Its origins are thought to lie in supernovae and the collision of neutron stars. It was present in the dust which formed the solar system four and a half billion years ago. And it was delivered to earth via the asteroids that then bombarded the planet.
According to the Bible, gold and silver are products of God. “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the Lord of hosts” in the book of Genesis.
Today we find gold in tiny particles embedded in ancient rocks, or occasionally as grains or nuggets in riverbeds where it collected after rushing water eroded away the rocks.
Given its unique characteristics – beautiful, eternal, immutable – it is no surprise that gold found special status at the dawn of civilisation. Our prehistoric ancestors cherished gold even before they were able to speak. Nor did that captivation fade after pre-history.
Whether Asian, African, American, Mediterranean, Germanic or Celtic, gold occupies a place in the history and mythology of almost every ancient culture, the most valuable of all metals.
Today we know of 90 metals or more. Many you’ve probably never heard of, let alone touched or seen. The likes of Cesium, Nihonium, Flerovium, Moscovium, Livermorium, Yttrium or Zirconium. Until the 13th century, we knew of just seven: gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, iron, and mercury. There were also only seven known celestial bodies: the sun, the moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn.
Each metal came to be associated with a celestial body – silver with the moon, iron, rusty and red, with Mars, Mercury with its namesake, Jupiter with tin. With its glimmering yellow colour, gold was associated with the sun.
To the ancient Greeks, and other cultures besides, the sun was a golden chariot driven by the sun god, Apollo, across the sky each day. The Egyptian sun god Ra was depicted as a yellow blaze of gold. The Incas of South America believed gold to be the “sweat of the sun”.
The Latin word for gold, aurum, derives from Aurora, the goddess of dawn, who rose each morning to announce the sun’s arrival. The root of the word by which the Celts and Greeks referred to gold was the Sanskrit “Harat” which means colour of the sun.
The symbol for the Sun (a circle with a dot in it – ☉ was once the alchemical symbol for gold. Plato and Aristotle both thought gold was obtained by combining intense sunlight with water.
There are seven days of the week too, and so did each metal come to be associated with a day. Gold’s day, of course, was Sunday.
Unlike feminine silver, gold is a masculine metal, connected not just with the sun but with the lion, a symbol of strength. It represents wealth, prosperity, authority and charisma. It was an aid to healing, to protection, to growth, and knowledge – all qualities associated with the sun and the gods of the sun. The ancient Greek sun god Apollo was also the god of healing and diseases, while his son, Asclepius, was the god of medicine. Apollo delivered people from epidemics. What’s that about Vitamin D (which we get from sunlight) being an aid against COVID, while Vitamin D deficiency is linked to more severe cases? Apollo was also a god who could bring ill-health and deadly plague.
Kings and queens decorated their bodies with gold to demonstrate their power, to impress, to dazzle, to command and to authenticate their god-like status.
In ancient Egypt, gold was a royal prerogative and pharaohs were buried with their gold to aid their travel into the next world. Tutankhamun, whose father was the sun god, Ra, was buried in a golden shrine. Gold was a gift from and given to the gods.
Gold itself is immortal, it is permanent, never rusting, nor tarnishing. In the museums of Cairo, you will find a golden tooth bridge made 4,500 years ago for a Pharaoh and it is good enough to go in your mouth today.
Because of gold’s imperishable characteristics, many imbued it with divine qualities, and it is forever associated with the eternal, the permanent and the incorruptible.
The myth of the Golden Apples of Hesperides is that they conferred immortality on whoever ate them. Gold represented perfection, purity and excellence – “neither moth nor rust devoureth it”, said an ancient Greek text, and it has had a significant role in legend, symbolism and folklore.
From Hercules‘ quest for these golden apples to Arthur’s for the Holy Grail to Frodo’s to destroy the precious ring of power, gold is a symbol of incorruptible quest, ambition, or purpose. Even today the young student gets a gold star, the athlete a gold medal. It is a symbol of achievement.
* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.