Before there was such a thing as a market economy, metals defined money. Sparkling rocks belie an ugly history, but one worth re-visiting as the precious metals sector of the market reaches for a new era of dominance.
Bloomberg News recently reported that “industrial metal prices are powering to the highest in years,” sparked by upcoming legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions for vehicles, post-pandemic demand for home electronics, and an across-the-board desire by manufacturers of all stripes for next-wave batteries. Aided and abetted by a Biden administration pledge of $400 billion for clean energy research and development, base metals such as copper, nickel, lithium, platinum, and tin are poised to lead “a new commodities supercycle.”
Metal has not been on top of the money heap since President Richard Nixon floated the dollar in the summer of 1971, thus sidelining gold as the sovereign of all underlying values. For the past fifty years, nickel, tin, platinum, gold, and silver have played second fiddle to paper, and few have mourned the loss. But money’s relationship with metal did not originate with the manufacturing requirements of I-phones, Teslas, and catalytic converters. Metal lies at the heart of primitive money, and reveals more than a few unsettling facts about plutocracy and banking.
Around 700 years ago an ancient poet named Hesiod published Works and Days. Written before the advent of precious metal coinage, Hesiod wrote about the metals as if they were gods. Gold was the child of Zeus, tin the off- spring of Jupiter, copper of Venus, iron of Mars, and lead of Saturn. Silver was the white goddess, ruled by the moon. Human history began when those “immortals who dwell in Olympian homes brought into being the golden race of mortal men . . . who lived like gods without any care in their hearts, free and apart from labor and misery.” The golden race lived in the Golden Age, and after those Edenic days had come and gone, the gods of silver, bronze, and iron took turns ruling their own increasingly bleak epochs, all of which ended badly, culminating in what was, according to Hesiod, “evil war and terrible battle.”
The metal gods led tragic lives. In Nigeria, the myth centers around Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron, who kills himself with his own sword. Ogun’s iron body disintegrates and diffuses beneath the earth, but his soul lives on as the sacred guardian of metalsmiths. Another tragic tale recounts the sad fate of the Greek god Hephaestus, flung down from the heights of Olympus, consigned for all eternity to forge armor and weapons of bronze and steel, only to hear secondhand about the frolics and flirtations of his unfaithful wife. Chief among the ancient chthonic deities was Pluto, not only the wealthiest of all the gods, but also the most tragically confined to darkness.
In the myths, each metal character possesses his or her own telos, the Greek word for both fate and payment. This fate-payment-telos was as a general rule gruesome, for the precious metal gods were each in turn overthrown, and more often than not, ripped to shreds. Like the protagonists of classical tragedy, the metal gods weren’t just murdered. They were pulverized and flung to the farthest reaches — where they found refuge in lodes and veins buried deep within the mountains or hidden within the silt of riverbeds.
The earliest metallurgists — a combination of priest, magician, shaman, and scientist — learned to collect the shattered remnants of their lost gods. They knew how to incorporate the remains into slurries, and bless them with salts, solvents, heat, and pressure. They understood that the fragments would then purify, repair themselves, and galvanize into miraculously reincarnated wholes, and that the spirit of a vanquished god could be recovered and transformed into material prosperity. They were betting that the empire of the metals would rise again to hold sway over competing ancient money systems, such as grain money, livestock money, and polished snail shells.
Precious metal coinage appeared for the first time in the Peloponnese in the middle of the fifth century BC, simultaneous with the birth of tragedy. The coincidence has engendered an erudite debate among classicists as to why these two transformative innovations evolved in the same place at the same time.
A hint is embedded in the ancient Greek. Ploutos meant the wealth of precious metal, but Pluto has also been translated as “the hidden one,” a definition that has endured as sound advice. It’s why pirates and thieves bury their coins and bullion. It’s why Pluto lives underground, where no one can find him.
Here’s the myth: After ten million years of darkness, Pluto mounted his golden chariot, burst above ground, and after his eyes adjusted to the light he spied a beautiful young maiden gathering wildflowers, whom he summarily tossed into the back seat. The earth yawned open, and Pluto’s four black stallions rushed the god and his hostage back to his underground palace. Here, he hid her, raped her, and forced her into marriage — which would not have bothered any of the other gods except that the maiden, Persephone, was the daughter of the goddess Demeter, who presided over the fertility of the earth.
Only after Demeter threatened that unless she got Persephone back she would send the planet into eternal winter, did Zeus demand that his older brother Pluto come to the bargaining table. Eventually, Pluto agreed to allow his queen to rise to the surface each spring, just in time for renewal feasts such as Easter, Passover, Persian New Years, the Babylonian barley festival, and the Bosnian bacchanalia of scrambled eggs. Come fall, Persephone must return to the underworld and her life as Pluto’s bride. Their monstrous merger generated a son, Plutus, the “divine child,” who is both lame and winged. Like money, he takes his time arriving but is gone before you know it.
Pluto had notched a decisive victory for metal, and it came at the expense of the grain goddess herself. The death god had pulled off a profitable merger and acquisition: Not only had he fractionalized his wife, he had leveraged spring, and the bargain led to an astounding run.
Soon thereafter the first precious metal coins appeared in the ancient kingdom of Lydia, which is presently a part of Turkey. Those first coins were struck with the image of a lion, its front paws flailing in the air. It is generally agreed among numismatists that this lion was the insignia of a king named Alyattes, who ruled from 620 BC to his death in 560.
Alyattes’ son was Croesus, generally considered the richest man of the ancient world. He amused himself by guzzling wine from golden pitchers and devouring mutton with golden utensils until the Persian King Cyrus raised a cavalry of armored camels, marched across the plains of Babylonia, lit a bonfire, barbecued Croesus, and melted all his coins. After Cyrus came Darius, who melted all of Cyrus’ coins and re-minted them in order to broadcast his own epic story and create the impression of infinite power. Then Alexander of Macedon came along to burn, rape, and pillage the Persian empire, melt all the darics, and coin coins with Macedonian faces.
The tragic tale would continue. The Romans would toss Alexander’s coins into the same cauldron as the booty they had stolen from the Angles, Gauls, and Teutons, melting the old coins and coining new coins with the portraits of Caligula, Claudius, Diocletian, Hadrian, Marc Antony, Nero, Octavius, and each of the Twelve Caesars. Eventually, Muslims would invade and melt Roman gold, then the Catholics would invade and melt the Muslim gold, which would eventually find their way into coins stamped by thousands of medieval mints in Bavaria, England, Frisia, Saxony, and up and down the Rhine. After death and rebirths too numerous to count, some of King Alyattes’ gold most likely endures within the ingots stacked in the basement of the United States Federal Reserve.
Some say that the very first Lydian coin would have been enough to buy eleven sheep, including all rights and privileges to the hundred or so pounds of wool they produced each year. Others estimate the value at ten goats — and the hundred or so pounds of milk they might produce each day. Still others, perhaps most extravagantly, estimate three jugs of wine. It doesn’t really matter, because within a century of their birth millions of them would migrate across Europe, and Phoenician merchants on the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula would be exchanging coins with Carthaginians from North Africa three-thousand miles from Lydia.
For thousands of years, metal money would reign supreme. Paper would eventually usurp the throne, and some predict that cryptos will win out. But in times of crisis and scarcity—times like today—popular wisdom reverts to faith in the metals. The point: metals are, by nature, tragic. Forewarned is fore-armed.