Formentera, the enigma of its name

One of the great mysteries of the island of Formentera is precisely its name. Many historians and linguists have tried to find out the origin of its name, but none of them has found an etymology that would put an end to as many speculations as there are peoples who have arrived on the island.

It is known that the first toponym used was the Greek Ophiusa, whose meaning, Snake Island, rather than clarifying its genesis, plunges us into a dilemma that has caused much controversy; since there is no evidence that there were such snakes in Formentera, and even less that, if they existed, they were as dangerous as was said.

But it seems that this was not the impression that Pomponius Mela had in the year 10 AD, who refers to our island as Colubraria in his Latin translation, and whose originality is evidently not derived from the literal adaptation of the Greek name, but from the fabulistic story. that makes such unique inhabitants: “Colubraria, the memory of which comes to me now, because although it is uninhabitable because it is full of all kinds of harmful snakes…however, entering a place previously surrounded by Ebusitan land (from Ibiza), it is pleasant and free from danger; In fact, the same snakes that usually attack everyone they encounter, flee in fear when they see that dust, either because of its presence or because of any other repellent cause.”

Other historians or Roman adventurers such as Pliny “the Elder” also apparently refer to this island as Colubraria, and although these and others such as San Isidoro, much later, place it very close to Ibiza, it is possible that it is the Motcolobrer islet of the small Colubretes archipelago, located at the mouth of the Sucron river, Valencia, and which is indeed infested with ophidians.

Frumentaria, or Wheat Island, also comes from Latin, a place name of which there is no documented evidence before the 13th century, and which, despite being the most agreed upon option because it is phonetically closer to the current name, is also the subject of criticism. It is adventurous to imagine that on an island like this, with arid lands and harsh climate, wheat cultivation could prosper to the point of giving rise to its name. It is also even more so since such crops would have mitigated the periods of hunger that the islanders suffered throughout their history. This is not, however, the opinion of Josep Pla, who in defense of Frumentaria’s theory, attributes the sterility of the Formentera soil to poor practice by its inhabitants: “It is known how it depletes the land, without adequate crop rotation. , wheat production, which may explain the current decline in harvests on said island”, although later it seems to contradict itself: “In reality the island of Formentera is poorer than that of Ibiza, and its sands, which the wind raises, are the permanent scourge of its agriculture.”

Joan Coromines, renowned philologist, believes that it is an Arabic derivation of the Latin word Promontoria, a word that they adapted from Latins and Hispanics when they referred to the Capes of Barbería and La Mola, whose deformation would come from their difficulty in pronouncing a consonant. followed by the r. In this way Promontoria would become Formontoria, then Formentaria, and finally as we know it now.

Finally, to completely confuse us, it should be said that the Turks, starting in the 15th century, called it Koyunluca, which means Sheepdog and which, as is evident, does not bear any phonetic similarity, no matter how crazy, with the current name.

In the same way that Formentera is different for each one of those who visit it, let us accept the mystery that its name contains and that it is the task of each one to imagine its origin in the way that fascinates them most.