The Symbolic Nature of Gold in Magical and Religious Contexts

Charlotte Behr (University of Roehampton)

Gold can adopt many different meanings. In economic contexts it can acquire material value, in social contexts it can gain significance for status and position within a hierarchical structure, in religious contexts it can be used to express veneration of the divine or a divinity, in magical contexts it can be perceived as a material with inherent powerful qualities. We can define the symbolic nature of gold as a means of communication. That implies, firstly, communication among humans in different situations for different purposes but also, secondly, between humans and a spiritual world.

The topics that Helen Geake suggested for this paper were: evidence for gold and golden objects in religious and magical contexts, what this evidence may mean for our view of the Staffordshire Hoard, what implications it may have for future work. That is why this paper is about ideas, beliefs and perceptions of gold, the predominant material found in the Staffordshire Hoard, it is not about individual objects and their interpretations.

How can we use the study of the objects and their material to gain insight into contemporary mentality? I would like to make some brief remarks about the evidence we have for the significance of gold in religious and in magical relations, before suggesting some ideas why it may be fruitful to consider in the research of the Staffordshire Hoard the possibility that the gold in the hoard may have had - apart from its material value and social significance - an additional layer of meaning that connected the gold and the hoard to religious and/or magical spheres, quite apart from the crosses and the biblical inscription in the hoard with their obvious religious connotations. When we discuss economic, social or religious functions of the gold, and the hoard, we need to be aware that this distinction is more an analytical device than a reflection of a historical reality, where these different functions overlapped and were intricately related.

Gold has long been associated with a divine sphere, both in pre-Christian and in Christian religion. The shine of gold, its indestructible nature, its malleability and its relative scarcity made it an ideal material to embody divine qualities, but also expressions of human veneration of the divine. Gold was perceived as an appropriate material with which to address the gods (Elbern 1988). Temples, sanctuaries and churches were decorated lavishly with golden or gilded statues and images. Liturgical equipment was made out of gold (La Niece 2009). The gods of Germanic myths lived, according to the Völuspa, in a hall covered in gold, and played with golden board games (Pálsson 1996, stanzas 60 and 61).

Janes, in his book God and Gold in Late Antiquity, has shown the continuity of the use of gold, and its numerous associations with the numinous, from a pre-Christian to a Christian world. Gold retained its importance even within a religion that upheld poverty and the rejection of worldly goods (Janes 1998). Liturgical vessels, reliquaries, crosses, objects needed for performances of sacred rituals were made in gold. There is also a long tradition of votive offerings, for example in the shape of tablets that were made in precious metals, gold or silver, and dedicated to a divinity; again, we see continuity from pre-Christian to Christian customs. The close association of gold and the divine, the gods, can thus be observed in many different aspects, even if a precise definition of how this link worked and what it meant remains difficult.

Religion and magic share the connection with another world. But magic and religion differ, as Söderblom defined: in religion man venerates the divinity, in magic man uses the divinity for his own purposes (Söderblom 1966). Thus, magical rituals are intended to force the divinity (or spirits, or otherworldly forces) to act as desired, if only the prescribed magical rituals have been fulfilled correctly. The distinction between religion and magic is not always clear-cut as, within religious rituals, we find many magical components. 

Gold was important in magical rituals. For example, it mattered when making amulets. Golden amulets were perceived as protecting primarily children against harm and curses, and especially the evil eye, according to Pliny (Natural History 33, 25; Rackham (trans) 1952). Examples are the golden bullae that Roman boys wore. Gold was also effective against various illnesses (Pliny, Natural History 33, 25; Rackham (trans) 1952). On magical papyri that were dealing with curses but also with love charms, it is often demanded that the formula should be written on a gold tablet.

There are no examples that I know of in the written sources from Anglo-Saxon England which refer to gold used in magical practices, but the longue durée of these magical practices, their remarkable stability over long periods of time and the similarity of their widespread uses suggest that in England similar ideas of the magical usefulness of gold have been current. One underlying idea appears to be that gold has an inherent quality (what Seligmann (1927) called Stoffheiligkeit) that is potent. We also find evidence for the idea that the craftsman implanted its potency into the gold object during the process of its making.

The written evidence for the beliefs into special qualities of gold and golden objects, and their links to a numinous sphere, is quite diverse and sometimes indirect, but can be supported by observations of archaeological finds, their find circumstances and decorations. Golden objects tend to be interpreted in archaeological research as having religious or magical properties when they appear in particular find circumstances that suggest some form of ritual performances and/or ritual deposition. These rituals may include making the object unusable or destroying it deliberately, depositing it in inaccessible places like lakes or wetlands, or burying it in hoards that were composed of selected items in a pattern that is repeated in other hoards. Examples are the series of precious-metal hoards in migration-period Scandinavia, that vary in size and, according to size, appear with very specific assemblages. That is why they are not regarded as temporary treasure-hiding places, but as sacrificial hoards that were meant to stay (Hedeager 1999). It is often not possible to decide unambiguously whether a find had a religious motivation, like a sacrifice or votive offering, or a magical intention, like the attempt to enforce a response, a favourable reaction from the spiritual world. Common to both, religious or magical, was the belief that it was possible to connect with another world through material objects and rituals associated with them.

Another aspect is the images or ornaments with which golden objects were decorated, and that were also sometimes interpreted as powerful means of communication. The images or ornaments can be either on a gold appliqué mounted on another object, like a weapon or vessel, or they can be on coins or pendants. Here the combination of image and material is perceived as reinforcing the desired effect as, for example, Maguire has argued in his discussion of the perception of coins with the imperial head as magical amulets that were used in Byzantium (1997). Similarly, Germanic animal art has been interpreted as a pictorial language that allowed contact with another world, a magical act again created by the combination of image and precious material (Høilund Nielsen 1998).

Are these - briefly sketched - observations about the use of gold in religious and magical contexts relevant for research and interpretation of the gold objects from the Staffordshire Hoard? Can considerations that gold was believed to have characteristics or qualities that allowed communication beyond the human sphere contribute to its research?

It is possible to distinguish different phases in the life-cycle of the golden objects in the hoard in what has been called ‘object biographies’. They are attempts to study the different stages in the life of an object: its manufacture, uses, meanings, and changing uses and meanings over time. The gold and gold-and-garnet fittings in the hoard originated when they were made by a goldsmith and were applied to the weapons; this phase was followed by various uses of the decorated weapons by their owners and eventually, by the destruction of the weapons, or at least the removal of the fittings and their burial in Staffordshire. (Leaving aside a final chapter, in the present, where they are archaeological fragments that are photographed, measured, weighed, compared and analysed as evidence about the past.)

In the first phase, when the fittings were made, the ideas of the goldsmith and/or the owners of the decorated weapons mattered, for their perception of the meaning of their decorations. However, very little is known about goldsmiths and the forging of gold in Anglo-Saxon England; the golden objects themselves are the most important source (Hinton 2005). The wealth of new objects from this find, with its research possibilities, may in fact add to our insight into the meaning and perception of gold objects and their making.

The weapons with gold fittings may then have served as an ostentatious display of social standing, or as particularly precious gifts, securing loyalty to a leader who may have given the weapons to his followers. The fittings may have been perceived as protective charms when the weapons were used in fights (Vang Petersen 2003). Research into animal styles and the use of animals in Anglo-Saxon art suggests that animal applications were meaningful, enhancing the significance of the objects on which they were applied (Dickinson 2005). They served not only as social markers but also as apotropaic amulets, a feature that has been observed frequently with armour and weapons. Image and material together mattered for the amuletic value.

Based on these interpretations, the analysis of the objects and their images in the Staffordshire Hoard should include questions about possible amuletic, magical or apotropaic significance not only of the images and ornaments but also of the materials, gold and garnet. If the decorative elements can be understood as carrying particular significance, did it matter that they were made in gold? By examining the finds in detail, and comparing the new finds with already known objects, it may become possible to recognize patterns that prove or disprove a hypothesis that the gold and gems in these decorations had any magical or religious significance. I have not discussed the garnets in this context of magical qualities inherent in materials, nor their red colour. But for precious stones, too, we find evidence for their uses in protective and apotropaic amulets and as healing stones, not only in archaeological contexts but also in texts (Sfameni 2010).

Whatever then may have happened, at some point the weapons were destroyed, at least in so far as the precious-metal fittings were removed. The destruction of weapons had a long tradition. Burning weapons, throwing them into water, breaking them, are all acts that were recorded by ancient authors or have been observed archaeologically. For instance, Livy reported how the Romans piled the weapons of their defeated enemies in a heap and burned them as an offering to Volcanus (Roman History 1, 37; Ogilvie (ed) 1974). This ritual has been interpreted as the breaking of the supernatural power that existed in a weapon, and could only be removed through complete destruction. In his Gallic War (6, 17; Edwards (trans) 1917), Caesar described how the Gauls put all weapons and other booty they gained after a victory on a pile in a consecrated spot as a votive offering to Mars. Similar archaeological finds have been made in Celtic sanctuaries. Accumulations of weapons, armour and other equipment have been found in the southern Scandinavian bog-finds that ended in the late 5th century. They have been interpreted as sacrificial offerings (Jørgensen and Vang Petersen 2003). There may however be also a far more prosaic explanation for the Staffordshire Hoard: the gold, and gold-and-garnet fittings that decorated the weapons, may have been removed for their material value with the intention to recycle them. In that case, neither any amuletic significance nor the exceptional artistic quality of some of the gold objects would have been valued highly, but the availability of the gold would have been more important.

Finally, the fittings were deposited in a field in Staffordshire. The hoard is without close parallel in Britain or in contemporary Europe, an observation that makes any interpretation more difficult. The absence of any comparable hoard finds in Britain suggests that sacrificing precious-metal objects was not a typical Anglo-Saxon practice. The numerous hoards in Scandinavia from the 5th and 6th centuries that are interpreted as ritual depositions contained also only precious-metal objects like the Staffordshire Hoard, but these were different types of objects: mostly coins, bullions, pendants and female jewellery, and occasionally scabbard-mounts (Hedeager 1992). That is why, on balance, the Staffordshire Hoard appears to have been more likely to be a temporary safe-guarding deposit by its owner, who may have been a king, or a goldsmith; a royal goldsmith, as we know from the Life of St. Eligius (Krusch (ed) 1902), could own gold himself.

Still, as research into the Staffordshire Hoard gets under way, I would argue that the possibility that we are dealing with objects that may have been perceived to have magical attributes, or were used with religious connotations, should be part of the initial hypothesis. This does not imply that the weapons, with their decorated mounts, did not also serve as status symbols, and did not have great material value (with all the political implications that access to wealth had for a leader) but that the golden objects, and the hoard, may also have had religious or magical connotations that could shed light on rituals of warfare and rulership.

To analyse any possible religious or magical meanings of the gold in the hoard in more detail, a range of other questions needs to be discussed, including the date of the making of the objects and the date of the hoard (to put them into their chronological context), the analysis of the contents of the hoard, the detailed discussion of the decorative elements in comparison with other finds, and the examination of the hoard as one or more than one deposit. A challenge in my mind lies in finding methods to establish how people who dealt in one way or another with these weapons that were decorated with the golden fittings perceived them – the goldsmiths who made them, the warriors who fought with them, the victors (?) who may have removed the fittings and buried them. Did they attribute any magical or religious significance to them and, if so, how did they understand this potency? Did they understand it in the same way throughout the different phases of the weapons’ life-cycle? Whatever the outcome of this research may be, it should give us further insight into the world-view of the Anglo-Saxon élite, and their ideas about treasure, war and weapons.


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