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  • The Symbolic Power of Gold
  • Todd Holland

Gold is physically and metaphorically one of the most malleable metals on the planet: one gram of gold can be beaten into a 1-square meter sheet, and gold has been used as a symbol for everything from devotion to wealth and power.

Some think that gold might have been the first metal ever used by humans; prospecting for gold was common for centuries before it was ever used as money. One of the early uses of gold was the worship and glorification of gods and idols. This was a worldwide phenomenon, evident on every continent where the element was naturally present. Gold was used extensively in religious ceremonies and burial rituals across a wide variety of belief systems. The metal's importance is also evident in the Greek myth of King Midas, who requested that the gods give him the power to create gold from any substance using only his touch. The Romans came to use gold extensively in jewelry and eventually adopted gold rings as a symbol of romantic engagement. Biblical references to gold helped solidify the connection between gold and God.

In addition to its role in religious ceremonies and artifacts, the use of gold in both secular and religious art flourished throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Indeed, historians report that many artists, including the famous Boticelli, were formally trained as goldsmith apprentices. Royal families displayed gold extensively as a symbol of their wealth and power and particularly as a means of linking themselves more closely to the church, from which they derived a great deal of their credibility.

The worldwide fascination with gold led to its wide acceptance as a store of value and a means of exchange–in other words, as money. Since different civilizations and cultures could easily recognize the metal and negotiate its value, gold facilitated trade and the movement of goods around the known world. Gold's value was first formally codified as superior to that of silver, by a 2–1 margin, in the Egyptian code of Menes. The kingdom of Lydia was the first to coin gold around 643–630 B.C., and gold quickly became a key element in the wide acceptance of the idea of money. Gold was still considered the most powerful representation of wealth in the 19th and 20th centuries, when many nations adopted the gold standard. This system directly linked the amount of a nation's currency in circulation with the amount of gold that it held in reserve, and adopting this standard helped facilitate the development of a world economy in the mid- to late-1800s. [End Page 139]

The pursuit of gold has also unleashed man's creative problem-solving capabilities and driven many to experiment and innovate. For example, legend has it that when Archimedes was instructed to verify the purity of a gold crown purchased by his benefactor King Hieron II, the scientist proved that the king had in fact been cheated by applying his principle of buoyancy. The desire to be the next King Midas also led to the creation of alchemy, which in turn led to the creation of the field of chemistry. As recently as the 1950s, scientists have sought to demonstrate that the dream of alchemy is still alive. An experiment in the U.S. proved that gold could indeed be produced artificially through the irradiation of mercury using a nuclear reactor.

Man has consistently shown himself to be not only mentally inventive but also willing to suffer much physical discomfort and assume great personal risk in the quest for gold. After the discovery of gold in the Americas, Europeans raced to the new continents in the pursuit of gold artwork and mines that had been developed through the ingenuity of the region's indigenous people. Other gold rushes followed this first one: in the United States in 1849, Australia in 1851, South Africa in 1884, and Canada in 1897. Gold inspired thousands to depart from the only world they had ever known in order to explore a new one.

It may be that world markets will tell you that other precious metals have long surpassed gold...


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pp. 139-140
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