This appeared in the North Clare Local in June.
Humans like shiny things. We trade pieces of glittering metal, fashion it into rings and necklaces and give these to each other as tokens of love and affection. Unsurprisingly, a wealth of belief has arisen around our two favourite metals, silver and gold.
The most enduring from my own childhood concerned the pairing of these metals. Wearing a silver and gold ring on the same hand guaranteed you would never marry.
Silver has always been seen as second best to the more valuable gold, but it is a symbol of purity. It holds certain anti-bacterial properties, and does not tarnish from contact with oxygen alone. For this reason, it’s long been popular in the use of crockery and utensils. Silver was believed to detect poisons, a must in the days of paranoid medieval kings. As it’s more abundant than gold, it’s been used as coinage for millennia (Judas, of course, betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver).
Silver is associated with the moon, femininity and goddesses such as Artemis and Diana. Artemis used silver-topped arrows. The association with the moon probably led to the legend of the silver bullet, which is especially efficacious against werewolves. Likewise, silver is supposed to be repellent and even painful to vampires. Mirrors used to be often backed with silver, and old cameras had silver elements, which may have led to the old horror movie trope about vampires’ reflections not showing on film or mirrors.
Britain still uses the pound sterling as its currency; in the beginning this literally denoted a pound of sterling silver. In French, the word for silver and money (argent) are the same. The name Argentina comes from the Latin for silver. In the 16th century, tales were told of mountains of silver ruled by the White King along the Rio de la Plata (The Silver River). Alas, they did not exist, but large silver deposits were found in South America, which served to devalue the metal in the early 20th century.
El Dorado was the golden equivalent of the silver mountains. This was another mythical place in South America, a lost city of gold. It also failed to materialise, despite numerous searches. The origins of El Dorado are fascinating. The indigenous Muisca people of Colombia worshipped a god called Chiminigagua, whose symbol was gold. According to 16th century Spanish chroniclers, the high priest performed a ritual where he covered himself in gold dust and jumped into a pool filled with precious stones. This was part of a ceremony to welcome a new king, who himself was covered in gold. From this the myth of a lost city of gold emerged. Many Europeans, not satisfied by the wealth and land they had already plundered from the Native American tribes, went in search of this place. Many of the missions ended in disaster for the participants.
The Americas as a whole are rich in gold and silver, and indeed the Incas believed that gold was the sweat of the sun. They were not alone in associating the substance with the sun; the Egyptians saw gold as the symbol if the sun god Ra.
Indeed, the mad pursuit of wealth such as gold and silver often ends in disaster in myth and folklore. There’s no better example of this than the legend of King Midas. Midas found the satyr Silenus passed out in his rose garden after a heavy night on the tiles. He returned him to the god Dionysius, who offered him a wish. Midas, with an astonishing lack of foresight, asked that anything he touched turned to gold. This proved especially inconvenient with regards to friends, family, food and presumably bathroom functions, although this was not recorded. Poor Midas, who must have really regretted his altruism to the drunken satyr, eventually freed himself of the curse, only to offend the god Pan and end up with donkey’s ears.
Our own native tradition has a less harsh message about trying to get rich quick. The leprechaun is well known for his pot of gold, but that doesn’t mean his gold is real, or that you’ll ever find it.
Another fruitless pursuit was that of the alchemists. Alchemy, which existed since early times until the Enlightenment, was concerned with transforming non-precious metals to gold, as well as producing an elixir for eternal life. Many eminent scientists of the early modern period did not think transforming lead to gold was an impossible task, and their work was respected. It did not work, but some alchemists’ contributions did help found modern chemistry.
In recent years, many of us have clung to gold in uncertain economic times. While today we store our wealth in computerised accounts, and often don’t even see much of our physical money, we do still have an eye for silver and gold.