Sacred Texts  Legendary Creatures  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at
Buy this Book on Kindle

Evolution of the Dragon, by G. Elliot Smith, [1919], at


The evidence which has been collected by Mr. Wilfrid Jackson seems to suggest that the shell-cults originated in the neighbourhood of the Red Sea.

With the introduction of the practice of wearing shells on girdles

p. 222

and necklaces and as hair ornaments the time arrived when people living some distance from the sea experienced difficulty in obtaining these amulets in quantities sufficient to meet their demands. Hence they resorted to the manufacture of imitations of these shells in clay and stone. But at an early period in their history the inhabitants of the deserts between the Nile and the Red Sea (Hathor's special province) discovered that they could make more durable and attractive models of cowries and other shells by using the plastic yellow metal which was lying about in these deserts unused and unappreciated. This practice first gave to the metal gold an arbitrary value which it did not possess before. For the peculiar life-giving attributes of the shells modelled in the yellow metal came to be transferred to the gold itself. No doubt the lightness and especially the beauty of such gold models appealed to
Fig. 9.—The Egyptian emblem for gold, the sign nub. It represents a collar from which golden amulets, probably representing cowries, are suspended.
the early Egyptians, and were in large measure responsible for the hold gold acquired over mankind. But this was an outcome of the empirical knowledge gained from a practice that originally was inspired purely by cultural and not æsthetic motives. The earliest Egyptian hieroglyphic sign for gold was a picture of a necklace of such amulets; and this emblem became the determinative of the Great Mother Hathor, not only because she was originally the personification of the life-giving shells, but also because she was the guardian deity both of the Eastern wadys where the gold was found and of the Red Sea coasts where the cowries were obtained. Hence she became the "Golden Hathor," the prototype of the "Golden Aphrodite".

It is a significant token of the influence of these Egyptian incidents upon the history of the Ægean that among the earliest gold ornaments found by Schliemann at Troy were a series of crude representations of cowries worn as pendants to a hair ornament. 1

It is hardly necessary to insist upon the vast influence upon the history of civilization which this arbitrary value of gold has been responsible for exerting. For more than fifty centuries men have been

p. 223

searching for the precious metal, and have been spreading abroad throughout the world the elements of our civilization. It has been not only the chief factor in bringing about the contact of peoples 1 and incidentally in building up our culture, but it has been the cause, directly or indirectly, of most of the warfare which has afflicted mankind. Yet these mighty forces were let loose upon the world as the result of the circumstance that early searchers for an elixir of life used the valueless metal to make imitations of their shell amulets!

The identification of gold with cowries may not have been the primary reason for the invention of gold currency. In fact, Professor Ridgeway has called attention to certain historical events which in his opinion forced men to convert their jewellery into coinage. But the fact that cowries were the earliest form of currency may have prepared the way for the recognition of the use of gold for a similar purpose. Moreover, we know that long before a real gold currency came into being rings of gold were in Egypt a form of tribute and a sign of wealth. Cowries acquired their significance as currency as the result of incidents in some respects analogous to those which impelled the early Egyptians to make gold models of the shells. In places in Africa far removed from the sea where the practice has grown up of offering vast numbers of cowries to brides on the occasion of their marriage (as fertility amulets) or of putting the shells in the grave (to secure for the dead fresh vital energy), the people offered their most treasured possessions, such as their cattle, in exchange for the amulets which were believed to confer such priceless social and religious boons. Cattle were therefore given in exchange for cowries, or the shells were used for the purchase of wives. When the new significance as currency developed a remarkable confusion occurred. In many places cowries were placed in the mouth of the dead to confer the breath of life: but when the cowries acquired the new meaning as currency, the people who had lost all knowledge of the original significance of this practice explained the cowries as money with which to pay Charon's fare to the other world. Then, in many places, the cowry was replaced by an actual metallic coin. Most scholars fall into the same error as these ancient rationalists,

p. 224

and accept their explanation of the obolus as though it were the real meaning of the act.

Another result of the use of gold models of shells as life-giving amulets was that the metal also acquired the reputation of being a giver of life, 1 which originally belonged merely to the shell or the imitation of its form, whatever the substance used for making the model.

Thus gold came to share the same magical reputation as the cowry and the pearl. It was also put to the same use: it was buried with the dead to confer a continuation of existence.

Not only was Hathor called Nūb, i.e. "gold" or the golden Hathor: but the place where the funerary statue was made ("born") in Egypt was called the "House of Gold" and personified as a goddess who gave rebirth to the dead (Alan Gardiner, "The Tomb of Amenemhēt," p. 95; and A. M. Blackman, Journal of Egyptian Archæology, Vol. IV, p. 127).

When ancient prospectors from the South exploited the rivers of Turkestan for alluvial gold and fresh water pearls, incidentally they also collected pebbles of jade for the purpose of making seals. The local inhabitants confused the properties of the stone with the magical reputation of the gold and the pearls. One outcome of this jade-fishing in Turkestan was the transference of the credit of life-giving to jade. Prospectors searching for these precious materials gradually made their way east past Lob Nor, and eventually discovered the deposits of gold and jade in the Shensi province. Thus jade became the nucleus around which the distinctive civilization of China became crystallized. It played an obtrusive part not only in attracting men from the West and in determining the locality where the germs of Western civilization were planted in China, but also in giving Chinese culture its distinctive shape.

"The ancient Chinese, wishing to facilitate the resurrection of the dead, surrounded them with jade, gold, pearls, timber, and other things imbued with influences emitted from the heavens, or, in other words, with such objects as are pervaded with vital energy derived from the Yang matter of which the heavens are the principal depository" (De Groot, op. cit., p. 316).

By a similar process diamonds acquired the same reputation in India when searchers after gold discovered the precious metal in Hyderabad,

p. 225

and the diamonds of Golconda came to be accredited with life-giving powers. 1

According to the beliefs of the Indians "the Nâga owns riches, the water of life, and a jewel that restores the dead to life".

Thus gold, pearls, jade, and diamonds in course of time acquired the reputation of elixirs of life, but the hold they established upon mankind was due to the fact (a) that the amulets made of these materials made a strong appeal to the æsthetic sense, and (b) the arbitrary value assigned to them made them desirable objects to search for.

In his "Mycenæan Tree and Pillar Cult" (1901) Sir Arthur Evans gives cogent reasons for the view that at the time when Mycenæan influence was powerful in Cyprus "the 'golden Aphroditê' of the Egyptians seems to play a much more important part than any form of Astarte or Mylitta" (p. 52). "The Cypriote parallels will be found to have a fundamental importance as demonstrating in detail that these ['a simple form of the palmette pillar, approaching a fleur-de-lys in outline,' in association with its guardian monsters] are in fact taken over from the cult of Mentu-Ra, the Warrior Sun-god of Egypt, of Hathor, and of Horus" (p. 52).


222:1 So far as I am aware the fact that these objects were intended to represent cowries does not appear to have been recognized hitherto. I am indebted to Mr. Wilfrid Jackson for calling my attention to the figures 685 and 832 in Schliemann's "Ilios" (1880), and for identifying the objects.

223:1 See Perry, "Megalithic Monuments and Ancient Mines," Proceedings and Memorials of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 1916: also "War and Civilization," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 1918.

224:1 "Danæ pregnant with immortal gold."

225:1 See Laufer, "The Diamond," also Munn, "The Ancient Gold Mines of Hyderabad," paper now being published in the Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society.

Next: Aphrodite as the Thunder-Stone