Golden Age

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GOLDEN AGE . In its narrowest sense, the term Golden Age refers to a mode of utopian existence, described in a variety of Greek, Roman, and later Western Christian texts, that is freed from the vicissitudes of everyday life and is characterized by peace and plenty, with nature spontaneously producing food and humans living in close relationship to the gods. Most usually, the Golden Age is located temporally in the far past or, more rarely, in the distant future. Spatially, it is located in vague or far-off regions of the earth; more rarely, it is a place accessible only after death, as described by Pindar (fifth century bce) in his portrait of the Elysian Fields (Olympian Ode 2.6876). In its broadest sense, the term has been extended by some scholars to include any mythical, paradisical time of origins. As banalized in common discourse, golden age has been transformed into a quasi-historical label for any period of extraordinary wealth or human achievement.

The Hesiodic Myth and Its Development

The most particular reference to the Golden Age, although it does not use the term, is the account of the successive races of people given by the Greek author Hesiod (eighth century bce) in his didactic poem Works and Days (106201). Whether directly or indirectly, Hesiod is the sole source for the myth in later Western literature and the arts. The account sits somewhat uneasily in its Hesiodic context, being introduced almost by way of a digression, and seems to be in tension with other anthropogonic motifs in the poem. Five races or kinds of people are described in temporal succession. Four are characterized by valuable metals: the golden race, the silver race, the bronze race, and, after an intervening race of heroes that is most likely not part of the original schema, the iron race. Although not fully developed, there appears to be a succession of moral and physical decay. With the exception of the intrusive race of heroes, each state appears to be inferior to its predecessor.

In its brief description of the golden race, the Hesiodic narrative combines six motifs: (1) the succession of races of people (in Hesiod's account, these are different species, separate creations of the gods, and are not to be seen as successive stages of mankind, the world, or history); (2) the correlation of the races with metals; (3) the identification of the golden race with the reign of an elder deity (in Hesiod, with the rule of Kronos); (4) the topos that, in the beginning, humans lived in close company with the gods; (5) a set of paradisical features including a carefree existence of feasting, wealth, and peace in a state of perpetual youth, terminated by a peaceful death; and (6) the spontaneous yield of crops from the earth, so that humanity was fed without toil. Each of these motifs has worldwide distribution. At times, they have served as elements that have been integrated into broader systems of religious, historical, and anthropological thought (for example, systems of apocalypticism, messianism, utopianism, or primitivism) as well as literary genres such as the pastoral. However, the combination of motifs in Hesiod is without parallel.

In later Greek poetic versions, especially the influential Phaenomena (96136) by Aratus (third century bce), additional details were added to Hesiod's brief account. The Golden Age was characterized, above all, by justice. Its utopian mode of life included vegetarianism. What was of greater importance, the metals now identified stages in the history of a single race, and the implicit theme of degeneration was more consistently applied. In Greek philosophical literaturemost extensively by Plato (Statesman 269274)this latter element was fully developed and related to notions of historical periodicity, recurrence, and world cycles. The later, expanded portrait of the Golden Age, with the additional motif of free sexuality, was carried over into Latin versions of the Hesiodic myth, above all in the first-century work of Ovid (esp. Metamorphoses 1.76150). The Latin tradition is important in three respects. First, the persistent Greek terminology referring to the "golden race" (chruseon genos ) was transformed into the more familiar phrase "the Golden Age" (aurea saecula or aurea aetas ). Second, although some Roman texts maintain the four metals schema, the contrast was reduced to a duality: then and now, the Age of Kronos and the Age of Zeus, the Golden Age and the present times. Third, with the general loss of Greek literature in the Middle Ages, it was the Latin tradition, especially the Ovidian version, that was most influential on later Western literature. Beyond its adaptations of the Hesiodic myth, Roman tradition contributed new spatial and temporal dimensions to the Western imagining of the Golden Age. Two innovations were of greatest significance; both may be associated with the towering figure of Vergil in the first century bce. The development of the Alexandrian conventions of the pastoral, the literary topos of the idyllic place (locus amoenus ), and the paradisical imagery of the Golden Age came together in Vergil's portrait of Arcadia in his Eclogues. In such poetry, the Golden Age came closer to the experience of the contemporary human. Taken out of mythical time and reduced to the "good old days," to bucolic scenes of the rustic, simple life, the pastoral became "an image of what they call the Golden Age" as Alexander Pope observed in his Discourse on Pastoral Poetry. At the same time, an eschatological element was introduced. Often tied to imperial ideology, the notion was advanced that the Golden Age was recoverable, now or in the immediate future. While this became a commonplace of imperial rhetoric (see Vergil, Aeneid 6.791794)no fewer than sixteen Roman emperors claimed that their reigns had reestablished the Golden Agethe best-known example remains the fourth of Vergil's Eclogues. This mysterious poem, composed in 4140 bce, ties the end of the Iron Age and the initiation of a new Golden Age to the birth of a wondrous child. In Vergil's work, the myth of the Golden Age is no longer an expression of pessimism with respect to the present; rather it has become a prediction of future hope and regeneration. Elements in the poetic tradition of the Golden Age lent themselves to christianization. In its Greek form, it could be harmonized with accounts of Eden and with notions of sin as accounting for humanity's fall from Paradise. The eschatological understanding of the Golden Age could be harmonized with predictions of the birth of the Messiah and the coming of Christ's kingdom. However, apart from contributing to theories of world periods, the myth of the Golden Age was not a major element in Christian literary imagination from the early sixth century (see Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.5) until the Renaissance. While late medieval epic traditions (for example, Dante and the Roman de la rose ) continued antique conventions of the Golden Age, a variety of new historical factors contributed to a reawakening of interest in the motif of the Golden Age. Alongside of the rediscovery of classical texts and works of art was the self-consciousness of a "renaissance," of a new birth, a new age that was, at the same time, a recovery of lost, past glories. Thus, the motto of Lorenzo de' Medici, "the time returned" (le tems revient ), the description by Vasari of the era of Lorenzo as "truly a golden age" (Life of Botticelli), the elaborate court and coronation pageants in which Saturn-Kronos and the four metallic ages were depicted by actors (Vasari, Life of Pontormo ). Once again, the language of the Golden Age and imperial ideology were conjoined. The development of Renaissance urbanism led to a new, nostalgic interest in the pastoral, a form rediscovered by Jacopo Sannazaro and Torquato Tasso and culminating in Edmund Spenser's dominant interest in the Golden Age. The reformers found in the concept of the Golden Age an expression of their interest in a return to simplicity (see, for example, Erasmus's In Praise of Folly ). Above all, it was contact with other cultures through exploration that allowed a sense of the palpable presence of the Golden Age. Joined to the topos of the Noble Savage, the new peoples and territories, especially those of the "New World," are unceasingly described in the Renaissance chronicles as living in the Golden Age. While shorn of much of its mythic content, the concept plays a role in the subsequent, somewhat turgid history of rival theories of the progress and degeneration of mankind. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these various contexts were much elaborated, especially in the context of the mythic understanding of immigrant America. It was a place of new birth and rebirth, a place of freedom, its bounty vast and unimaginable. From the seventeenth-century Puritan imagination (in Cotton Mather's words, "the first Age was the Golden Age; to return unto that will make a man a Protestant, and I may add, a Puritan") to the nineteenth-century romanticization of the American West (historian H. H. Bancroft, for example, described life as "a long happy holiday such as the old-time golden age under Cronus or Saturn"), the imagery was self-conscious and persistent. Finally, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the topos of the return of the Golden Age was joined to the industrial myth of progress, expressed on the one hand in the notion of science as providing a world without care, and on the other in theories of primitive communism that animated many radical social and political utopian experiments and political movements. Both of these ideologies are a major motif in the writings of Dostoevskii (most explicitly in Notes from the Underground and The Dream of the Ridiculous Man ), perhaps the most creative literary use of the Golden Age since Vergil.

The Golden Age in Cross-Cultural Comparison

In considering the worldwide distribution of the myth of the Golden Age, much depends on decisions of definition and classification. Does one seek close parallels to the specific constellation of motifs found in the Hesiodic narrative, or does one note any instance of a sharp duality between a previous age of perfection and the present? Does one include such closely related topoi as postmortem realms that are the reverse of present conditions, or terrestrial paradises? Does one insist on the notion of past possession of the Golden Age? Does one focus on those mythologies that report its permanent loss, or on those that promise its return? Does one include mythologies in which characteristics resembling life in the Golden Age serve as narrative elements, expressing some contrast between a past and present state (as in the various mythologies of the origin of death), but do not function as the focal point of the myth? Does one include instances of isolated motifs (such as the widespread motif of self-harvesting plants or automatic implements) that occur in folkloristic contexts other than a Golden Age? Out of the number of possible comparisons, three systems of Golden Age mythology stand out, both for their persistence and for their differing functions: the Golden Age in relation to myths of origins, to millenarian activities, and to royal ideologies.

Myths of origins

Most myth posits a sharp duality between "then" and "now," a duality often overcome in the narrative through modes of transformation whereby the one becomes the other. This split and its attendant transformation is most clearly expressed in myths of origin, especially those that take the form of a mythology of rupture between a previous state and the present order. Evaluations of this previous state vary: it may be better, or worse, or simply different than the present. Among early literary accounts, scholars of the ancient Near East have identified a genre of creation narrative that begins with the formula "When there was not" (the same negative formula recurs in medieval Christian descriptions of the other world). Some of these take on the form of a myth of a Golden Age. For example, "Enki's Spell," a part of the Sumerian epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, tells of a time when there were no dangerous animals to threaten humans, when there was nothing to fear, and when humankind spoke a common tongue, obeyed divine laws, and was ruled by the beneficent deity Enlil. This happy state was brought to an end through the jealousy of another deity (Enki). This same negative formula recurs in Scandinavian mythology to describe the original cosmos (Vo̜luspá 3, 5). In this state, before the creation of man, the gods lived in peace, playing games and possessing much gold (Vo̜luspá 8). This happy mode of existence will return. The golden feasting tables will once again be set out and the fields will bear crops without cultivation (Vo̜luspá 612). This last motif is common to many Indo-European epic traditions; for example, Mahābhārata 3.11.234235 tells how during the ktayuga there was no work and the necessities of life were obtained by being merely thought of. The motif occurs as well in many mythologies of the invention of agriculture, especially in the Indonesian and North American Indian culture complexes. For example, in a variation on this theme, which includes as well the mythologem of rupture, a characteristic etiological tale from the Boróro (of Mato Grosso, Brazil) tells how, in olden times, a woman went to pick maize, which in those days was planted and cultivated by spirits. The woman accidentally hurt her hand and blamed the accident on Burekóibo, the chief of the spirits. In punishment, the spirits ceased their labors, and humans had to toil for food, clearing the forest, planting the seed, and cultivating the crops. There was as well a diminution in the size of the ears of corn since the days when the spirits were responsible for agriculture.


The explicit connection of the Greco-Roman myth of the Golden Age and Christian chiliasm is at least as old as the third century (Lactantius, Divine Institutes 5.5, 7.24) and was fully developed in the complex, medieval Christian sibylline traditions. Similar combinations are equally prominent in archaic mythologies and recent nativistic movements. While none of these are demonstrably free from possible Christian influence, they reflect, as well, indigenous tradition. Perhaps the clearest set of examples is from the South American Indians of Gran Chaco and Amazonia. There are mythologies of a lost Golden Age such as that found among the Tembé. In earlier times, there was once a place where work was unknown. The fields planted and harvested themselves. When the inhabitants grew old, they did not die but were rejuvenated. The present-day Tembé no longer know the route to this "Happy Place." Such a mythical place can also be used to describe an original peaceful unity, subsequently shattered, which explains the difference between the white colonialist and the native. Thus, the Mataco picture a time and place long ago when there were no Christians, when the ancestors of what would later become the Christians and the Mataco lived together harmoniously in a single house. Everything was provided without labor, from tools to domesticated animals and clothing. The Christian ancestors took away the best of these things, leaving the Mataco only clay pots and dogs. In other versions of this motif of the origin of inequality, the native utopia is superseded by a European one, as among the Boróro. After living peacefully together, quarrels broke out over the possession of magically produced objects. The white people's ancestors were sent away in boats to avoid bloodshed and have never returned because they found a more beautiful and even more wondrous uninhabited land. A more complex expression of a recoverable Golden Age occurs among the various Tupi-Guaraní and Tupinamba groups who have set off on lengthy tribal wanderings from the interior to the Atlantic coast in order to reach a mythical "Land without Evil" or "Land of Immortality and Perpetual Rest." (The earliest record of such a journey is from a Spanish report in 1515; the most recent instance occurred in 1957.) This land, variously described by the different groups, has neither sickness or death; it is a vast garden-island, filled with game and fruits, on which the inhabitants will spend their time feasting and dancing. The same sort of Golden Age imagery recurs among Tupinamba nativistic resistance movements. The Santidades, as described by late sixteenth-century Jesuit missionaries, were common among groups displaced by force to work on the colonial plantations. Native religious leaders urged their followers to stop work and revive old rituals. If they did so, the fields would plant and harvest themselves, tools would work automatically, and old people would be rejuvenated and not know death. The fundamental imagery of these groups stems from shamanistic visions of an otherworld. Many exhibit, as well, clear Christian borrowings. Such influence, however, was reciprocal. In 1539, a large group of Tupinamba crossed the South American landmass at its widest point in a nine-year journey ending in Peru. There their tales of the mythical "golden place" they were seeking so excited the Spaniards that an expedition was immediately launched to locate Eldorado (originally a golden man; later believed to be a city of gold).


From the earliest Mesopotamian hymns of self-praise by Shulgi, ruler of the third dynasty of Ur (r. 20942047 bce) to the encomia addressed to seventeenth-century European monarchs (such as Charles II, whom Abraham Cowley celebrates for having transformed an Age of Iron into an Age of Gold), royal ideology and the myth of the Golden Age have been intertwined. As noted above, historical kings from the emperors of Rome to the Medicis have claimed that their reigns reestablished the Golden Age. There is even greater elaboration of Golden Age motifs in the myths of primordial sacred kings. Kronos-Saturn in Greco-Roman tradition is one such example, already present in the Hesiodic account. Iranian mythology is more extended and explicit.

After the ninth century ce, in the late Pahlavi, New Persian, and Arabic writings as well as in the so-called secular epic tradition, the disparate Iranian royal genealogical and mythical traditions were organized into a systematic presentation that located the origins of kingship in the figure of Hōshang. Depicted in quite conventional terms as an ideal king and civilizing hero as well as the progenitor (with his sister Guzak) of the Iranian people, Hōshang established justice, peace, and law. He invented iron-working, the arts of mining and navigation, and the building of canals for irrigation. He was the first to hunt with dogs, make clothing out of skins, and to fashion wooden doors for houses. During his reign, according to the fifteenth-century universal history by Mīrkhwānd, the Rawz̤at al-afāʾ (Garden of purity), the "world bloomed" and people "reposed in gardens of content." Behind this stereotypical portrait of an ideal realm, lies an older, most likely pre-Zoroastrian, myth of a full-blown Golden Age, that associated with the reign of the Indo-Iranian figure of Yima. In the earlier traditions of the Avesta, Yima is like the sun. In his reign of a thousand years, humans and beasts do not die (indeed, there is no difference in appearance between a man and his son); waters and plants do not dry up from the heat; there is neither excessive warmth, nor cold, nor any form of disease; and there is an inexhaustible supply of food (Yasna 9.45; Yashts 9.10, 10.50, 17.30, 19.3233). During this Golden Age, Yima enlarged the world three times in order to make room for his citizens and bounty, but such a realm could not be extended indefinately. Therefore, Ahura Mazdā warned Yima that a universal winter would come and that Yima was to carve out a subterranean kingdom with magical tools, into which he was to bring the most magnificent individuals among the men, animals, and plants in his realm as well as the most savory foods. This kingdom, vara, in many respects resembles Yama's realm of the dead in Indic tradition. There, in his underground golden kingdom, which will glow with its own self-generated light, Yima will rule and men will live "the most beautiful life" (Vendidad 2). In late traditions, Yima will emerge, at the end of the world's winter, to repopulate the earth (Mēnōg i Khrad 27.2731). Following the so-called Zoroastrian reform, this archaic myth was radically altered. The Golden Age of Yima's rule lasts only until he lies, when the glorious kingship will leave him (Yashts 19.3338). Indeed, in some traditions, Yima is only the builder of the subterranean realm; Zarathushtra's third son will be its ruler (Vendidad 2.4243).

See Also

Heaven and Hell; Millenarianism; Paradise; Utopia.


Walter Veit's Studien zur Geschichte des Topos de goldenen Zeit von der Antike bis zum 18. Jahrhundert (Cologne, 1961) and H. J. Mähl's Die Idee des goldenen Zeitalters im Werk des Novalis (Heidelberg, 1965) are the most comprehensive histories of the theme of the Golden Age as found in Western literature. A balanced account of the Hesiodic tradition and a selective bibliography can be found in the edition of Hesiod's Works and Days by M. L. West (Oxford, 1978). Jean-Pierre Vernant's important Myth and Thought among the Greeks (London, 1983) complements West's book. The most significant monograph on the Golden Age in the Greco-Roman tradition, with judicious cross-cultural parallels, is Bobo Gatz's Weltalter, goldene Zeit und sinnverwandte Vorstellungen (Hildesheim, 1967). A rich selection of Greco-Roman texts in English translation is presented in Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas's Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (1935; reprint, New York, 1973). For the myth as found in Renaissance literature, see Harry Levin's topical study, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance (Bloomington, Ind., 1969). Ernst H. Gombrich's "Renaissance and the Golden Age," reprinted in his Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London, 1966), is invaluable on the connection of the myth to the ideology of the Medicis. The introduction to Gustavo Costa's La leggenda dei secoli d'oro nella letteratura italiana (Bari, 1972) sets the Renaissance revival of interest in the Golden Age within the broadest of cultural contexts. On the Golden Age and America, see Charles L. Sanford's The Quest for Paradise: Europe and the American Moral Imagination (Urbana, Ill., 1961).

On the central theme of automatic crops and/or tools in Western literature on the Golden Age, see Roy Walker's The Golden Feast: A Perennial Theme in Poetry (London, 1952); for its occurrence in Indonesian and Amerindian myths, consult the brief synopsis in Gudmund Hatt's "The Corn Mother in America and in Indonesia," Anthropos 46 (1951): 853914. On the complex South American mythologies of the "Land without Evil," see Mircea Eliade's masterful summary, with essential bibliography, "Paradise and Utopia: Mythical Geography and Eschatology," reprinted in his The Quest (Chicago, 1969), pp. 88111. For the mythologies of Hōshang and Yima, the most complete account, with a translation of all relevant texts, remains Arthur Christensen's Les types du premier homme et du premier roi dans l'histoire légendaire des Iraniens, 2 vols. (Stockholm, 19171934). For a comparative treatment within the broad context of Indo-European royal ideology, see Georges Dumézil's The Destiny of a King, translated by Alf Hiltebeitel (Chicago, 1973).

Jonathan Z. Smith (1987)

Golden Age

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A theme common to all the myths concerned with the early history of mankind is the assumption of a continuous deterioration. Its ultimate source is the pessimistic feeling of regret for a lost paradise and of sorrow for a fall from a high estate. The first age of the world is thought of as a period of innocence and happiness. This "Golden Age" is one of the oldest ideas of mankind. In Greece it is certainly earlier than the Odyssey, for the narrative of Eumaeus (15.403) seems to be an ironic imitation of a tale on the Golden Age. The oldest tradition probably, as in the Sanskrit texts, distinguished four ages or stages in the steady deterioration of mankind, the Ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron.

In Hesiod and Later Greek Poets. In Hesiod (Op. 109), the earliest Greek source, the races of gold and silver are mythical human beings, closer to the gods than to men, whom the earth supported in miraculous fashion. Hesiod's description of this Eden-like existence assumes an original human state of happiness and piety. The use of meat is not forbidden, but a "Pythagorean" tradition of vegetarianism is found in Empedocles (Frag. 128D) and in Theophrastus (ap. Porph. Abst. 2.20). On the other hand, the comic poets Pherecrates in his Wild Men, and Moschio, in Frag. 6 (ed. Nauck TGF2), echo legends of a primitive life in which there is a ceaseless struggle for animal flesh as a food, with human flesh even being substituted for it in case of necessity. This is the λληλοφαγία(an eating of one another) mentioned in Plato's Epinomis (975A; cf. Orphica, Frag. 292, ed. O. Kern). The transition from savagery to civilization was made only very slowly, and the process was even interrupted by catastrophes.

In Plato. Plato's Laws (bk. 3) opens with a tableau of mankind immediately after the Flood, again forced to start from the very beginning. With this description it is necessary to compare the myth of the Protagoras (321C), and that of the Statesman (Politicus 274AD), which depicts the world without God. Earlier, the Statesman had given an idyllic description of a life of men with God as their shepherd (271D272B)the Golden Age that is sketched more briefly in bk. four of the Laws and in the Critias. In his narrative of the rule of Cronus in the Statesman and in Laws (bk. 4), as well as in his account of the beginnings of Zeus's reign in the Statesman and of the survivors of the Flood in the Laws (bk. 3), Plato does not hesitate to give his own form to traditions that were differently presented by earlier writers.

Among the Romans. In the Latin world, bk. three of the sibylline oracles, which dates from c. 140 b.c., spread the idea of a peace among animals (verses 788794), an idea from Isaiah (11.6). This feature of the Golden Age reappears in the descriptions of Vergil (Ecl. 4) and Horace (Epod. 16; cf. Od. 3.18.13). Saturn succeeds Cronus, the reign of Cronus becomes the Saturnia regna (Georg. 4.6); the Cumaeum carmen of verse 4 alludes to the Cumaean Sibyl, and the gens aurea of verse nine refers to the first race of men in Hesiod. However, there is no warrant for attributing to Vergil the role of pagan prophet of the Messiah; the tradition that leads him to the Manger in company with the prophets of Israel is to be regarded not so much as a "presentiment" as rather a certain "delicacy and fineness of feeling on the part of souls who were soon to receive the gift of God" [M. J. Lagrange, RB 35 (1922) 572].

Bibliography: w. k. guthrie, In the Beginning: Some Greek Views on the Origins of Life and the Early State of Man (London 1957). h. gray, et al., j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 1:183210. j. haekel, Religionswissenschaftliches Wörterbuch, ed. f. kÖnig (Freiburg 1956) 641644. m. eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, tr. p. mairet (New York 1960). h. jeanmaire, Le Messianisme de Virgile (Paris 1930). j. carcopino, Virgile et le mystère de la IV e églogue (Paris 1930). w. h. roscher, ed., Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, 6 v. (Leipzig 18841937) 6:375430. s. thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 6 v. (rev. and enl. ed. Bloomington, Ind. 195558) 1:A110103.

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Golden Age

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Golden Age

Golden Age is one of several prominent periodicals serving the metaphysical and post-New Age spiritual community in Australia. A full-color periodical that covers a wide range of current topics across the spectrum of personal psychic and spiritual development and holistic health, it has begun to find an international audience. Though retaining an Australian focus, it is distributed in North America.

Each issue of the Golden Age is built around a set of feature articles of interest to the post-New Age spiritual community. Regular topics include astrology, psychic and spiritual realities, the wisdom of ancient cultures, UFOs, and various health alternatives. Descriptions of various development centers inform readers of the range of options in the world of alternative spiritualities in Australia. The Golden Age views itself as providing a full range of perspectives on Truth. It sees its readership as those who have chosen to take responsibility for their own spirituality and progress. To those it attempts to offer inspiration and upliftment.

While not designed as a networking magazine, the Golden Age carries a wide range of advertisements from different organizations and movements, from Spiritualist and theosophical centers to the headquarters of various Eastern teachers. Numerous psychic counselors, spiritual healers, and divinatory readers offer their services through the magazine.

Golden Age is published by Merlin Publications, P.O. Box 146, Highbury, South Australia 5089.


Golden Age. Highbury, South Australia, n.d.

golden age

views updated Jun 08 2018

gold·en age • n. an idyllic, often imaginary past time of peace, prosperity, and happiness. ∎  the period when a specified art, skill, or activity is at its peak: the golden age of cinema.