By Al Cummins
Rituals of ‘paying’ for dirts might at first seem terribly incongruous with the politics of anti-capitalist magic. Must everything be stamped with a price-tag? Every interaction mediated by the dull echoed promise of cold hard cash or tenebrous plastic debt? Yet there are many sorcerous ways of thinking about coins and dirt that much precede industrial capitalism, before usury gorged thick. The master’s tools will certainly not dismantle the master’s house when used as directed. But coins as materia may be fit for various detournments of that oppressive power.
Enough talk. Divest the Golden Eagle Coin of its supposed monetary value, its narrow alleged worth, and consider it as if anew. Metal pieces. Engage with the object and its spirit on its own terms, by its own history. From a certain perspective – specifically, one which does not exclude human endeavour from the actions of the natural world – a cast and shaped coin might not look so different from the beautiful natural craft of metamorphic geology. On the other hand, maybe the Garden truly is lost forever. Perhaps this dirt sorcery of coinage is wishful, but so are pennies, especially in the hands of the desperate.
In pre-modern thought, metals were a frozen liquid that grew and pulsed in the veins of the earth. To leave coins for dirt, especially to bury them, is to return these metals to their earthen home. There are many kinds of circulation. Homecoming is always somewhat bittersweet, and perhaps one cannot pour water into the same river twice. The metal is stamped, tempered, circulated, as what it carries in quotidian capitalist significance gains and loses value, might be translated, consolidated, sold out and off. But still the metal itself flows. Coins outlive their owners, black marks on humanity’s permanent record.
Without indulging too many distinctions between true coinage and tokens or other exonumia, a good contender for the oldest ancestor coin is the trite piece (a technical yet perhaps also refreshingly honest numismatic term) impressed with a lion’s head, minted around 600 BCE in Lydia. Bearing an image of kingship, it is an electrum alloy of gold and silver. Coinage relies on alloys. All alloys are of Mercury and thus psychopompic: suitable bearers of messages between the worlds, submerged and unearthed. The shape of our modern objects signs to us too. A golden eternal. A silver moon descending into the depths. Yet also spare a thought for the base, the lowest common denominations – not only for underdogs or a thought or a wish but Venusian copper for Love and the Morning Star. The sterling of my homeland has a variety of heptagonal coins, by which I make respectful offering to the Seven Seas and their rulers. Seven is also a number metanymic of totality: the number of Our Scarlet Lady, the one womb and tomb wherein all are begotten. In speaking of Queenship we should finally note the images coins have most commonly born: figureheads of leadership, of majesty, of hero-cult, of nationhood. Perhaps one might engage with some pocket Fisher King notion of regent and land. I prefer to think of burying human monarchs, of death’s equanimity; of letting the land eat the rich.
When the coin is not a token counting an abstracted value, we are not strictly buying something. We can begin to consider the ritual as an exchange – a gift for a gift. A matter of etiquette more than mediated negotiation or exploitation. Coins seem to be accepted by earth elementals by their appreciation of objects-of-art, rather than property-for-power or, gods forbid, capital. It is hard to tell exactly how all chthonic spirits feel about treasure. They are, after all, gnomic.
I am however wary of addressing these gifts to the Earth Herself. We should note this kind of gifting is not really exchange: it is nowhere near of equal value to what has already been given to us. These might be considered the gifts of a child to a parent, made of the very same resources that parent made available. Even by this perspective, this gifting ritual is far more for us than the planet. We have not treated our Mother Earth well by any standard. If you pursue this work, prepare to be shown in heartbreaking detail and monumental crushing intensity how badly we have hurt Her.
Yet do not underestimate the power of offerings in more everyday animist dealings with spirits. It behoves us to act in a manner befitting one who, like the gnomes, venerates a dread invisible ruler of the Underworld – do not withhold the wages of thy workforce. Do not expect something for nothing, or just because you say so, dropping nomina magica or not. “Crown of creation”, are you? The trouble with crowns is they go right to peoples’ heads. In the face of this Great Mage of History model, I’d much rather keep my feet on the ground, my powders dry, and my companions fed. At this crossroads of coin, land, and spirit are values of comradeship and respect in our shared labours. So treat your Great Work Colleagues right.
Offer the Ferryman an unliving wage for services rendered. Ensure the dead a good afterlife, if only with funds for a travel pass. Payment for grave dirt itself is a topic so vast it must await its own consideration later in this series; but I will say you buy not merely an empowered resource to be collected or plundered, but begin a working relationship. Grave dirt is a speaking-horn to that grave’s occupant: you very much put your money where your mouth is.
Likewise, treasure magic and consorting with unclean diabolical spirits can also only be mentioned in brief, at least until the stars are right. The demonic pact of the Grand Grimoire requires coins. More generally, wealth spirits are often given the scent of gold to draw more. The magnetic actions of lodestone are strengthened in this manner, as they are trained to hunt and retrieve.
So we come, in Hekatean procession, to dogs and bones. Like hounds, pirates, and oddly-prioritising survivalists (unlike earth elementals, humans cannot eat gold), we may see coins pushed into dirt as an act of burial or interment. Left to be perhaps discovered by chance, by map, by Mosaical rods. This coin burial may be a bier by which misfortune is entombed. A classic act of transference – the Bad Penny – earthing the static of bad luck. Leaving a penny might also transmute your bad to someone else’s good luck. Doing magic for one-self requires a situating of that self in a wider context. Indeed, the widest context: in the differing and agreement of all things, from cradle to grave. One might even argue from this perspective that magic is not about you: it is about us.
The attractive inclinations of ritually awoken coins to pull to further coin, to which ends lodestones and money-drawing spirits are trained, might also be employed to bring needed resources to others. It is with this intent, with such golden retrievers, that I plant beacons into the earth of graves fallen into disrepair – that they might receive due attention and funds to be fixed and respectfully maintained.
Iconoclastically, one might consider coin burial as destroying money, of taking it out of circulation. The current of the currency shorted to inert. Corrosion of substance over time demonstrates another appreciation of impermanence, the rusting coin a prayer of decay. This also presents us with a meditation on the economics of choice and loss; as each decision makes another impossible. A valuable sacrifice is made for power. Possibility exchanged for manifestation. Considered geomantically, this is a transmutation of Populus to Via, crowded chances becoming a singular path. A thronging lunatic anything waned to a singular moonlit sliver of trail.
I can scarcely mention economics without referring back to the historian Ann Geneva’s comparison with early modern astrology: ‘Like economists, astrologers rarely made correct predictions; yet universities granted degrees in the subject and few heads of state made a move without them.’ This tension between accountancy and divination is found, in a game of tortoise shells and cuneiform, at the very heart of the scholarly debate over the origins of human writing itself. Accusations of impenetrability of jargon or track record accuracy aside, I side considerably with the qualitative analysis of the language of the stars over any quantitative speculations of homo rationalis. Moreunder, an appreciation of chthonic roots of astrology, as a vault of the elevated dead, offers a vision of an underworld of heroes and monsters projected into the sky. Still waters reflecting above and below.
Or perhaps rather, to invert a Platonic allegory – which, after all, by the Greek might mean only broadly true – emerging from a smaller confining and false idea of being independently, individualistically Outside to find ourselves within the belly of something larger: the glittering cave of the universe, in all its bioluminescent splendour. A sky of mere atmosphere and emptiness slipping its horizon moorings to reveal an overhanging canopy of living light. Breathing stars, thrumming, pulsing through the body of the Queen of Heaven. Studded as coppers into silt. That which is wished with and on.
Al Cummins is an Anglo-Irish Midlander, necromancer, and occasional supply teacher. He’s just finished a PhD on early modern magic and the passions and moved to New York, and did both because Love. He mainly works goetia, grimoires, seventeenth-century England, hoodoo, and a pretty damn fine chana paneer jalfrezi.