Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Gold, gold can pass the tyrant's sentinel,
Can shiver rocks with more restless blow than is the thunder's.
Argos' prophet fell, he and his house laid low,
And all for gain.
The man of Macedon cleft gates of cities, rival kings o 'erthrew
By force of gifts: their cunning snares have won
Rude captains and their crew,
As riches grow, care follows: men repine
And thirst for more.


When Columbus sailed his three ships into the warm and hospitable Caribbean, some of the islanders had a few gold ornaments which they wore in celebration of the sun but did not covet either from the earth or from each other. "Poor wretches," it has been said, "if they had possessed the slightest gift of prophecy, they would have thrown these baubles into the deepest sea!" But trusting the bounty of Nature's order, it did not occur to them that men could harbour a lust for particular natural elements, and they greeted the strangers with touching friendliness. When the ship of Columbus ran aground on the coast of Cuba, the nearby chief Guacanagari was moved to tears and offered all that his people could give in labour and stores to make good his loss. The Spaniards were moved to witness many instances of such kind hospitality, but it did not alter the gleam in their eye when they beheld the gold ornaments, and it was not long before they had cunningly extracted information about the Cibao mines. Despite the generosity shown which had touched him deeply upon his arrival, by 1495 Columbus had reduced over one million Indians to slavery for the purpose of extracting ore from the mines. The Caribs and other native peoples died in enormous numbers, largely due to stifling working conditions which acted as incubators for the European diseases to which they had no immunity. But they died from beatings and torture as well, their condition spreading fear and amazement amongst tribes yet free. A chief named Hatney told his people that the Spaniards performed all these cruelties for a god whom they loved more than anything else. He showed them a basket of gold and said, "Here is the god whom they serve and after whom they go; and, as you have heard, already they are longing to pass over to this place, not pretending more than to seek this god."

 The hectic race was on for the Golden Valley of Orinoco, the Manoa of Guiana where the roofs were gilded, and the seven fabled cities of Cibola. Pizarro moved through the Andes with three hundred and fifty horsemen, four thousand Indian porters and one thousand bloodhounds for the hunting of natives to be put down into the mines. Others in the world hoarded gold in such vast proportions "as to vie in affluence with Jupiter himself". The Persians at Susa kept enormous treasures of it, as did some of the later Byzantine kings. It is said that Emperor Anastasius, who died in A.D. 518, left three hundred and twenty thousand pounds of gold in personal treasures. Yet others again, like the Buddhists in India, did not believe in the use of precious metals as money. Gorgus, the mining engineer who accompanied Alexander the Great on his expedition into the ancient land, wrote of "the Musoi (Buddhists) who made no use of gold or silver although they had mines of both these metals". Pausanias said the same and pointed out that 'use' referred to money, whilst Strabo wonderingly observed that "these peculiar people have no slaves". Homer also spoke of the Musoi as worshippers of Dionysus (the Buddha), indicating a recognition of spiritual kinship with one of the most archaic of Hellenic mystical traditions.

 In Greece itself, Lycurgus of Sparta forbade the use of precious metals for money. Taking instructions from wise beings to the east, he was aware that the world would learn the arts of civilization from India, and he did not want to follow the example of those who had inverted the teachings of their eastern neighbours. Although Sparta did not ultimately avoid such inversions, this strong ascetic influence left its mark upon the culture, and there is, even to this day, a natural sense amongst Laconians of remaining aloof from self-indulgence. But the ancient Mycenaeans loved gold and pursued it, along with Helen, to the gates of Ilium. It is significant that, on his way home from that great war, Odysseus was lulled into dreams and obscurations on Calypso's island of Ogygia. It may suggest something of the nature of the inversion that had already begun to take place amongst the Greeks to realize that the name 'Ogygia' is etymologically related to Odin, the Eddie god associated with the eye of Buddhic wisdom. Odonis, Odin and Ogygia were surnames of the Bacchic deity and used in close association with Ceres (Demeter) and Chryses, which were also names given to the island. Chryses (sun or gold) was the name of the priest of the sun whose daughter was taken as a prize by Agamemnon when the Mycenaeans sacked the city of Ilium. Thus, the luminous prophecy of the sun priest was brought down and defiled in the person of Cassandra, whose lamentable name means 'harlot, taken as spoils of the enemy'. Reduced in this manner, the golden wisdom that had been handed down became disjoined, dark forebodings to which no one would listen seriously. Had Odysseus understood these things, he may have found more on the island than Calypso's fragrant den, and he may have grasped something to do with an essential shift in human history that had just taken place.

 Gold is symbolic of solar light. Even in their pursuit of Helen, the Mycenaeans sought to regain the light they had lost, but the gold of solar light is an elusive treasure, won as the fruit of spiritual illumination. Like the sun, it is self-luminous, the overflowing of Divine Intelligence concentrated in the form of what the Hindus called mineral light. It covered the floor of Aegir's hall in the Eddie myths and lit up the great banquets that took place there, its brightness illuminating the faces of the gods as they supped and brooded and sang. Many ancients believed that gold came from the sun, which, by virtue of being circled millions of times by the earth, had spun threads of gold all around it. Medieval alchemists underlined a similar connection by making the symbolic sign for the sun and gold the same. Even the durability of gold lends it an indestructible quality discerned in the sun, which, though it descends into the waters of the underworld each night, does not dissolve. Just so is gold buried in the tellurian darkness of the earth, only to be borne up full of brilliant radiance. This superior solar nature is passed on to everything fashioned of gold, a fact widely appreciated by the Greeks, who evolved hundreds of words in their language based upon the root word χρυσος (chrysos), which is a masculine designation of gold. The superiority of gold is also suggested in Sanskrit by the name suvarna, whose first syllable alludes to the essence extracted out of something, whilst the Old Norse term gull or goll forms the basis for one of Freyja's names, Gollveig ('Gold-might'), she who was incinerated in the war between the gods but who always comes back to life. Gollveig embodies, in the Eddie myths, the power of gold manifested through its refinement by fire. Thus it is that the golden sword used by the gods in Valhalla symbolizes the fire of divine will, just as the Greek hero Κρισαρος (Krisaros: 'with sword of gold') represents supreme spiritual determination.

 The superiority of gold is also reflected in its purity and incorruptibility. Mount Meru is described as shining like the morning sun, its golden slopes rising eighty-four thousand yajanas high, whilst its inverted reflection penetrates an equal distance into the earth's core. It is the eternally pure bija loka which can never be altered from age to age, like the thrice-purified gold of the conscious soul of the world. It is the golden seed which remains after the 'pay dirt' has been rotated and swirled around in the miner's pan until it is sloshed over the edge. The lighter particles are thus gradually eliminated until the gold remains as a glowing residue, freed from impurities. Such purity is often used as a measure for Truth, as seen in the words of Ben Jonson, who wrote:

Truth is the trial of itself
And needs no other touch,
And purer than the purest gold,
Refine it ne'er so much.

Krita Yuga or the Golden Age was a time of innate goodness, when Truth prevailed. Krita here, whilst referring to 'golden', literally means 'perfect or well done', which strengthens the notion that purity and truth are aspects of the same expression of light so well reflected in gold, whose durability is proof against all normal decay. It will not rust, laminate or flake, nor will it react against the usual attack of chemicals. It remains malleable and brilliant within the darkness of the earth or emblazoned in tiles on the walls of a Byzantine courtyard.

 Many advances in early chemistry were due to man's attempts to produce gold out of base metals. The idea existed in Europe as well as China and elsewhere that the ability to produce gold brought with it the secret of immortality. Food and drink taken from cups of gold were thought to contribute to one's approach to immortality, resulting in strict taboos regulating the use of such utensils. In ancient Peru only the Incan god-king could drink the sacred elixir from the golden goblet. All else partook of the fluid in cups wrought of silver. This close identification with incorruptibility and immortality was, no doubt, responsible for the magnificent golden "Gates of Paradise" designed by Ghiberti. Even the Golden Gate to San Francisco Bay was seen by the early gold miners as the entranceway to undying riches sure to salve the soul, if not in the next life, at least in this.

 In minute amounts gold is a very common metal. It can be found in most ores and abounds in the ocean as well as on land. But the supply has always seemed to be shorter than the demand and its scarcity in larger quantities has contributed to its value. Rare indeed are nuggets like the two-hundred-pound Holtermann nugget, which was found just a few inches below the surface of the earth in Australia. Other fabulous nuggets have been found, but the general pattern for gold is one that can be described as universal but scarce. In this sense it again provides an apt symbol for Truth as it manifests in the world whilst it waits hidden in veins and nuggets to be grasped by the seeker of Immortal Light. Few other things in human history have succeeded as well as gold in inspiring metaphors for the divine will in man as well as legends describing his quest for immortality. Even those who lust for gold and the worldly power which it can bring them are only chasing a shadow of this supreme quest. It is indeed Immortal Light which artists always tried to capture in the haloes and statues of ancient and medieval religious art. The sculpture of Athena Parthenos, which was completed in Athens during the reign of Pericles, was fashioned entirely of ivory and gold. Its great thirty-five-foot height bore over two thousand pounds of pure gold, exceeded only by that which decorated the forty-foot-high statue of Zeus that graced the god's temple at Olympia. Statues of comparable height were erected to the god Bet in Babylon where, in one temple, three gigantic figures of beaten gold stood behind an altar of gold forty feet by fifteen feet in dimension, upon which rested golden censers and drinking vases. As the classical ages were eclipsed, gold was seen less in public display and tended more to be hoarded in private treasures. The rich glow of Byzantine basse taille work extended the symbolic meaning of gold in religious art into the Middle Ages, however, and the unfading haloes and other glories of those works continue to inspire a sense of spirituality.

 Amongst very ancient peoples, gold must have held an incomparable wonder. In their burials, bodies were smeared with red and yellow ochre, which must have symbolized fertility and rebirth, but in the last several thousand years gold itself often decorated the body as though in aid of some sort of immortality. In the role of a god, a great chief of the Orinoco tribes used to cover his body with gum and sprinkle upon it the dust of gold. Naked and golden, he shone like the rising sun sending its rays out over the lake where his raft glided. Approaching its centre, he offered gold and emeralds to the spirit of the lake, just as the sun warms and fructifies the waters of the earth throughout creation. To be golden is to be ever youthful, ever radiant and flowing with vitality. It is to be like a god, and people have endeavoured for centuries to bedeck themselves with this lustre. The weaving of golden thread into garments has been practised by jari workers in India since Rig Vedic times. Draped in golden cloth, a man or woman shines with bewitching glamour which, like light, attracts and yet awes. A mixture of the scarlet of fertility and the heavenly radiance of gold is worn by Hindu brides to this day, whilst grooms, like youthful sun gods, are bedecked with golden turbans for the occasion.

 Some of the oldest gold mines in the world are in India and Egypt, where the metal was prized by maharajas and pharaghs for religious uses as well as personal adornment. Even the jewellery worn was valued as symbolic of all that gold represents rather than as a medium of exchange. The beauty of gold was scarcely alloyed in those days, and its deep, soft lustre must have been beautiful when worn upon unblemished, tawny skin. The mines that provided this beauty were relatively shallow and were usually cut into quartz veins or metamorphic rock. Ancient miners treated the raw gold with mercury as we do now, whilst nuggets were found in streams by much the same practice that prospectors continue to use today when panning for gold. The power of gold was recognized by these people in its extreme malleability and ductility as well as its power to cure several diseases. An ounce of gold can be beaten out to a thin film measuring one hundred square feet which is actually translucent, whilst one grain of the precious metal can be drawn out into a fine wire six hundred feet long. Such properties rendered gold indestructible and illimitable in their eyes, and its great depth of colour was believed to be capable of drawing forth any similar coloration manifesting in the body, such as the effects of jaundice.

 One of the most significant properties of gold recognized by alchemists lies in the fact that it comprises the equilibrium of all metallic properties. Thus it is, as a substance, an analogue for the balancing of the extreme and mean ratio, as in the golden section, as well as the reciprocal moral balance exemplified in the golden rule. It is an unchanging equilibrium, that which settles after all else has washed away, and it seems quite natural that, if only for this reason alone, it should have become the standard for international exchange. The Rig Veda alludes to 'purses' of gold coins, indicating that gold was used for money long before copper and silver. Be it in the form of Greek talents, Roman scruples or English pounds, gold became the major means of settlement between peoples and countries, and exchange rates of national currencies tended to become fixed in terms of it. This tended to universalize the ability of a precious metal to command other goods in exchange for itself.

 Long ago King Croesus sought to establish political security through gold by sending seventy-five hundred pounds of gold ingots to the oracle at Delphi, and today the world of power politics is still very much linked to solvency based upon gold reserves. After the discovery of the New World, the influx of gold from slave labour and looting unbalanced the economic and political structure of Europe. Enormous amounts of gold were mined in South America and later in California, Australia, Alaska and South Africa. It has been truthfully said that the desire for precious metals has been the principal motive leading to the dominion of the earth by the so-called 'civilized' races. Gold invites commerce, invasion follows and colonialization completes the process. In India the early Aryans conquered and forbade arms. The mines belonged to them and slave labour was used to excavate the sacred gold. Buddhists regarded this as a prime issue in their revolution against Brahminism. After the reign of Ashoka, when the Brahmins reascended to power, the Buddhist influence had left its mark and slave mining diminished as a practice. But it was continued under the Muslims and under the British after them. Such gold as was extracted from these mines under British rule was stored in London and given the name 'sound money', upon which further dominion might be built.

 In Japan during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Portuguese priests encouraged the use of gold coins for exchange amongst the daimios tending towards or converted to Christianity. They hoped to strengthen the political position of these lords against their Buddhist rivals by supplying them with arms and other valuables of European and Chinese origin. In order to receive gold in exchange, these Jesuits proposed to the lords that they enslave their own people to work the mines. That they succeeded in part was borne out by the fact that thousands perished in the miserable conditions that prevailed in the mines, and they enriched church and country with large amounts of gold. Ultimately, however, their plans to convert the Japanese and simultaneously profit from them was discovered and every Portuguese banished from that part of the world by 1624. It is odd that the ambivalent attitude of Christians towards gold (one which is divided between the idea of the pure treasure of Christ and the abhorrence of idolatry connected with the golden calf of worldly wealth) should be reflected in the blending of religious fervour and lust for power evidenced by such people. Perhaps the ambivalence really masks a deep conflict, one which is poignantly and a little humorously echoed in an Alaskan gold rush poem by Joaquin Miller:

And you, too, banged at the Chilkoot,
That rock-locked gate to the golden door!
These thunder-built steeps have words to suit,
And whether you prayed or whether you swore,
'Twere one where it seemed that an oath was a prayer -
Seemed God couldn't care,
Seemed God wasn't there!

 Nature herself seems to make it clear that the production of gold is laborious, the guarding of it difficult, the zest for it very great, and its use balanced between pleasure and pain. Well over fifty thousand tons of gold have been won from the earth in the last five centuries only. Such an amount could be contained in a cube measuring fifteen yards in each direction. To win four hundred tons of gold, South African mines will raise as much as sixty million tons of ore, involving an enormous capital outlay, labour force and power reserve. Placer mining involves the use of pans, cradles, sluices and dredging. Single individuals can pursue this method, but huge dredging and sluice operations were common along the alluvium fanning out from the coastal ranges of California and Alaska. Lode or vein mining involves boring and shafting into hard-rock material, and few pursue this on their own. Ventilation, pumping out of water, and the mucking out and raising of ore has always been difficult and dangerous work shared often by hopeful immigrants and a few experienced Cousin Jacks, who were skilled miners from Cornwall seeking work after the Cornish mines failed. Anyone in the West felt lucky to be teamed with a Cousin Jack, for he knew he would learn the safest and most efficient way to win the ore from the hard-rock shafts. Still, the earth would release killing gases, and the dust and darkness seemed to seep into the soul of many. How truly expressive is the old miner's song: "It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew, where the dangers are double and the pleasures are few." But the lure of gold is greater than any danger, and men never ceased hoping even until they were much too old to muck out a load of ore. In the Black Hills at Deadwood an old miner's epitaph eloquently describes the way it was:

Put away his pick and shovel,
He will never prospect more;
Death has sluiced Mm, from his trouble,
Panned him on the other shore.

 The Mother Lode, the most remarkable metalliferous vein in the world, kept men hoping and dreaming. Boom towns like Argonaut, Eureka, Challenge, Paymaster, You Bet, Last Chance, Eldorado and Aurora sprang up all along the Sierra Nevada mountains. Men laboured over Lucky Boy Pass to settle down or move on as chance would have it. They thought of one thing only. "Gold, gold, gold, gold; bright and yellow, hard and cold; molten, graven, hammered, rolled; heavy to get and light to hold, stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled,'' Gold, they cried, gold! Few of them understood the awesome geological process whereby the precious metal reached the surface of the earth's crust. They may not have even been interested to know that when the earth was a liquid globe of high temperature, metals arranged themselves from the surface to the centre in order of their atomic weights. The heavy metals like gold reach the surface with intrusive magmas and eruptions of lava. The hot, sticky magma moves upward with entrapped water vapour and other volatiles, of which some are metallic, These volatiles escape from the magma along fissures in the earth's crust and may be deposited in veins sometimes several miles long and one-half inch to several hundred yards thick. Usually found in granite and quartz, these veins may be extruded during the folding and cracking of the crust, which then weathers and disintegrates, forming the alluvial deposits where placer gold is found.

 Faults break the continuity of a vein, but they can also introduce water, which is the prime transporting agent in even the closest grained and most compact rocks. Combining with other elements, water, become silica, can be conveyed into the rock so as to open up a quartz vein through chemical replacement. Along such a vein, metals intrude to form lodes. Deep within the earth the physical, chemical and electrical forces never cease to change their combinations. Pervasive water acts chemically or mechanically to aid this process in such an endless metamorphosis that the rocks below the oxidized zone of the earth's crust may be considered as alive, for the activities working within such rock masses are only comparable to functions of living organisms.

 The differences between solids may be ascribed to differences in the forces between their atoms and in the way the atoms are arranged. The crystal structure of gold is isometric and in free form is most likely to appear as an octahedron, though it can be found in cube form as well. As a face-centered cubic, its structure is that of twelve points clustered around a central point, analogous to the relationship between the twelve rulers of the zodiac and the invisible solar Source which flows through these twelve doors and concentrates in the form of the sun. More frequently, gold crystallizes in an octahedron, which can be described as two pyramids joined at their bases, one facing upward, the other downward. Though the cubic can be related to the sun and the earth, the two pyramids are symbolic of spiritual and earthly fire, meeting at the surface of the globe. Like Mount Meru, the up ward-pointing golden slopes are matched with a downward-pointing root, which surely must be the mineral light the ancient Hindus identified as gold. The upper and lower pyramids meet at their square bases, which are the earth. The fire above is that of pure Spirit, whilst that below is spiritual fire solidified in the cooling process of the globe and refined in the crucible of the mighty pressures and re-formations within the earth's core. Intruded upward to the surface, it presents itself with a purity reflective of its spiritual solar archetype. It is Deus inversus but demoniacal only when the object of human greed.

 The upper pyramid can be diagrammatically symbolized by a triangle which stands over a square (the two bases), under which the lower, inverted triangle is shown. The triangle and the square represent the masculine and feminine principles and the numbers 3 and 4. The lower triangle symbolizes the fall of spirit through matter and the number 3, which, when added to the 3 and 4, completes the Pythagorean decad or 10. Since the octahedral gold crystal includes the upper and lower, it is a perfect symbol for that which is the pure essence of the one in the other. Thus, it is said in occult tradition that the heart is the sun in man and gold is the heart in the earth. On the material plane, gold concentrates the centralizing purity sought by all heroes who quest for Spiritual Light. To move between the heart of earth and the heart of man to his solar ancestor requires the philosopher's gold, which is said to be neither the colour nor material substance of gold. And yet it is analogous to and in correspondence with it. Just as the sun is in correspondence with the central human heart whose blood pulsates through the body's veins, and just as molten gold pulsates through the veins of the earth, so the sun circulates its vital fluid through the solar system. Veins through which surge divine Electricity, material electricity, blood and gold, echo one another and justify the intuitive wisdom of the ancients who believed that golden veins in the earth were the threads of the sun.

 To discover the philosopher's gold resting in the cave of one's heart requires a great deal of mining, mucking out, refining and even dynamiting the walls of the hard-rock persona one has been nurturing. A good deal of panning may be called for where the pay dirt is washed out over and over again before the glimmering nuggets are all that is left. It is highly likely that only when one has succeeded in doing this, at least to the point where one has discovered a couple of unalloyed nuggets, will one be in a position to recognize that tiny amounts of pure gold are universally present. Using the powerful help of Mercury (Hermes), one can form a gold amalgam which is easily separated from the ore. This help is absolutely necessary for the separation to take place in that hard-rock mining process which requires the spiritual guidance of a sage-like Cousin Jack, who is in the business not for lust of gold but because it is a work of many lives which is performed expertly and with selfless devotion to the spirit of the job.

 Such beings are intimately aware of the give-and-take of forces in the earth (persona) which cause pure gold to emerge, disappear, re-emerge and then wash away. They understand the deeper logic of a gold standard where a true equilibrium could exist between men and nations based upon the golden rule of balanced reciprocity which operates at every level of the universe. If men knew and embraced higher wisdom, they would see in the beauty of gold the very substance capable of balancing the scales of justice in the world. Far from inspiring empire and domination of one's fellow men, gold would flow in the veins of commerce and world politics as needed by the whole organism. Nor would there be little hardened arteries where it is hoarded, finally causing an explosion and great harm to the whole. Flowing freely like this, gold would be a beauteous standard, capable of pulsating in harmony with the hidden golden heart of humanity's highest spiritual longings.

Rise up, Cassandra,
Do not lie and weep.
Raise up thy golden heart,
Let it grow within and leap . . .
Along the arteries of heaven
Into that luminous place,
Where all men are brothers,
Members of the Solar Race.