Asbestos use dates back at least 4,500 years, when the inhabitants of the Lake Juojärvi region in East Finland strengthened earthenware pots and cooking utensils with the asbestos mineral anthophyllite (see Asbestos-ceramic). One of the first descriptions of a material that may have been asbestos is in Theophrastus, On Stones, from around 300 BC, although this identification has been questioned. In both modern and ancient Greek, the usual name for the material known in English as "asbestos" is amiantos ("undefiled", "pure"), which was adapted into the French amiante and Portuguese amianto. In modern Greek, the word ἀσβεστος or ασβέστης stands consistently and solely for lime.
The term asbestos is traceable to Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder's manuscript Natural History, and his use of the term asbestinon, meaning "unquenchable". While Pliny or his nephew Pliny the Younger is popularly credited with recognising the detrimental effects of asbestos on human beings, examination of the primary sources reveals no support for either claim.
Wealthy Persians amazed guests by cleaning a cloth by exposing it to fire. For example, according to Tabari, one of the curious items belonging to Khosrow II Parviz, the great Sassanian king (r. 531–579), was a napkin (Persian: منديل) that he cleaned simply by throwing it into fire. Such cloth is believed to have been made of asbestos imported over the Hindu Kush. According to Biruni in his book, Gems, any cloths made of asbestos (Persian: آذرشست, āzarshost) were called shostakeh (Persian: شستكه). Some Persians believed the fiber was the fur of an animal, called the samandar (Persian: سمندر), which lived in fire and died when exposed to water, which was where the former belief that the salamander could tolerate fire originated.
Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor (800–814), is said to have had a tablecloth made of asbestos.
Marco Polo recounts having been shown, in a place he calls Ghinghin talas, "a good vein from which the cloth which we call of salamander, which cannot be burnt if it is thrown into the fire, is made ..."
Some archaeologists believe that ancients made shrouds of asbestos, wherein they burned the bodies of their kings, in order to preserve only their ashes, and prevent them being mixed with those of wood or other combustible materials commonly used in funeral pyres. Others assert that the ancients used asbestos to make perpetual wicks for sepulchral or other lamps. A famous example is the golden lamp asbestos lychnis, which the sculptor Callimachus made for the Erechtheion. In more recent centuries, asbestos was indeed used for this purpose. Although asbestos causes skin to itch upon contact, ancient literature indicates that it was prescribed for diseases of the skin, and particularly for the itch. It is possible that they used the term asbestos for soapstone, because the two terms have often been confused throughout history.