Our modern culture has a vexed relationship with money.
Most “developed” countries make their decisions based on economic value. This does not mean that everyone is going around putting a dollar sign on everything, but it does mean that everyone is evaluating cost against benefit. The classic economic triangle of time-money-quality — do something cheaply and quickly and the quality will suffer, but you can maintain quality by spending more time to save money — is one of the great paradigms of our time and the direct result of this focus on economy.
There are other benefits as well. A small group of people (usually called a “board of directors”) can make effective decisions that organize the efforts of a large group of people to make modern movies, develop new medicines quickly, and rapidly advance our physical technology or even colonize space! As a further result, more people now enjoy more luxury than ever before in human history, and this cannot be understated. Anyone with a cell phone has more informational power than every human being on Earth prior to 1970. That is not an overstatement. If you are reading this post, you have access to ancient medieval manuscripts, advanced courses in every subject, the sum of your culture’s consensus-driven view of the world, and the ability to perform the most advanced calculations humanity can conceive. With little more than $10,000 you can lay the foundation of fantastic wealth yourself (though I am not going to link to a service as I’ve not done enough research into which you should trust), and governments have the power to promote or kill activities of large groups of people with the touch of a button! (Thank goodness the interpersonal rancor natural to politics keeps the use of that power in check!)
Of course, it all comes with a price. Just over 1% of the world’s population holds almost half of the world’s wealth, and since money now is really a kind of social force — every dollar you spend is a vote in favour of the business you’re buying from — that means a ridiculously small section of the populace is making the bulk of our decisions as a species. Add to that the tendency for people with large amounts of money to use a different set of criteria for their decision-making than people without, and it is small wonder our world is characterized by a bizarre and deadly combination of violence and malaise.
Things were not always thus.
Looking Back to Look Forward
Our current paradigm really coalesced at the end of the sixteenth century.
In 1532, Machiavelli’s The Prince was published five years after its author’s death. In it, he advises specifically against using mercenaries to expand one’s power-base as was the common practice at the time. Since the Hundred Years’ War and the widespread death that took place during the fourteenth century, the powers of Europe had been scrambling to rebuild society. Mercenary companies had risen to prominence because those in power did not have to generate the populace or resources necessary to field an effective fighting force; they only needed the coin to pay for it. Generating that coin was a completely different trick, but with the development of the Hanseatic League and expansion of royal burghs, i.e. designated merchant districts established in towns and sponsored by local nobility who took a cut of the profits, that was much easier than it used to be. By the time the sixteenth century arrived, the royalty of Europe began to rely more and more on the speed and seeming ease of monetary transactions. Banking systems, promulgated through widespread pilgrimage, made the transfer of money as easy as sending a message, but the dark side to this seeming ease lay in the rift it widened between those in power and the foundation of that power.
You see, nobility had its roots in the paradigm that certain individuals were blessed with the ability to marshal the means by which abundance could be secured for the community. The Anglo-Saxon cyning, the word from which we get ‘king,’ originally meant a young hero with a band of adventurers: someone who could go out, win gold, and then give that gold to his faithful retainers to form the backbone of a new society. Like French, Irish, and even Hindi, the original English word for a king began with ‘r:’ Latin reges, Irish ríg, and Hindu राजा or raja, all mean the same thing, viz. kings, but the English version gives us the word ‘rich’ even though the original word rice, which is pronounced almost the same way, means ‘the power or authority to rule. Thus of old, European culture associated wealth with the ability to form society. A ricedom for example has a parallel in “Christendom,” that last -dom element being added to indicate the abstract state of a thing — compare princedom, wisdom and freedom — so, without going too much into it, the basic idea is that those who rule do so by virtue of their ability to use wealth to create the social bond.
Originally this meant moveable wealth in the form of golden rings, weapons, jewelry, coins made from precious metals and other treasures — a cyning would go out adventuring, get gold by any means necessary, and then gift it to his followers in return for undying loyalty — but by the time the twelfth century rolled around that treasure had become land. The kings of Europe possessed the land and, under the feudal system, divvied it out to the barons and knights who could field armies in support of their liege lord. In this way, the physical landscape was bound to the ruling class, and famously in Ireland this connection was represented by the sovereignty goddesses, Ériu, Banbha, and Fodla. It was Ériu who gave her name to Ireland; literally “Éri-land,” the genitive of her name giving us the familiar, Irish name for the Isle of Éireann.
With the rise of the banking system and the shift of focus onto monetary wealth, the aristocracy began to realize that it was the land that really produced the money through the manipulation of natural resources. As soon as this concept took root, nearly every evil of the modern world began to grow. Political systems, like Gaelic culture which privileged the generosity of the guest-host relationship and placed it in their cultural centre, were deemed backward and barbaric, the free hostels and maintenance of Scottish bards and travelers being outlawed in the Statutes of Iona in 1609. Nearly every European country realized that in order to maintain its place among the other countries they would need to claim as many colonies as they could, the more land they possessed, the more wealth they could produce. Land was parceled and strictly controlled through the enclosure movement and various “rationalisations,” but of course it had to be worked. In some cases it meant replacing people with animals, and in others it meant reducing people to the status of livestock. In every case, though, the process meant a kind of reductive process whereby the value of land no longer expressed itself through the complex relationships between its people to one another, their past, and their future but was instead limited to the simple production of an economic quantity.
Of course there was and still is resistance. The Luddites fought against the reduction of artistry to mere physical production. Proponents of human rights appeal to an ideal of humanity that transcends this economic reductivism. Hippies (the ones worthy of the title) just outright refuse to participate in the weirdness of the modern economic paradigm, though they often get sucked into it. It’s hard not to, after all. Many presume that Karl Marx was perhaps the greatest thinker to fight against the economic systems that caused all this mess, but a close reading of his ideas says very much otherwise. The crux of Das Kapital is not that the modern economic paradigm is wrong but that it is so right that it will consume itself and become something different: Marx actually takes the modern economic paradigm and writes it back across all of human history! The subsequent schools of thought that take their cue from his ideas or method from Communism to Feminism inherit the basic assumption that value is intrinsically quantitative and results in a binary transfer of power defined by that which has and that which lacks.
The point is that everything we consider to be progress whether social, technological, or political, is a result of that economic, value-driven system of choices that developed at the end of the sixteenth century.
What of This is Traditionally Pagan?
Well … none of it really. That’s the point.
Traditional paganism offers a means by which we can sidestep all the modern humbug without losing its benefits. Wealth from a traditional pagan perspective is not money: traditional pagan wealth is the means by which we secure the abundance that creates our social bonds.
There are a number of ancient tales and symbols that shed light on this, but the one that resonates most with me is the cauldron. All are fed by it, but it its heat can burn, and its brew can turn poisonous if you do not know how to use it. It must be forged and tended, and it is central to the household when properly set up.
There are many stories about otherworldly cauldrons that must be won through heroism, and every one involves a hero who undergoes a trial to win the cauldron or its contents and then uses it for the good of his people. Arthur does it. Cormac mac Airt does it, though it’s a little more abstract. Taliesin and every witch worthy of her hat is associated with a magic cauldron that gives whatever they want. Isn’t that wealth? Of course it is all bound up with magic, but you can’t get away from magic as a traditional pagan. In fact, it’s barely even worth the name because everything is magical in the traditional viewpoint. Nothing lacks meaning.
Thus the very thing we as traditional pagans should ponder on the full moon is how we can see the magic in the monetary “in this day of this life” as the Beowulf poet says. Moving into the Yuletide we may hear a snowman sing …
“Silver and Gold,
Silver and Gold
Everyone Wishes for Silver and Gold
How do you measure its worth?
Just by the pleasure it brings here on Earth.”
Wealth only has value by how it is used, by the connection we make when we give it to someone else. Power is thus not an imposition or oppression, the exertion of social force to gain the benefit of another’s action but rather an intrinsic virtue that allows us to provide abundance to others. That is the nature of the gods: we enjoy the benefit of the good they give us, and their gift to us creates the connections, the meaning that shapes the world.
This does not devalue money or the good it brings. Quite the opposite! Money can open the doors to real wealth, unlock the cornucopia and secure the abundance for which we so earnestly yearn, but it should never be mistaken for real wealth. We need to be clever, quick and resourceful as any protagonist in a fairy tale, ready to meet whatever strange adventure may befall us and insightful enough to see past appearances at what is really going on.