Gold and Silver

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GOLD AND SILVER are among the most widespread symbols in the history of religions. Their exceptional physical qualities make themlike their celestial counterparts, the sun and the moonunusually powerful symbols of spiritual realities. As a physical substance, gold is quite literally incorruptible: it is highly resistant to chemical reactions and is immune to the corrosion that affects baser metals. It is also intrinsically luminous, seeming to shine with a light of its own. Thus no speculative leap was required to make gold the universally acknowledged symbol of life and the spirit and of perfection and immortality. There is a certain obviousness to the symbolic value of gold that explains its universal appeal throughout history and in virtually every corner of the world.

Silver too is naturally suited to serve as a religious symbol. Its faultless whiteness has made it a symbol of purity andin the appropriate historical contextsof chastity. Purified in the refiner's fire, it becomes a symbol of purification and perfection. Associated with its silvery counterpart in the night sky, it is integrated into an entire complex of lunar symbolism that includesnot surprisinglythe great purifier, water.

Religious Significance

When John Ruskin spoke of gold's "imperishable splendour," he spoke metaphorically of a universally recognized quality that people of earlier times took quite literally. For many in the history of religions, gold has not merely symbolized the imperishable but embodied it. In ancient India the Śatapatha Brāhmaa identified gold with immortality. The ancient Chinese identified it with Heaven. Beliefs such as these lie behind the extremely widespread use of gold in connection with a whole variety of funerary practices. Indeed, most of the surviving examples of the ancient goldsmith's art have been found in graves. One of the most impressive collections of artistic gold articles was discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamen (Egypt, fourteenth century bce), including the stunning gold burial mask that formed a part of the king's coffin. Gold funeral masks are quite common globally: They have been found from Champa (modern Vietnam) to Peru. The mummies of the kings of ancient Peru were completely wrapped in gold foil. In addition to masks, many other accessories and ornaments found in graves are also made of gold or silver. In the case of gold the meaning is clear: The immortality of the deceased is ensured by providing the deceased with an immortal persona, the mask made of gold. Moreover, gold (like jade) was sometimes used to block up the natural openings of the corpse in the belief that this would prevent its decay. In some cases, notably in ancient China, such concern for immortality began while the person was still alive. Thus Chinese alchemy, as in some other alchemical traditions, it was believed that drinking an elixir made from gold would confer immortality.

As a symbol of spiritual realities, gold occurs frequently in the representations of key religious figures. The Buddha, the Enlightened One, is frequently portrayed in gold. One of the most impressive examples is the huge image of the Buddha found in the Wat Traimit in Bangkok, Thailand, an image made entirely of gold. One also thinks of the dazzling gold ornaments that adorn the bodhisattvas in the paintings discovered at Dunhuang. Equally striking are the golden aureoles that surround the heads of saints in Christian iconography.

Religious rituals have also made use of gold and silver. All manner of ritual implements and vessels have been fashioned from these precious metals. The medieval Christian church made extensive use of gold in the construction of crosses, chalices, patens, ornamental covers for the Bible, and reliquaries. One also finds silvered cases created to house Buddhist sūtras, and a variety of Buddhist ceremonial objects in gold.

Yet the symbolism of gold and silver in the history of religions has not always been completely positive. Particularly in the Western Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), gold and silver have occasionally taken on a negative value. One need only recall the story of the golden calf (Ex. 32) or the golden image set up by Nebuchadrezzar, which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship (Dn. 3). In the Hebrew scriptures gold is often the symbol of idolatry or of purely human glory. There is a similar distrust of gold and silver in Islam. According to one adīth, or saying of the prophet Muammad, "He who drinks from gold and silver vessels drinks the fire of Hell." In the opinion of the thirteenth-century Persian cosmographer al-Qazwīnī, the use of gold and silver for ornament thwarts the divinely intended purpose of these metals, which should be used as coinage for trade.

Association with Sacred Time and Space

Gold and silver have also played an important part in the articulation of sacred time and space. Sacred time par excellence is often represented as a Golden Age, which is followed by an only slightly inferior Silver Age. The widespread schema of the four ages of the world finds its way into the Book of Daniel (2:3145), in Nebuchadrezzar's dream of a colossus with a head of gold and with breast and arms of silver.

To the extent that sacred space has been organized around a temple, the presence of gold and silver ornament has contributed powerfully to the creation of a properly numinous ambience. Here one thinks not only of the wealth of Solomon's temple and of medieval Christian cathedrals, but also of the Temple of the Sun at Cuzco in ancient Peru, which was covered with enormous quantities of gold. In the Hindu tradition the world has passed through four periods of time; according to popular legend, all the accoutrements used by people were made from gold in the earliest period, which was regarded as the purest era.

Association with Alchemy

Nowhere, however, is the symbolic potential of gold and silver exploited more fully than in the various traditions of alchemy. According to alchemical doctrine, gold and silver develop in the earth under the influence of the sun and moon respectively. The ultimate goal of this development is the production of gold, which is consequently viewed as the perfect metal, and as a symbol of spiritual perfection. The alchemist's art is intended to hasten this natural process, both in external nature and within the alchemist's soul. Silver here becomes the symbol of the soul's purity and passivity before the activity of the spirit, symbolized by gold.

See Also

Alchemy; Colors; Money.


A good introduction to the history and use of gold is C. H. V. Sutherland's Gold: Its Beauty, Power and Allure (New York, 1959). For an introduction to the symbolism of gold and silver in alchemy, one should consult Mircea Eliade's The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1978), and Titus Burckhardt's Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul (Baltimore, 1971). For a survey of the use of both gold and silver in art from primitive times to the present, see the article "Gold- and Silverwork," in the Encyclopedia of World Art (New York, 1962).

New Sources

Bernstein, Peter L. The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession. New York, 2000.

DuQuesne, Terence. Black and Gold God: Colour Symbolism of the God Anubis with Observations on the Phenomenology of Colour in Egypt and Comparative Religion. London, 1996.

Gonda, Jan. The Functions and Significance of Gold in the Vedas. New York, 1991.

James, Dominic. God and Gold in Late Antiquity. New York, 1998.

David Carpenter (1987)

Revised Bibliography