Margin Call, an independent movie about the initial stages of the financial crisis of 2008, took me by surprise. It was hard to believe I could actually enjoy a film set at a Wall Street investment bank. The film is, at least to me, nothing short of fabulous and very rich in symbolism to boot. The abstract world of finances, where money is just numbers, is juxtaposed with the real world of dirt and death (the most poignant scene being the one in which the main character is digging a grave for his dog). What actually happens in the white-collar world of high finance is cruel axing of unnecessary employees: a true murder committed in white gloves; the chopping block is placed in an clinically clean, ultra-modern office. The cynical tirade of Jeremy Irons’ business tycoon character rang very true: “It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat. … And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world.”
The movie made me ponder on the symbolism of money. Recently I have read a powerful piece by James Hillman on the meaning of the bull symbol in his book Animal Presences. In it, he mentions Bernard Laum’s theory, which I find very appealing, and which claims that the origin of money goes back to religious sacrifice. Hillman speaks of “the ceremonial dismemberment of the bull as the origin of bits of money. The spit on which the animal was roasted (obelos) became the coin (obolos) as the piece of bull meat stuck to the spit.” This theory appeals to me for a few reasons, the first being astrological. The sign Taurus, the Bull, rules money in the Zodiac, while the second house of the horoscope, ruled by Taurus, is the house of wealth and resources. Hillman draws further conclusions:
“…that money brings panic, confusion, ecstasies, joys and madness, especially when we try to hold its flow with rational accounting. Balance sheets, transparency, cavernous vaults with massive steel doors try to keep the life in the money under control, as do the other measures in which we pen the bull: bonds, securities, safes, obligations, fixed assets. Nevertheless, money is a wild ride because it is truly blood money, perhaps never severed from the bull…”
Now it is perhaps easier to understand why we speak of the Bull Market. At its symbolic root, money is not rational and, like the bull, it relates to passion and desire. Financial markets are subject to the tidal periodic rises and falls just like the Moon and just like our emotions.
To ancient Romans, money was also associated with the sphere of sacrum and sacrifice. Their chief goddess – Juno Moneta – presided over the Roman mint, which was a part of her Capitoline temple. She was believed to have blessed the coins herself. Her epithet is at the root of our word “money” but it also meant “the warner” and “the admonisher.” In his essay “Money and the City,” (Parabola Magazine, February, 1991) David Applebaum asserts that Juno Moneta warns us that money is just a mind-invented means of measure (the words “money,” “mind” and “measure” have the same etymological root) – it has no value in itself.
There is a profound mystery in that money would simultaneously evoke two conflicting responses: on the one hand, we think of greed, corruption, the golden “ring of power” (Wagner’s and Tolkien’s); but on the other a golden coin brings alchemical gold to mind and the highest possible psychological value – the indestructible Light of Individuated Self. The very first coins minted in Lydia were golden and featured the lion (the animal associated with gold and the Sun):
Sri Aurobindo wrote this about money (citing after the same issue of Parabola magazine):
“Money is a sign of universal force, and this force in its manifestation on earth works on the vital and physical planes and is indispensable to the fullness of outer life.
In its origin and its true action it belongs to the Divine. But like other powers of the Divine it is delegated here and in the ignorance of the lower Nature can be usurped for the uses of the ego…The seekers or keepers of wealth are more often possessed rather than its possessors. … Regard wealth simply as a power to be won back for the Mother and placed at her service. All wealth belongs to the Divine and those who hold it as trustees, not possessors. It is with them today, tomorrow it may be elsewhere.”
You can read the whole discourse on the role of money here: http://intyoga.online.fr/mothr04.htm
Nowhere else is the corruption of the divine energy we humans are endowed with more visible than in our dealings with money. Possessed with money, we often forget where the true value lies. In Wagner’s opera The Ring of the Nibelungs, the curse of the ring is thus formulated (note how Tolkien borrowed this motif for his novel):
“Its gold granted unlimited power.
No man shall gain joy from it.
Anguish will consume whoever possesses it.
Everyone will lust after its power,
But no one shall have pleasure from it.
… The Lord of the Ring
Shall be the Ring’s slave.”
Nothing exposes the Shadow as expertly as money. The process of obtaining real gold from the ore (gold extraction) is carried out “against the resistance of the darksome and chaotic forces of nature” (Titus Burckhardt, “Making Real Gold,” Parabola Magazine). Impurities attach themselves easily to gold: it takes a lot of time and effort to extract the shining, pure and yellow gold from the dirty ore that once lay in the dark earth. Pluto, the Roman Lord of the Underworld, like many other chthonic deities, was associated with wealth. Charon, the ferryman of the Styx, demanded payment of one coin, which was put in the mouth of the dead as a Greek burial custom. The symbolism of money seems o touch real eschatological depths: whatever we say about it, we run the risk of merely scratching the surface, while the golden ore lies safe in the depths of the earth as unreachable as its symbolic counterpart – the Sun.
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Charon and Psyche