Since the rise of civilization, gold has been honored far-beyond its high cash value. The illustrious metal has been granted magical, mythical, even religious powers by its long history of admirers. From the golden tombs of the ancient Egyptians to Marilyn Monroe’s head-turning gold lamé gown, gold has been an enduring symbol for wealth and status.
The ancient Egyptians were known for their determination, the Romans, for their strength, and the Incans, their wisdom – but it wasn’t just the Greeks with an Achilles’ heel for gold. Gold snuck its way into the folklore and mythology of history’s most prolific civilizations, confirming the symbolic worth of the precious metal across time and cultures.
The Ancient Egyptians associated gold with the sun, believing it to be brilliant, divine, and indestructible. As the sun was a source for growth, warmth, and light, the Egyptians revered their sun diety, Ra. Ra was said to be the creator of life, capable of forming human beings from his tears and sweat. According to the Ancient Egyptians, the sun was the body or eye of Ra, and gold was his golden glow. The Pharaoh was often referred to as “the Golden Horus” and gold, “the flesh of gods.”
Because of its divine value, gold was buried with its owners and Pharaoh’s tombs were adorned with the precious metal. King Tutankhamen was buried with a jewel encrusted gold mask, within three layers of golden coffins.
The Greeks’ value for gold is apparent through their mythology. Myth after myth tells tales of gold seekers, seeking to their own detriment.
King Midas was the King of Phrygia, and he was among the richest kings. He lived in a luxurious castle with his beloved daughter, where they shared wealth and abundance. Above all else, King Midas loved gold. He spent long days counting his gold, stroking his gold, covering his body in his gold, almost bathing in all the gold.
One afternoon, Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, crossed through Midas’ kingdom with Silenus, his satyr companion. Silenus grew tired on the journey and fell weary in Midas’ famous rose garden. Midas found the sleepy satyr and invited him to rest in the castle, until Dionysus’ return. Dionysus was thankful for Midas’ care for the satyr and offered to grant him a single wish. Dinonysus asked the King to choose wisely, but the king did not hesitate. “I wish everything I touch turns to gold.”
The next morning, King Midas woke up, overjoyed, in a bed of gold. He turned his night lamp into gold, his side table to gold, his walls, his windows… but when he popped a grape in his mouth, spread butter on bread, he began to realize the limitations of his new fortune. But it wasn’t until he kissed his daughter to gold that he began to curse his luck.
King Midas prayed to Dionysus, who took pity on the kind, but careless, king. Midas was instructed to wash his hands in the river Pactolus, where gold flowed free from his fingers. At home, Midas’ touch turned all the gold back into what it was before, including his sweet daughter.
From then on, Midas chose to be generous and grateful. He shared his wealth with his people, and his kingdom prospered. To this day, the Midas touch refers to a person of good fortune.
The Golden Fleece:
In order to regain his rightful throne, Jason was asked to retrieve The Golden Fleece. Jason braved countless dangerous feats in his pursuit for the golden symbol of his reign.
But when he finally won the fleece and his throne, Jason and his wife, Medea, were sentenced to exile in Corinth. The Corinthian king offered Jason to wed his daughter, bringing Jason out of exile. Outraged, Medea murdered Jason’s new wife, as well as the children she and Jason had together. Jason, in mourning, fled to Iolkos, where the Argo, his famed ship, was on display. As he wept, a decaying beam cracked from the ship onto Jason’s head, killing him instantly.
According to Incan Legend, gold is the sweat of the sun, and silver is the tears of the moon.
While Peru has a recorded abundance of gold and silver mines, the “lost city” is yet to be discovered. Though centuries of treasure seekers have flocked to Peru, in search of hidden Incan gold and lost Incan cities, it seems these “golden cities” are simply hopeful mythology.
The Spanish conquistadores risked their lives, their allies, and their fortunes in search of “El Dorado.” Little did they know “El Dorado” was a Muisca legend about a Golden deity who sought mortality by shedding his golden skin, at the center of a lake.
The myth of El Dorado is credited to conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who blew the Muisca legend out of proportion. The myth of El Dorado spread among Spanish explorers, promising greater and greater treasures with each retelling.
Paititi is the name of the legendary hidden Incan city, where Spanish explorers believed the Incans hid their precious treasures. Speculation offers the jungle areas of southeastern Peru, Brazil, and northwestern Bolivia as possible locations for this secret city. Expeditions in search of Paititi continue to draw gold seekers today.
European Fairy Tales
The classic European fairy tales we grow up with fill our heads with the value of gold. In the Brother’s Grimm’s Rumpelstiltskin, a poor miller wins a king’s attention by making claims of his daughter’s ability to spin straw into gold. With the help of an impish creature, the miller’s daughter trades her possessions (a necklace, a ring, and finally her first-born child) in exchange for woven gold.
With no feeling for the miller’s daughter other than the value of her ability to weave straw into gold, the king agrees to marry her. When the imp comes to reclaim the first royal child, he gives the miller’s daughter three chances to guess his name in order to win her child back.
All of these myths, legends, and folk stories demonstrate a historic obsession with gold and its worth. Spanning time and culture, gold is a representation of the prosperity to which we all aspire. The cash value of gold is constantly changing, but the symbolic value remains constant from Ancient Egypt to modern day.