’t.
Canada’s first stamp issued on April 23 in 1851,
the famous “three-penny beaver,”
featured our totemic rodent.
Any comments, additional word lore or book orders?
Please email me at email@example.com
More fascinating word origins await the reader of Casselman's Canadian Words. Click the cover below to sample it. This book is in print and available to order at any book store in the world, no matter what misinform-ation may be presented on book store computers.
All my books are in print.
224 pages, illustrated, cost approx. $ 20.00 CDN.
McArthur & Company,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada