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Transcendental metal

Updated: Aug 4, 2018

Much of gold’s timeless attraction lies in its weighty permanence and its lack of reactivity that means it can be described, reassuringly, as stable. Gold endures, unmoving and incorruptible, its stoic blank stare unchanging through the ages. This rare stability makes gold attractive to humanity, aware that it is, itself, subject to eventual decay. Because of its reluctance to react with other chemicals, gold is often found in pure elemental form and has been used, symbolically, by rulers to suggest integrity. Its heavy physicality implies might and authority - offering a metaphorical gravity that reinforces power, while its perforce and rarity also make it a relatively stable measure of value. Through the wealth and authority it provides, gold promises dynasties and so a form of immorality.

Gold’s beauty adds another dimension, one that suggests something primal and occult: a power over light. It seems irrefutably, objectively true that its gleam - solid and unwavering - is captivating. Smooth burnished gold does not glitter or wink; there is nothing fleeting about its nature. Rather it draws the gaze by quietly and darkly burning with a deep, glossy, self-contained radiance that will outlast us all. Its colour makes it warm and lends it some human sympathy. For Roland Barthes however, this dull gleam is unremarkable:

"Though originating in the earth and in hell, arriving first as ore or as nugget, gold is a substance more intellectual than symbolic; it holds a fascination only within certain mercantile economies; it has no, or vary little poetic reality; it is only ever mentioned so as to show how this most mediocre of substances (a dull yellowy metal) clashes with the importance of its effects. But as a sign what power it has! And it is precisely the sign par excellence, the sign of all the signs; it is absolute value, invested with all powers including those once held by magic: is it not able to appropriate everything, goods and virtues, lives and bodies? Is it not able to convert everything into its opposite, to lower and elevate, to demean and glorify?"

Gold’s value, Barthes tells us, is ‘entirely self-referential’. He limits the symbolic qualities of gold, reducing it to a sign arbitrarily prescribed, valuable only because it is valuable. However, might not gold’s material qualities hold the key to explain our human fascination with it, as a substance and as a metaphor?

In many Indo-European languages the significance of the relationship between gold and light is preserved in a linguistic link. The Spanish for gold oro, the French or, the Italian and Portuguese ouro and the Gaelic ór reflect a root in the latin name for gold, aurum, from which gold’s chemical symbol, Au, is also derived. This latin term brings to mind similar words that suggest light - aura, aureole and Aurora - (Roman goddess of the dawn who gave her name to the Northern Lights) so gold is often said to have been named for the sunrise: aurum translated to mean the shining dawn. Gold in exactly the pure bright form that we are familiar with today would have been known to our earliest ancestors. Due to its pure elemental form. Its surface does not dull or tarnish or oxidise. Thus it can be discovered, in rock or riverbeds, already displaying its characteristic warm gleam. So the use of words for gold as adjectives to describe tonal, reflective and radiant qualities may well originate far longer ago than these particular words themselves. The evolutions of the latin aurumoro, or, ouro, ór — are also linked to words for rock and mountains. This linguistic link illuminates gold’s corporeal relationship with the earth as well as its poetic one with the sun.

Gold’s unique and appeal hinges on the seemingly contradictory characteristics that it simultaneously embodies: wieght and light. The meeting of these properties in one object make it a useful symbol for expressing other meetings between the tangible and intangible — the divine and the mortal, the physical and the abstract, this life and the next.

In mythology the contrast between gold’s optical and physical qualities is one explained by a (sometimes very bodily) relationship to the gods. To the Music, and many other South American civilisations who worshipped a sun god, gold was the sweat of the sun. Muiscan kings were considered incarnations of this deity and were ‘crowned’ by coating their bodies first in mud and then in a layer of gold dust: a sort of orgainc/inorganic matrix, which marked their transition from man to god and prompted the legend of El Rey Dorado or El Dorado, ‘the golden king’ or ‘golden man’.

In modern day Peru a special relationship between man, god and gold is still evident in the belief that a miner’s death in a mine shaft can bring luck to his family, as Brook Larmer explained in an article for National Geographic: ‘Human sacrifices, practised in the Andes for centuries, are still considered the highest form of offering to the mountain deity. According to local beliefs, the chemical process by which the mountain absorbs a human brain brings gold ore closer to the surface, making it easier to extract.’

In another story of a mortal-divine pairing, the human Danae conceived her son Perseus who ‘was from a flowing stream of gold begotten’, when Zeus came to her in the form of golden rain. These base fluids - sweat, rain and semen - through a relationship with gold, are made into spectacular displays of machismo and power that effect divine transformations.

For the pharaohs, a ‘skin’ of gold aided transition between this life and the next, while in Persian myth we encounter another ‘golden man’. In this myth the shining giant Gayomart was the first man. From his body came all metals and from his semen the first human couple. It was his soul however, his very essence, that gave us gold. In Man and His Symbols, Marie-Louise von Franz identifies Gayomart as what she calls a ‘Cosmic Man’ figure, ‘the gigantic, all-embracing figure that personifies and contains the entire universe’ and which ‘is a common representation of the Self in myths and dreams’. In her Jungian reading of the myth, this Cosmic, First or Great Man stands for the drive towards the assimilation of our complete psyche in the merging of the ego and the Self which, above and beyond the drives to eat, to drink and to reproduce is the main goal of life. Similarly, Jung read a story of spiritual transformation or enlightenment in the alchemists’ quest to transform base metal into gold. He argued that, for alchemists, gold represents the ultimate perfection of matter. For them, its primary value was not as a symbol of wealth at all but of transcendence. Could it be that the human pursuit of a similar perfection of spirit explains gold’s primal allure? From this springs the desire to possess gold and, from that, springs gold’s potential to corrupt.


The above originally appeared in 'Ends Meet: Essays on Exchange' published by the Royal College of Art


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