Some Origins of Money and Sacrifice
Money is abstract and powerful magic. There is almost no limit to the anecdotal power ascribed to money. Money is assumed to have such sway over people that its basic character is often described in terms we usually reserve for the supernatural. How else can we come to terms with a force that is at once the root of all evil, makes the world go around, and yet cannot buy you happiness?
We retreat to the inchoate language of the divine to describe money because we regard it as nearly omnipotent. With rare, grudging exception, modernity views money as something close to the animating principle of the body politic. The anima, the green fuse, the logos — all notions that abut the godhead and all ideas that begin to describe the way that money is believed to work in our lives. It is viewed as inevitable as the dawn and as unstoppable as an avalanche. We regard the only valid reasons to eschew money as a religious life-calling (a vow of poverty) or personal failure (a life of poverty without the ennobling vows).
Our beliefs about money are foundational and therefor, above normal questioning. Because money has its origins in the physical space, we give these operational bromides a greater degree of confidence than we ascribe to similar grand claims that are purely supernatural. At present, one is reasonably free to say they don’t believe in the Abrahamic God but it is not possible to say you don’t believe in money without being thought a fool.
Money is, above all else, a proxy. Money is never itself; value is intangible. Money only has value inasmuch it is a proxy for something which does have a demonstrable, corporeal value. Hours of work performed, jars of olive oil transported, amphora produced, these are all things for which money has a familiar proxy role. A certain number of hours of labor is worth a certain amount of money and that money is then negotiable for other corporeal things like food, clothing or entertainment. This is money’s currently understood function. For all the significance we intuit around the force of money in the world, its banal behavior is simple. One of the subtle strengths of money is to hide its immense and varied power in quotidian exchange. In this regard, it takes on something of the character of oxygen or water. It is regarded as vital but the function of money beyond the familiar rarely warrants additional scrutiny.
It has not always been this way. Many civilizations have thrived, built monuments to their gods and honored dead, raised armies and reshaped their environment without minting coins. This was the case for civilizations as diverse at the pre-Columbian Inca and the city-states of Ur or Babylon. Money, and it’s more familiar cousin, coinage are so ubiquitous today that we have a difficult time understanding how economies, much less whole civilizations, were able to thrive without them both. And yet, they flourished.
The shroud of pre-history requires that we speculate about the origins of many things, coinage is not one of those things. Coinage is easy enough to see in the archeological record. In some cases, the bulk our contemporary knowledge about whole cultures is known mainly from their coins. Likewise, the minting and mining of precious metals for specie currency leaves us with many clues as to ancient manufacturing.
In the western part of the Eurasian continent, coinage was first developed on the Greek mainland sometime around 800BCE. Lumps of naturally occurring electrum were to be found there, in riverbeds flowing from volcanic mountains. Recovered lumps were stamped with an incuse checkerboard. They resemble thumbnail sized balls of dough into which a few box patterns have been pressed. These were the first coins in the west and the Greeks would come to call them obols. Some of the characteristics of this early money would still be familiar to modern eyes, but their origins are in the sacrificial and religious.
Significant religious events are often associated with a sacrifice of some form. Leaving milk and cookies for Santa Claus is a benign example of a tradition of reciprocity with the supernatural that is evident in the earliest religious practices. Jacob is instructed to sacrifice Isaac, a narrative metaphor that eventually provides the ancient Jewish people with a method for replacing human sacrifice with animal sacrifice. A ram can be killed to propitiate a god but also as a proxy for a beloved human. If the right steps are followed, the uncertain humors of the divine can be nudged into a favorable direction and we can avoid throwing our virginal daughters into volcanoes. This is money’s first good trick.
In ancient Greece, an obolos (the origin of the word, obol) was a metal spit used for roasting meat. Archeologist still find bundles of these obolos at sacred sites around the Greek-influenced world. The Greeks, like the Hebrews of the Torah, were in negotiations with god. The terrible power of the divine to create and destroy, to embody all that was unknown and uncontrolled, could be soothed if we were willing to sacrifice. Money would give us a way to do that. This proxy interchange would become so diffuse that Greeks would eventually just donate obolos to temples because they were literally more valuable and also because they had come to embody the act of sacrifice. The burning of sacrificial animals, the oily smoke rising to heaven, would be swapped out for incense and candles over the centuries. In it’s most abstracted form offerings and sacrifices would simply be prayers, imagined by the faithful and delivered directly to the divine as surely as smoke rises towards heaven.