Sardinia Name Origin: How Sardinia Got Its Name

What is Sardinia name origin?

Sardinia has been populated since ancient times and has been called with several names. The Greek used to call the island Ichnusa or Sandàlion, meaning “sandal’s footprint,” and even had a more romantic, but tongue-twisting, third name: Argyròphleps nésos – the Island veins of silver, referring to the enormous silver mines found underground.

But before them – way before! – the Nuragic people used a term similar to the modern name, and the Punic used to call those people Shardana (shrdn, to be precise: the Punic alphabet, which derived from the Phoenician alphabet, didn’t write the vowels down).

Later on, the Romans also called the island Sardinia, just like we do nowadays. So, is Sardinia name origin?

To be fair, there isn’t a clear, 100% sure answer. Historians and scholars, in general, are still trying to figure out when – and how – the name appeared; when it was changed, and then came back and evolved.

Sardinia name origin

What Is Sardinia Name Origin?

The legends

There are a few legends from Greek and Roman writers who tried to explain – or simply mentioned – the origin of the name Sardinia.

One comes from the philosopher Plato, who spoke about a heroine called Sardò, from a city (called Sardeis) in modern Turkey. She apparently founded some cities on the island and then colonized Tuscany. Unfortunately, Plato mentioned this story when talking about a banquet, where he suggests one of his friends overheard the whole thing… so, this is not to be considered a reliable source.

The second important mention of Sardinia comes from a Greek historian, Herodotus, who tells the same tale about the heroine from Sardeis who left her country to establish a new one. You’d think that a historian would be way more reliable than a philosopher and that the mystery would be solved, right? Well, unfortunately not.

Herodotus was already known back in his days for liking to “spice things up” and adding details to his chronicles for the sake of narrative; plus, he liked to use various sources when researching the topics he wanted to write about – and for this specific story, he quoted Plato. So, not even Herodotus gives us certain clues about the origins of Sardinia’s name.

To add fuel to the fire, at a certain point in history Sardinia – and the Sardinians – got another name from the Punic and the Egyptian. The Shardana – also called People of the Sea – were then known as pirates, fierce warriors who liked to assault the coastal cities in the Mediterranean basin. Pharaoh Ramses III defeated them after a number of battles and was so impressed with their skills and pride that decided to make them part of his military escort, instead of enslaving them.

The Punics

The first written proof of the island’s name – or at least, of its origin – is from the time of Pharaoh Ramses III: the stone tablet found in Nora, and now safely kept in Cagliari Archeological Museum, has the letters b’shrdn (“in Sardinia”) engraved in it. This is an essential proof of the fact that the island was called like that by the Punic, and therefore all around the Mediterranean basin where they sold and bought their products.

Actually, if you compare the various words that I mentioned until now (Sardò, Sardeis, Shardana) you can already notice there is some sort of continuity, right? Some scholars think that the name is way more ancient and was already used in prehistoric times. It might come from a language that we never found out about, that’s how ancient it could be! The Greek and Punic only used a “better sounding” version of it.

Roman Amphitheater in Cagliari

From the Romans onwards

Like the Greeks before them, the Romans too had some legends about a hero coming to the island to found a new civilization and thus changing its name.

Both Sallustio and Pausania talk about a man, called Sardus, son of Hercules, who was sent to Ichnusa to build a colony (or to conquer it). Both the Roman and the Greek sources talk about some figures who, in times that they already considered remote, took upon themselves to sail to Sardinia and bring/improve civilization there. This might be the collective memory of some old populations who actually reached the island millennia ago, bringing their culture there – but keeping their secrets with them.

Anyway, the Romans already called the island Sardinia and the name hasn’t had great changes until modern times – it’s now called Sardegna, in Italian, which is just a Spanish-sounding modernization of the Latin term.

So, to answer the question I started this post with: there is no certain proof of how Sardinia got its name. It’s probably something so remote, we will never really find out.

Further Readings

For more interesting facts about Sardinia, you may want to read the following posts:

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Discover the origins of the name of Sardinia - via @c_tavani

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