The Heart of Gold

Sep 08 2011

Gold fingers

The theme of gold is embedded throughout the story of Goldfinger in the naming of characters (Auric Goldfinger), the central plot to irradiate Fort Knox, a golf game with a gold bar at stake and even in the manner of death of Jilly Masterson who is covered in gold paint to suffocate her skin. [Even if Mythbusters say this is not possible, it doesn't spoil the story!] It was also the first Bond film to receive an Oscar (for best sound effects editing).

Even before gold hit its current record price (reflecting its relatively stability of value versus the instability of most man-made currency), gold has been a potent symbol for thousands of years, due to its rarity and also its colour which is similar to that of the sun.  It has been valuable and highly sought-after for coins, jewelry and other arts as long as humans have written and has been a standard basis for monetary systems and policies throughout history too. Alchemists (including Isaac Newton) spent time and money trying to find the secret of converting base metals (eg lead) into gold.

Although gold is really only a coloured shiny metallic material, with a dictionary definition of ‘yellow, non-rusting, malleable, ductile metal element’, it means much more than this.

Good as gold

Gold can stand for economic power, sexual possession (think of what happened to Jilly Masterson), wealth, fidelity, establishment, luxury, love, importance, warmth, eternity and great deal more. The meaning of gold is quite stable across cultures (more stable than many colours), reflecting common meanings that it has for all of us.

Many of these meanings go back a long way.  Jason went on a quest for a ‘golden’ fleece and Greek philosophers talked about the ‘golden’ mean and ‘golden’ ratio, to represent perfect and symmetric mathematical laws and relationships. In the Bible gold symbolises both sanctity and evil, as the Ark of the Covenant is sealed with pure gold, while the Golden Calf is the ultimate symbol of idolatry. It is also the only metal considered pure enough to be in contact with the wine representing the blood of Christ. Gold was highly prized by the ancient Egyptians, who believed it represented the flesh of the sun god Ra, and the Pharaohs kept vast treasuries of gold some of which appeared in their tombs symbolising eternal life. Similarly the Aztecs and other central American tribes gave gold to their gods by throwing it into rivers and lakes during ceremonies. Gold has been found in buddhist graves in Afghanistan dating back more than 2,000 years and Gold jewelry has been made in China for at least 1,000 years.  No culture valued gold more highly than the Romans, who used it beyond jewelry in pots, ornaments and other household items as well as inventing the ‘ring’ to symbolise engagement.

The man with the Midas touch (part 2)

Gold was one of the main reasons for the destruction of the ancient central American civilisations (they had more of it than the Spanish) and has often been a mixed blessing, no more so than in the myth of Midas and his golden touch.

Midas lived in Phrygia, which was famed for its wealth, and even so wished to have everything he touched turn to gold after being granted a wish by Dionysus in return for returning his companion Silenus from capture.  Like every great tragedy (another plot that will be discussed in a future article), Midas was initially delighted with his wish but this joy soon turned to horror when he discovered that his food immediately turned to gold when he took a bite and in some versions of the story the same happened when he touched his daughter. The story has a good ending in the original version as Dionysus takes pity on Midas and lets him clean himself in a river (which was forever after known for gold silt).

The golden rule

Gold appears regularly in the language, in expressions including ‘good as gold’, ‘silence is golden’, ‘the golden age’, ‘golden years’, ‘golden boy’, ‘golden moment’ and ‘heart of gold’ (my favourite Neil Young song). We all like to have gold cards and the top prizes at most sport events are the gold medals or gold trophies (at least gold plated).

So gold is associated with wealt. luxury and extravagance in most societies and has a long been linked with energy and happiness through its association with the sun (by contrast silver is linked to the moon). The French Sun gods were gold (like Ra) and gold reflects success and achievement in sports and more academic activities.  It can also symbolise good health (especially when worn around the neck), power and strength and also wisdom especially that which comes from age (which is why 50th anniversaries are golden).

It can also be seen as vulgar and was used in Communist propaganda as a symbol of the bourgeoisie and industrial tycoons, with golden chains and pocket watches. Such chains and adornments are also associated with more modern meanings of gold for some as a sign of vulgarity (depending on which side of the fence you view ‘bling’ and other adornments).

The gold difference

Are these interpretations consistent across all countries? The meanings of wealth, success and luxury translate consistently across different cultures and especially in Asia which accounts for a majority of gold use in the world (India and China alone take more than 50% of global gold production which is mainly used for jewelry and investment). Golden jewelry is common across the world too, and gold is widely associated with decoration (in Thailand with temple decoration and statues too).

Like Auric Goldfinger we all love gold, and nowhere more so than Asia. As long as we don’t ‘love only gold’ then we can rest safe from some of it’s more negative consequences!

[If you want to learn more on cultural analysis of colour and other symbols check out our training here.]

One response so far

  1. Very good piece! Just missed the “philosophical gold” of the old alchemists and the things CG Jung had to say about that. But … right on the (golden) money!

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