Gold in Mythology


The ancient affiliations for gold tell it all. To the Egyptians the yellow blaze of gold was a symbol of the sun god Ra. To the Inca people gold was the sweat of the sun (and silver the tears of the moon). The Trojan war may indirectly have been caused by a golden apple given by Paris, Prince of Troy, to Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus and goddess of love and beauty, who in turn permitted Paris to kidnap Helen, the wife of the Greek hero Menelaus, thereby causing the war. The golden apples, by the way, grew far away in the west on a tree near the sea, guarded by the Hesperides, the 'daughters of the evening', and a dragon. Various heroes from Heracles (Hercules) to Atlas (taking a break from holding up the world on his shoulders) did battle with the dragon in pursuit of the apples. The story does not end there for golden apples, as the giver of life, are plucked throughout the centuries in myth and legend. In German mythology, the goddess Idun possessed such apples which conferred eternal youth on the gods. And gold apples turn up in a magical setting in Wagner's great opera Das Rheingold. From the beginning gold was caught up in myths, legends and fairy tales about gods, goddesses, princesses, magicians and heroes.

Moreover, until modern archeology began unveiling the lost worlds of Sumer and Babylon, of the Minoans and Mycenæ and even Troy itself, no one knew what was myth and what was reality. How much of Homer's great epic The Iliad had a basis in fact? "There was no proof that the Trojan Wars had been anything other than legends of long-lost epic heroes sung by bards," observed Caroline Moorhead in her biography of Heinrich Schliemann, the German archeologist who excavated both Troy and Mycenæ. When Schliemann found a wonderful gold death mask at Mycenæ, he reportedly telegraphed the King of Greece, "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon". Actually, the mask may not be of Agamemnon, but an ancient legend gained legitimacy. What about the myths surrounding King Minos on Crete and the fierce Minotaur in the labyrinth of his palace which Theseus finally slew? In 1900 the English archeologist Sir Arthur Evans, found the palace of Knossos with its labyrinth of hundreds of rooms and frescos depicting the sacred and perilous sport of bull dancing before a fashionable crowd decked in gold jewellery. Even the epic tale of Jason and his Argonauts sailing off to find the mythical Golden Fleece has substance. They were probably seeking gold itself, having heard stories that in the swiftly flowing streams coming down to the Black Sea from central Russia local gold prospectors used sheep skins in the water to trap specks of gold in the wool. Men rushed off to the California gold rush in just the same way.

In these early civilisations, gold was also an important provision for the after-life. In the tomb of Princess Pu-abi among the Royal Tombs at Ur in Sumer dating from around 2500 BC were not only the bodies of female attendants to serve her, but gold cups and vessels to enable them to do so in style on her journey to another world. While Tutankhamun, the boy-king of Egypt, who died in 1352 BC, rested in a golden shrine, equipped for his voyage to the after-life with gold sandals on his feet, a dagger with a blade of hardened gold and gold drinking vessels, rings and ornaments. "Clearly, under this golden edifice," wrote the French archeologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, "the sovereign was granted a new lease of life: Tutankhamun was promised immortality by his father Ra, the sun god".

Gods themselves embellish ornaments. A Cretan god, Master of Animals, is depicted by a Minoan gold pendant in the British Museum standing in a field of lotus flowers, each hand holding a goose by the neck. Not only the gods, but the humble scarab, the dung beetle which pushes a large ball of dung before it to its lair, was a symbol for the Egyptians of new life and resurrection. They saw the sun's passage each day across the heavens from east to west as if it was being pushed by this black beetle; their gold rings and seals abounded with scarabs as a lucky token.

The myths of early civilisations are perpetuated in the fairy tales of western Europe recalling exploits involving the sun or moon, bold princes, forlorn princesses, or wise shepherds. A Hungarian fairy tale relates how a little king and his younger brother retrieve the sun, moon and stars after an age of darkness; the king fights for the moon with a dragon in a golden wood near a golden bridge. A Bulgarian story tells of a shepherd saving the sun from a threatening monster and then calling on the sun's father for a reward. The father's palace was made entirely of gold and the sun's father offered him as much as he could carry. The shepherd, however, preferred a magic horse and rode off to marry the Sea Queen. And in the delightful Romanian fairy tale of Tarandafiru, a princess seeks her long-lost husband with the help of personified days of the week. Mother Wednesday gives her a distaff with which she can spin pure gold, Mother Friday offers a golden bobbin which winds gold thread and Mother Sunday presents her with a golden hen and five chicks which lay six golden eggs. Finally, the princess finds her husband and bears him two golden children.

Gold prospectors from Jason onwards, have always found it hard not to chase a legend. El Dorado, the fabled, but elusive land somewhere in South America, which was supposedly the source of the gold looted by Spanish conquistadors, has kept expeditions on the trail for centuries. Money and lives have been lost paddling up rivers, trekking through jungles, climbing mountains, but El Dorado was always just over the horizon. Actually, it does exist but, like the Golden Fleece, it is not quite what they sought. The world's lowest cost gold mines today are in Peru, where massive low grade deposits of gold are being excavated from open pits by international mining companies, not humble prospectors. So, like many myths and legends, there is a grain of truth, just as the discovery of the great palace of Knossos on Crete in 1900 revealed the wonderful Minoan civilisation, with its contribution to the history of gold.

The gold treasures of the Minoans and of Mycenæ can mainly be seen in the National Archeological Museum in Athens and the Archeological Museum of Herakleion on Crete. The so-called Priam's Treasure that Schliemann found at Troy disappeared from Berlin in 1945, but is thought to be in the basement of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

See also: gold library/history, particularly Leonard Cottrell essay on Myth and Reality in Lost Worlds, Caroline Moorhead on The Lost Treasures of Troy, and Louise Gnädinger essay on Myth and Magic in Gold, Alpine Fine Arts Collection.