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The Origins of Money

"Money, like certain other essential elements in civilization, is a far more ancient institution than we were taught to believe some few years ago. Its origins are lost in the mists when the ice was melting, and may well stretch into the paradisiac intervals in human history of the inter-glacial periods, when the weather was delightful and the mind free to be fertile of new ideas - in the islands of the Hesperides or Atlantis or some Eden of Central Asia"

If we don't know its exact origins, we do know however that all the earlier forms of money were deeply related to the mysteries of the sacred, and its role as a symbol. A symbol is "something which represents something else which is immaterial or abstract as a being, idea, quality or condition" according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And it goes on to point out that all its first uses relate to religious concepts.

For example, the oldest coin currency that we know is a Sumerian bronze piece dating from before 3000 BC. On one side of the coin is a representation of a sheaf of wheat, and on the other, Ishtar, the goddess of fertility. The Sumerians called it the "Shekel" where "She" meant wheat, "Kel" was a measurement similar to a bushel, hence this coin was a symbol of a value of one bushel of wheat. (The word "shekel" survives in modern Hebrew as Israel's monetary unit.) The original shekel had as its purpose payment for sacred prostitution at the temple of Ishtar, which was the temple of life and death. The temple, as well as being a ritual center, was the storage place for the reserves of wheat that supported the priesthood, and also the community in lean times. So farmers fulfilled their religious and social obligations by bringing their contributions of wheat to the temple, and receiving in exchange a shekel coin, entitling them to a visit with the temple prostitutes at the festival time. All this also must be understood in its cultural context: The sacred prostitutes were representatives of the goddess, and intercourse with them was intercourse with the goddess of fertility herself, nothing to take lightly. At that time fertility was truly a matter of life and death. If the crops failed, there was no alternative, and everyone starved or at least went hungry until next year. And, of course, completing the magic ritual properly insured the fertility in crops, animals and children that was necessary for future prosperity.

The shekel is by no means atypical: Throughout history, virtually every society has conferred some mysterious sacred qualities on its currency. Two thousand years after the Sumerian shekel, the first Greek coins were tokens proving that a citizen had paid his dues and could thus participate in the annual "hecatomb" or sacred meal to be shared with the Deities (where half of all victuals were burned in their honor). The English word "money" derives from the Goddess Juno Moneta and the first Roman mint was in the basement of her temple.

Many centuries later, without the need for further clerical intervention, gold and silver remained respectively symbolically associated with the sun and the moon. Their prices settled mysteriously into a stable ratio of 1/13.5, astrologically determined to reflect the heavenly cycles. These two metals remained divinely ordained currencies, long after the astrological justification was forgotten. There are many people who, to this day, claim that "real" money would be a return to the gold standard; some even keep invoking its biblical origins.

Until very recently, it was still the fashion to design banks to look like temples, and reverence lingers inside them: Central bankers, in particular, shroud their doings in priestly secrecy, while a hearing of the Chair of the Federal Reserve in the U.S. Congress has just as much ritual and studied ambiguity as the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece. As William Greider puts it in his well-named bestselling book on the Federal Reserve Secrets of the Temple: "Like the temple, the Fed did not answer to the people, it spoke for them. Its decrees were cast in a mysterious language people could not understand, but its voice, they knew, was powerful and important."

There appears to be more to the mystery of money than just a reflection of the well-known conservatism of financiers.   </end>

Excerpted from Bernard Lietar's The Future of Money: Beyond Greed and Scarcity Toward a Sustainable Capitalism ©1997.