Divine Mythical Gold

This glowing metal has fascinated humankind since the beginning of civilisation. The ancient Egyptians identified gold with the sun-god Ra, believed to be born every morning as a calf in the east, then to rise in the sky and turn into a bull, only to change into liquid gold as he died in the setting sun. Gold, ‘the divine element’, was the natural choice for humankind to glorify its gods. Like the gods themselves, it seemed immortal and incorruptible and was the symbol of power, wealth, and status. To the pharaohs, who believed themselves descendants of the gods, it was a reminder of their own divinity and an assurance of their celestial existence in the hereafter. Like the Egyptians, the Incas also associated gold with the sun. The sun was the ancestor of the Inca kings, and their metal, representing nobility, was gold. According to Inca creation myth, life originated from three eggs that dropped from the heavens. One egg was gold, from which emerged male nobility; one was silver from which came noble women; and one was copper, which produced the common people.

Throughout the ages, attitudes towards this metal have been marked by ambivalence. When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, its lavish gold embellishments glorified Yahweh.262 But after the Exodus from Egypt during the epic years of wandering, gold proved a bane for the Israelites. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, the Israelites forced Aaron to fashion gods from gold to lead them in their wanderings. From all the gold in their possession, Aaron fashioned the golden calf, which Moses later destroyed: ‘And he took the calf which they had made and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and made the children of Israel drink of it’.263 In penance for their sin of idolatry, the Israelites were forced to drink the gold.

Gold has always been regarded as the highest and most sophisticated metal. In the myths and folk tales of all cultures, the lure of gold abounds and is the ultimate prize. In Greek myth, the Golden Fleece was taken from its dragon guardian by Jason and the Argonauts. The fleece had been that of a winged ram, sacrificed to Zeus by Phryxos and immortalised in the heavens as the constellation of Aries. In Greek legend, the apples of the Hesperides, the Golden Fruit of Life, hung temptingly from its tree on the Island of the Blessed, yet Hercules was hard put to pull the apples away. Many are also the recurring stories of cities of gold, such as the fabled El Dorado, where unbounded wealth prevails. 

Gold was also associated with the white-berried mistletoe, parasite of the oak tree. The mistletoe, revered by the Celtic Druids, was known as the ‘golden bough’ and, with a golden sickle, played an important part in Druidic religious ritual. The association between gold and the mistletoe can similarly be found in folk traditions of the Germanic peoples, as they believed that anyone finding a sprig of mistletoe on Midsummer Eve would find a buried crock of gold, whereas in Sweden, anyone using the mistletoe as a divining rod was assured of finding treasure. This association was also found in Russia, where it was believed that one would find treasure by throwing mistletoe in the air and digging on the spot on which it landed.

In countless myths and legends, gold symbolises greed, corruption, temptation, and treason, as in the tale of King Midas, whose touch turned everything into gold. Midas, king of Phrygia, requested the god Bacchus to turn everything he touched to gold. His request was granted, but when even his food turned to gold, he begged to be released from this dubious blessing. Divine penance constituted a pilgrimage to the River Pactolus to wash away his sin of avarice. The king obeyed, and from that day, according to legend, the waters of the Pactolus ran gold. 

Throughout the ages, gold has been the symbol of power and prestige. There are many examples: The Mogul conquerors ruling Russia during the ninth and tenth centuries were dubbed the Golden Horde. During the fourteenth century, the Golden Bull was an edict issued by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1316–1378) to fix the process of electing German emperors. An order of knighthood instituted in 1429 by Philip III the Duke of Burgundy was titled the Golden Fleece. In a similar vein, an award for valour in the papal service, inaugurated in the sixteenth century by Pope Gregory XIII, was named the Order of the Golden Spur. For centuries, popes honoured monarchs and religious rulers for special distinction with the exquisitely crafted Golden Rose, created by master jewellers. The Colonel of Life-Guards, who walks before the British sovereign at all processions, bears the title of Golden Stick, and the age of innocence at the beginning of time is known as the Golden Age. 

It is interesting to note the many presumed curative and protective powers attached to this metal. Gold was once considered the Elixir of Life and idealised as a divine antidote to disease and death. Therefore gold was especially popular with sailors, who maintained that wearing a gold earring in one ear would protect them from blindness and drowning. In medieval times, nothing seems to have possessed such admirable healing qualities as the drinking of gold powder, Aurum Potabile or ‘Solar Oil’. Especially, when liquid gold was mixed with ‘Lunar Oil’ or silver, it was believed to cure most diseases. A gold coin kept in one’s mouth when in contact with persons suspected of having the dreaded plague was thought to be protective. Similarly, some water first poured over a gold coin and then given to a patient to drink was thought to cure various ailments. Gold beads worn around the neck were commonly used to cure throat ailments and warts; fistulas and ulcers were believed to disappear when rubbed with gold, particularly a gold wedding ring. Similarly, there was no better remedy to cure a sty than by rubbing it daily with the gold wedding ring, a superstition still around in the 1980s.264 


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