I'm in a place with a television this week and I decided to turn on the news as I was eating breakfast. I was amused/disturbed to notice that Fox News (which was, in its defense, the only "news" network not running stories about cute puppies or things of a similar nature) was running non-stop advertisements for gold investment services in between its news stories about how the sky was falling. In between wondering whether or not gold was likely to be a particularly good investment, since its convertibility into local currency presupposes some demand for the commodity (a demand that is dampened and not heightened by economic instability), I was struck by something I had written about some time ago in the context of a discussion of Beowulf. What exactly is the value of gold? And why do dragons dwell on buried gold-hoards? There is something perverse about burying refined gold-work back in the earth from which it came. Gold should be seen in the sunlight, not placed back into the earth.
As the advertisement correctly observed, gold has always held some value. This value is not "conventional" in the way that the value of our currency is conventional, nor is it derived from its practical utility in industrial applications. In the alchemical symbolism, gold is the perfection of nature subsumed by the spiritual. In Beowulf, gold is a physical manifestation of the virtue of a people personified in their hero. When the people are no more, the burial of the gold calls dragons to its glitter. This image is one the most intriguing of the poem (which is partially a reflection upon gold) and rewards careful attention and reflection. The proper meaning of gold is almost entirely erased when it is viewed as a means to stabilize one's IRA against fluctuations in equity prices; and it is highly significant that in these situations the person purchasing the gold generally does not take physical possession of the gold but controls it through shares in a mutual fund or through an ETF. Yet even in this utterly etherealized form there is still something mysterious about the manner in which gold eludes mathematization, as fluctuations of gold prices are highly difficult to model for any practical financial purpose.
"there laid within it his lordly heirlooms
and heaped hoard of heavy gold."