Real money magic: searching for the golden apple

Gold plays an important role in the mythology of ancient Greece. Its deposits were guarded by fierce creatures such as Myrmekes Indikoi (dog-sized ants) and Grypes (gryphons), and love of it left Midas in a difficult predicament. Its association with magical and divine power is unmistakable in the tale of the golden fleece, the union of Danae and Zeus, and the works of Hephaistos; of its daimon, Pindar wrote, “Khrysos (Gold) is a child of Zeus; neither moth nor rust devoureth it; but the mind of man is devoured by this supreme possession.” Perhaps the best example of how gold influences the “mind of man” comes from the tale of the golden apple produced by Eris, which is recounted in the Aldrich translation of Pseudo-Apollodorus thusly: “Eris (Strife) tossed an apple [at the wedding of Thetis] to Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, in recognition of their beauty, and Zeus bade Hermes escort them to Alexandros [Paris] on Ide, to be judged by him. They offered Alexandros gifts: Hera said if she were chosen fairest of all women, she would make him king of all men; Athena promised him victory in war; and Aphrodite promised him Helene in marriage. So he chose Aphrodite [which led to the Trojan War].” In short, gold was considered something that was highly valued, yet could easily bring chaos and strife.

Of the items associated with gold in Hellenic antiquity, the apple is the most likely to be recognized in the modern, western world. As useful as wool is, most people don’t encounter it in fleece form, and wonders such as dogs crafted of the stuff don’t get nearly as much play on movie screens as the might Talos. It may be that Eris somehow obtained her legendary apple from the tree guarded by the dragon Lados, the same which Herakles harvested to complete one of his labors. Apples represent prosperity and abundance, and are associated with immortality, and they remain objects into which many generations have infused deep meaning. When Eris cast her apple into the midst of the gods with a cry of, “Kallisti!” (“for the fairest,” according to Robert Anton Wilson), that act can easily be taken to represent the unimaginable disruption brought into the world by the introduction of money, as represented by gold, its most successful form to date. Where the free exchange of offerings and blessings were the primary expression of kharis in pre-Helmonetary Hellas, it surely must have been a radical change to trade instead in lumps of metal which had little other purpose than to lubricate the gears of trade itself. Indeed, is not Hermes a trickster and thief, as well as god of commerce and lies? What an incredible shift of paradigm it must have been, to instead of trading wool for fish or skins for boards, one could drop a few shining bits of gold into a waiting palm, and walk out with cartloads of goods in exchange. Trade and, by extension, communication would become more extensive, and wealth could be both measured and taxed with greater ease. While money has taken many forms since it emerged as a medium of exchange, gold has time and again been used as the standard form, so it is not unreasonable to assume that the power of money is ideally expressed when it is minted in gold.

The associations gold had in antiquity point to the value placed in this soft metal, which “neither moth nor rust devoureth.” Seemingly immune to the decaying touch of Kronos, Khyrsos is also far too soft to do the work expected of other metals; gold is not beaten into swords in the forge, nor is it fashioned into helms, chains, or locks. As the power of human ambition has been gradually distilled into economic terms, gold has at least metaphorically become a far more effective weapon, shield, or prison than could ever be fashioned by the soot-blackened hands of a smith, but gold’s value was recognized long before its power became so pervasive as that. Having no need to be polished, the purity of gold could be at least estimated by the eye (and sometimes tooth, or other tool to make a notch), so anyone asked to take such a coin could be reasonably sure how much it was actually worth. That worth transcended the name and authority of whoever minted the coin, because the value of gold itself was — and is — very stable. That stability comes not only from its beauty and incredible durability, but from the fact that pulling more gold out of the ground was, and is, a laborious process which doesn’t add very much to the supply from one year to the next. Every item which is traded, even money itself, is subject to the law of supply and demand, and because the supply of gold rises slowly and decreases virtually not at all, the price of gold remains quite steady. In fact, changes in the price of gold are actually changes in the price of the money being used to buy or sell it, not the other way around. Industrial uses have been found for gold in modern times, but it remains valuable largely because it is pleasant to the eye and is as close as humans can generally get to a material which is neither created nor destroyed. Once it was universally recognized for its testable purity and reasonable amount of rarity, its role in economics was all but guaranteed. It is small wonder that the apple which Eris hurled was golden, given her role in chaos; any change, even when ultimately for the better, is a strife-bearing gift.

Hellenic tradition, however, is not one which takes its myths as literal truth. Given the number of ways that the old tales seem to contradict each other, this is probably for the best. Myths are written by humans, mortal beings trying to comprehend and explain the gods. The gods are not unknowable, but neither is a human being unknowable to an ant which clambers upon one’s foot. That ant could learn well the layout of the hairs which are rooted deeply in the human’s flesh, and the lines of old scars. It could seek to determine patterns in the upheavals which shake the vast body into motion. If others of its kind were swatted away or too their deaths, an ant might be quite concerned in ascertaining what caused such destructive events to occur. Likewise, we humans seek to propitiate the gods and please them, as well as understand them, but even our deepest knowing is unable to glimpse but the tiniest portion of the whole. An ant crawling upon a human leg may face death for causing a tickle, but it could be equally imperiled by the putting on of pants; so too is our behavior only sometimes directly related to how the gods influence our lives. Mortal understanding based on observation, divination, and communication results in myths which give a passing sense of the fullness of the gods. They are limited by the finite, linear perspective of those who write them. Ergo, while the tale of Eris and the apple may indeed contain some amount of truth, it could be off on important details, such as the sequence of events, to wit: what if the Trojan War precipitated the casting of the apple, rather than the other way around? If fixed in history, the war is believed to have taken place in the 12th or 11th century BCE, while Herodotus gives the Lydians credit for first using gold coins in his Histories, a practice which likely started sometime from 650-600 BCE.

The effects of reversing the sequence of events are significant, even if only considering the implications are regard to money itself and its role in the world of mortals. Rather than setting off a chain of economic consequences which led to a war tales of which have echoed down through the halls of time itself, forever changing the way life is lived on the surface of the earth, the cast apple might instead be a consequence of the actions of men — and “men” is the right word, given the gender roles of that time and place. Men plied the seas and overland routes with goods to trade. Men engaged in diplomacy between city-states. Men brought the war between Athens and Troy, and in doing so, offended Eris in some deep way, so much so that she swore to forever change their society. True to the chaos which is implicit in her nature, what Eris wrought was neither entirely curse nor blessing, but could represent itself as either, and sometimes as both. We know from what 5th-century BCE fragments of Pindar we have that Khrysos is child of Zeus, but no other parent is named. Eris could well be the unnamed mother of gold.

A mother does not necessarily visit her child upon others solely for the purpose of torment, and it is true that gold — or, more generally, money — has indeed been a mixed blessing, allowing humankind to engage in types of industry which would not have been possible in the absence of a medium of exchange. The results of that industry have included, among other things, a marked increase in the mortal lifespan, the development of new fuel sources that have accelerated human domination of the planet, and the ability of groups of people to exert economic pressure on other groups of people for good or ill. Money’s birthright of chaos is usually expressed as a result of the very human assumption that since money was invented by mortals, it must also obey rules imposed by mortals. One cannot appreciate the power of chaos fully without watching expert economists backpedal during a crisis which was not predicted by their number. It brings peace, and violence, and life, and death, and obscene wealth, and unimaginable depths of poverty. The spirit of money was given corporeal form in Khrysos, and by extension all money which is, or was once, linked to gold, and the laws it obeys were in force long before our eldest ancestors imagined that there are gods at all. To believe humans can control money with any more likelihood of success than the control of weather is, or should be, considered hubris; looking at the results of economic manipulations, it appears that Eris is no fonder of that level of arrogance than any of the theoi.

Returning to Eris is essential, for if the apple for the fairest was her greatest known act of chaos, it is only because her hand was not recognized when she took that apple back again. As with the first incident, this act can be closely associated with a war that was destined to change the course of history: the Great War, World War I, the War to End All Wars. Again, it is not entirely clear if her act was precipitated by some consequence of the war offending her, or if it was by her action that the war itself in motion. The year is 1913, the apple is the gold upon which human trade and endeavor was built, and the act was to take it away through the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank. This was not the first “central bank” created in order to give a government more direct control over the spirit of money, but the United States was about to embark on a period of war-driven expansion that would secure it as the supreme economic power, so its central bank’s acts would come to have consequences throughout the economies of the world. In fact, Eris did not so much act at this time, as choose not to prevent men (and again, in this time and place, it was indeed men making the decisions; one can only speculate how a more diverse group might have acted) from getting what they wanted. The goddess of chaos permitted the creation of a bureaucracy that would, in time, take away the gold she had introduced milennia before. For while it was not so common for gold to be used to buy and sell directly, every paper bill printed in the USA could, upon presentment to the United States Treasury, be redeemed for an amount of gold, set for many years at thirty-five dollars per ounce. Because of this obligation to have enough gold (which again, is not and never has been particularly easy to extract from Gaea’s grasp) on hand to redeem for every bill printed, the amount of money in circulation was capped. For the period of time that dollars were tied to gold in this fashion, prices as a whole did not particularly rise or fall, although the prices of individual goods and services would change based on supply and demand. That was particularly a disadvantage to anyone wishing to borrow money rather than saving towards a goal (the latter being the essence of the old American value called thrift), because borrowed money must be paid back with interest, and that becomes quite costly under such a stable currency, and is thus thoroughly discouraged.

The gold standard was actually eroded over several decades, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt demanded citizens turn in all gold for dollars (and the ownership of gold by those citizens made illegal for many years), the replacement of gold certificates with those redeemable in silver and then with notes that are stamped “legal tender” (back by the declaration, or fiat, of the government, rather than a durable commodity with an easily agreed-upon value), and the final abdication to pay obligations to foreign banks in gold in 1971 by Richard Nixon. The concept is largely now the purview of a certain subset of right-wing ideologues, and ignored by the experts of the economic community, who are quite comfortable that modern understandings of the working of money allow it to be more thoroughly controlled for the good of all. By freeing money from a standard measure, the government gives itself permission to simply print as much as is needed to pay off current debts. Money is thus subject to supply and demand: the more of a certain type of money that is in circulation, the less value it is given by those using it. Inflation, as an economic term, refers to inflation of the currency supply, not prices, despite the fact that the consumer price index is the only statistic usually cited regarding inflation’s existence. Prices are affected not only by the supply of money (which, all things being equal, would see prices of all things rise at exactly the rate the currency supply was being inflated), but by all other demands, and all other supplies. Because of the power of psychology, prices are even affected by the anticipated future supply and demand. Inflation does not affect those prices evenly, and couldn’t possibly. It does, however, make it easier to borrow, because without something to measure money against, it becomes easy to create bookkeeping gimmicks to create more out of nowhere. For example, the reserves that banks must hold, to make sure that every person seeking to withdraw money can get it, hover around ten percent. In other words, if a bank holds $100,000 in deposits, it must keep $10,000 on reserve, and may lend out the other $90,000. While a rational person might assume that this would result in a bank lending out ninety dollars out of every hundred deposited, in fact that bank may lend out nine hundred dollars for each hundred deposited, because the $100 is the 10% needed to keep on reserve out of a thousand. This kind of borrowing distorts where money is invested, and twists capitalism into a grotesque mockery of itself. Wealth is accumulated based more on being in the right place at the right time, rather than through hard work and industry; that results in the wealth being consolidated a minority that benefit from happenstance or inheritance.

Over years of reeducation, the idea that inflation is natural, or even desirable, has become commonplace. It is not. It is disrespect for the spirit of money, and results in a spiral of economic booms and busts as the supply of cheap money creates bubbles of speculation only incidentally connected to true economic activity. Moreover, the incentives to continue inflating a currency do not abate as time goes on. Granted, the United States has not suffered from hyperinflation since the days of the Continental Congress, but even the more sophisticated ways that money is injected into the economy have enduring impacts. The very concept of the need for infinite growth in capitalism is based in perpetual inflation of the money supply. Stocks are considered necessary for long-term investment because, as a class, they are most likely to beat inflation. Unions constantly argue for cost-of-living increases and minimum-wage hikes because without them, workers would see their accumulated savings eaten by inflation. Saving itself suffers, because in an inflationary system one actually pays back debts with dollars worth less than those borrowed, so with a fixed-rate loan in particular the lender is not actually going to reaping nearly as much profit as it seems, because with inflation at the Federal Reserve’s target rate of 2% a year, the dollar loses half its purchasing power every 35 years, a little longer than the standard term of a home mortgage. Deflation, which would certainly result if the country returned to fixing 35 dollars to each ounce of gold, would result in borrowers paying back more than they withdrew, which is what they actually agreed to, at least on paper. This is how virtually all modern governments actually fund their operations, particularly expensive wars, because to tax the citizens enough to support the actual expenses of a vast military-industrial complex would result in immediate and complete revolution. Instead, the money supply is increased, and that value which is lost to the citizens is transferred to the newly-created money, with which the government pays its debts. Inflation is but a hidden tax, one that impact the poorest most severely, and allows governments to carry on insanely expensive and mostly unpopular programs, such as drone warfare and enhanced interrogation.

This is the legacy of Eris removing her gift of gold: the chaos and suffering created by its introduction pale in comparison to that which has resulted by its elimination. It is possible that capitalism, were it allowed to function under the auspices of an honest money, may be salvageable, and its remaining flaws mitigated so that the markets would only be allowed to run free to the extent that it benefits all living beings. Perhaps this is not the case, but in the atmosphere resulting from Eris’s second gift, it is all but impossible to say. To truly understand if capitalism must fall, it is imperative to first seek out the golden apple, and restore it to its rightful place on the table. Finding it may require supplication to Eris and the wounded Khrysos, who may not wish to be abused any further. Without the restoration of the apple, the gold, to our system, it will not matter if capitalism is at fault for the many woes plaguing our species; for good or ill, it will inevitably fall, and what shall be generated from the resulting chaos is impossible to predict.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: