Musings on Great Symbols: Money

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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):

4lydiancoin

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.”

5sri

Sri Aurobindo

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.”

soundtrack_ring_of_the_nibelungs

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.

6Charon_and_Psyche

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Charon and Psyche

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24 Responses to Musings on Great Symbols: Money

  1. shreejacob says:

    Wow…money.
    Firstly thank you for the information presented so well 🙂
    As I was reading your post two opposing thoughts formed in my mind. I don’t really have an issue with them but it’s still interesting.
    The first was what I read in Osho’s Book of Understanding where he talks about the value of things. For example, let’s say all of us start wearing clear quartz crystals and it becomes very popular, so popular in fact that everyone starts wanting it. Because of our attachments to this world of things, a clear quartz crystal would suddenly become of very high value! It won’t even be surprising that it surpasses that of a diamond. Why? Because of the “value” we put on it. It’s the same with the Apple products. They offer the same things as other products but because of the hype and the “value” that has been put on it (and of course whatever cut throat business conduct is done), it becomes really expensive. So money really is just pieces of printed paper …and if we really sit and think about it, it makes us all seem quite silly.

    On the other hand, we as a society in general have this terrible issue of self worth that we don’t think we deserve abundance in the form of wealth. Some who have take this “spiritual journey” seem to condemn money as not being part of this journey! Money has been given the sad verdict of being the root of all evil…and so we don’t exercise our right to the infinite abundance that we have at our disposal.

    Two contrasting thoughts…but not really. We don’t need to shun money, we don’t need to worship it either. We just need to get our heads together and realize that though money isn’t everything and we don’t need to become so attached to it, we can still enjoy it…

    You know?

    • I also have the same two opposing thoughts and I do not really see a problem in it. I have also been thinking how our problems with money so often cover up so many other psychological issues. Thank you for a great comment, I really appreciate it.

  2. What a rich post with such wealth of interesting symbols around money. It somewhat conjured up to my mind an ancient Jewish parable with the rabbi explaining the poor “filthy” rich man (who called on him for solace) the difference between a mirror and a window: the only difference being that a window without the silver coating, lets us see others; while mirrors lets us see only ourselves.
    I’ve just watched the opening scene of Margin Call on youtube
    I was taken aback, when I saw the assistant HR, doing the slick firing, hands the senior employee a brochure with a picture of a yacht on an untroubled sea to handle ” the transition” to unemployment. Chilling. Life’s a raft 😉

    • Life is a raft and we are all lost at sea. I simply love that painting. The parable is really great – so much has been projected on money. Thank you very much for your comment, Michal.

  3. Don says:

    Another fascinating post Monika. Loved the take on the symbol of the bull being connected to the origin of money. Always wondered where the term ” the market being Bullish” came from.Precisely why I enjoy your posts so much. One always unwraps a surprise.

    “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.”

    Reading this quote it amazes where we started out and how we have given money a life of its own. Like an unconscious, fragmented piece of the personality it has separated and taken on the life of a neurosis. No wonder Sri Aurobindo says ” The seekers or keepers of wealth are more often possessed rather than its possessors.” You can only be overwhelmed and captured by that which has a life of its own. And that is I’m afraid what we have given it. Now to move back again to being the to possessor is a long hard and painful road back. I’m thankful for the voices who are beginning to articulate that road back.

    • I always connected the bull with money because of astrology, but Hillman really brought it home to me. I actually thought of Africa writing this and the great series of books about the no. 1 Ladies Detective Agency set in Botswana. They always say how cattle is the most valuable commodity in Africa. Thank you for your valuable comment, Don.

      • Don says:

        Wonderful books those and yes cattle are an extremely valuable commodity. In the rural areas they kind of form the essence of community. Virtually the whole ritualistic life evolves around them and all sorts of social transactions involve cattle as well.

      • Wonderful, thank you. Just as I thought.

  4. Selena says:

    I just found your site from the reader. Thank you for this article. It articulates so well the issues that we have with money and how blind many of us are to it’s ‘power’.

  5. Shawn Nygaard says:

    For what it’s worth (haha), what I loved most about Hillman’s essay (I assume you are referring to “Imagination is Bull”) wasn’t so much the actual history of the symbolism, but rather the point he made that money ideally frees up our imagination and its riches. Unfortunately the literalism of money has actually done the reverse, which also significantly impacts the way we look at the sign of Taurus, always aiming for the money factor. It’s like that joke, how do you stop a bull from charging? Take away his credit card. In that essay, Hillman relentlessly and stubbornly freed the bull from that charge, and gave Taurus its imagination back. It’s really quite a stunning piece of work, isn’t it?

    • Love the joke, haha. I totally agree that I left out the best part of Hillman, but I did it purposefully – to stay within the confines of my topic. He did redeem the Bull, no doubt. I think Taurus is amazing for archetype work and for all kinds of spiritual work. I’ve got my MC and the Moon both in Taurus and after reading Imagination is Bull I was literally stunned.
      So happy you stopped by and commented. I really love your work and I hope you’ll publish a book soon.

      • Ah, Moon in Taurus – a great Moon… no doubt you loved the essay! I have Mercury and Saturn in Taurus, so have some of that going on too. I quite love it. Thanks for the reply, and you comment – I appreciate it and am working on the book thing, slowly but surely… 🙂

  6. Stuff Jeff Reads says:

    Here’s the kicker: money does not even exist anymore, not really. It is all electronic bits of data that represent the concept of wealth, but the truth of the matter, a glitch could wipe away your illusion of money. If electricity were to stop flowing, there would be no more “money” per se. Something to think about next time you swipe your debit card or go to withdraw money from an ATM.

  7. I am so ambivalent about money! I think the collective charge to it has wreaked unknown amounts of destruction,strife, and havoc. I enjoy the freedom and convenience it offers, but not the fear. The old barter system fascinates me and one day I will blog about some of my thoughts on it and how I was introduced to it. Your references are so varied and interesting as I would expect no less! I do not agree that purity of spirit equals poverty but have judged wealthy people for their lack of values or ethics. I also think that old tapes interfere with one’s relationship to abundance and success, whatever that truly means.

    • Rich comment – thanks (pun intended)! I am too fascinated with barter and I am glad it is making sort of a comeback. I agree that purity of spirit has nothing to do with poverty. Money is a mysterious force – I will never understand it completely.

  8. ptero9 says:

    I don’t watch a lot of movies, and am generally very bad at actor’s names and such, but have come to enjoy Kevin Spacey’s work. Although I have only seen a few so far, the movies he gets involved in all seem richly layered in symbolism even when he is playing a character that is hard to like.
    Money was bound to happen, and it makes sense to me that we would love and hate it. It is after all, a promissory note, or used to be anyway. So money is very much connected to the soul, to imagination in a powerful way because it isn’t the things that we buy with it, creates an empty space for us to imagine what happens when we spend it.
    Who hasn’t experienced that feeling of anticipation and wonder when we have some money to spend? Like a Friday evening before some weekend “free time,” the thought of what our money will buy can be quite intoxicating, or is it just me? 🙂
    You can’t imagine how much I love reading the incorporation of Hillman’s ideas into your already amazing encyclopedic knowledge of symbolism Monika. You make such interesting connections between so many sources! Thank you again…

    • Kevin Spacey plays a good guy in this movie. I actually watch quite a lot of movies – I used to go to the cinema all the time when I lived in Poland. I miss it here.
      I completely agree that money is intoxicating and connected to the soul. I am a Gemini and you know how Mercury was the god of merchants. Well, I adore street markets – I get high visiting them 😉
      Thank you for the compliment. You pushed me into Hillman’s arms. 🙂

  9. Monika — Two very good references for further consideration of money. I think it’s high time we transcended it. We’re literally slaves to the bank.
    1. This American Life (a wonderful radio show) “The Invention of Money”: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/423/the-invention-of-money
    2. An awesome book by Marc Shell, “Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophic Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era”: http://books.google.com/books/about/Money_Language_and_Thought.html?id=Dz6VtuSCIJsC
    The latter is worth finding just for the images of money, the words man has written, and the images he has drawn, to invoke social power and exchange value. It was also a subject of the last AFTAP… but I’m sure you know that. As Jeff so simply put it in your comments — One glitch and it’s gone! No glitch would surprise me at this point.

    • Thanks, Kelsey – both links seem awesome. Don’t laugh but I do not know if I have told you how I love Star Trek The Next Generation, which shows a vision of the world of the future without money. I believe it will happen one day. Perhaps if money appeared together with organized religion, they will also disappear together. By the way, the last AFTAP had me in stitches for some reason – it had great energy.

      • Hahaha. Yeah, the energy was very distinct. I know that Nick is an INTJ, too — and we’re so different as to our affect, and yet rather on the same wavelength in very specific and rare ways, that it’s interesting. I love the way he said “None!” so clearly as to occupation — as in, Why would I?!
        I know you love Star Trek The Next Generation — I should really check it out. I haven’t. I shall.

  10. what a wonderful informative post… thank you so much… I have written it down in my notebook to look out for when it comes up for rental…. take care Barbara

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