The Dirty God
MONEY IS A DIRTY THING and my favorite money god is just as dirty. Conceived to Demeter in a thrice-plowed field was Ploutos, god of wealth and abundance. Ancient Greek descriptions of this lesser-known deity tell more about their beliefs around money: he was understood first to be a god of abundant corn, and in time became associated with straight-up money. Zeus blinded him, the Hellenes believed; the fact that wealth and morality are decoupled was evidence that he couldn’t tell the good from the wicked.
As a baby, Ploutos was depicted, not carried by his mother, but by Eirene (peace) or Tyche (luck). Certainly it is not difficult to understand the link between money and luck, but money and peace? I submit that just as money makes it easier to wage war, it also makes waging peace more possible, should enough people choose to use it in that way. Comparison of opposites is not at all uncommon in Hellenic thought: in the play Birds, for example, Aristophanes depicts Ploutos as disliking misers and spendthrifts alike; the god also asserts that he would share only with good people if he could but tell them from the wicked. It does not actually turn out that way, but to reveal the ending would be a spoiler.
Ploutos offers no promise that offerings made to him will result in wealth. With that thought well in mind, we can ponder instead Ploutos’ nature, and what it might mean about money itself.
Like Ploutos, money is not inherently evil, but it is definitely dirty. Heck, money—as coins, or pentacles—is the earth element in standard tarot decks. Coins are the oldest form of money, and they are (still, I think) made of metal, which is dug from the ground. Paper money, for its part, can get rather grimy; thousands of microbes can live on a single bill. (If that freaks you out, fear not: laundering money is a real thing.) Currency is either made from paper or some kind of fabric (which is grown) or from a polymer that has a petroleum base (and, like the metal for coins, is extracted from the ground).
Money is inextricably linked to the earth element, and in my mind that means it is inextricably linked to Pagan thought, given that a sizeable majority of Pagans identify with earth spirituality in one form or another. One lesson I draw from the myths of Ploutos is that money is never far from moral dirtiness; not because it is evil in and of itself, but because money doesn’t care about human morality. I’m an animist, and as such I believe that money has its own spirit, which existed before humans gave it physical—and eventually, electronic—form. The intersection between morality and money is likely of little interest to these spirits, which have priorities of their own.
I have long held that the human understanding of money is fundamentally flawed; it is underpinned by the assumption that because we invented the physical representation of it, we also created the laws within which it operates. We did not. While we can affect that environment as much as we can the climate, we are similarly unable to grasp the large forces at play and our role in shaping them. The result of that blind fumbling echoes the nature of the god himself; perhaps that need to tinker with things we do not comprehend is baked right in.
Another lesson that I take from Ploutos is that the spirits of money are closely linked to agriculture, and thus to other agrarian spirits. He was born in a plowed field, and the abundance he bore initially was essentially the harvest. Experience and resources help, but good crops and bad visit farmers no matter their moral fiber. Those forces have been shaped to our benefit, but still their interests do not necessarily align with ours. As with money, this is a liminal place where human ingenuity is not in and of itself always enough to achieve human goals.
The agricultural connection can also be viewed in a different way: we return to our roots when we cultivate wealth within ourselves and our own lives. The term “wealth” has been largely subsumed in the collective consciousness as relating only to money, but the word captures far more than that, just as the spirits of money are themselves far more than clinking coins and entries in ledgers. Humans have a fundamental capability for growing wealth; it is a talent most fragile, yet also most resilient. Once destroyed, it can regrow itself if there is a spark of life in one’s soul. It’s difficult to eradicate, but easy to hijack with two-dimensional dreams of monetary gain. Money opens doors, but too many people work to gain that key and then forget to walk through. Never forget that the wealth cultivated within oneself is the truest wealth there is.
MONEY IS INDIFFERENT and money is a conductor, a lightning rod, that can bring joy or suffering to absolutely anyone. The need for it is nearly universal, but it can bring joy or suffering by either its absence or its presence. Thus, we who practice magic are prone to making spells that use money to attract more money, while those of us who see only misery in wealth may choose poverty to express our power. Charity is an act performed most often by those with less money, and when certain holidays and tax deadlines urge us on. The idea of being able to measure money’s value has all but been abandoned in the name of economic security, which also makes it far easier to steal that value to fund expensive wars. Economists are lauded as purveyors of hard science, despite the fact that most of the forces that move money about are poorly understood. Like meteorologists, they are often paid quite well to make guesses.
In Hellenic tradition, the god better known for his association with money is Haides, sometimes called Pluton. He lives in the underworld, and we dig valuable metals from under the ground. To link the overseer of the dead to money is to hope that you can indeed take it with you, at least in my mind. It ties money to the ultimate mystery, that of death, which suggests that the Hellenes had no illusion that they were in control of the stuff, despite minting coins. Perhaps the modern belief that we are in charge of money would have been deemed hubris in their eyes; I can’t say.
Money is dirty, and I celebrate that dirt as sacred. In my own life I have drifted between collecting public assistance to making more money than I ever thought possible, yet I have never been remotely close to as poor or as wealthy as the people on the extreme edges of our society. I expect that because my views haven’t been tested against those experiences, that they will be questioned and challenged. I welcome that dialog.
Ignorance and arrogance around money, on the other hand, I denounce as morally suspect at best and deeply dangerous at worst. Because capitalism is built upon both ignorance and arrogance regarding money, I hope to bring perspective as to a right relationship with the stuff. As someone who collects money, I don’t believe there is anything implicitly wrong with accumulating wealth; on the other hand, I believe too much accumulation goes against the interests of money itself. I intend to focus on the nuts and bolts of money: saving, spending, investing, a bit of economic theory, some magical thinking here and there, perhaps some ethical musings on questions such as when it’s okay to charge money to another person, and maybe even some origami.
Let’s get dirty.
Terentios Poseidonides a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and Quaker who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife and five cats. He is a hiereus (temple priest) of Poseidon with the Hellenic Temple of Apollon, Zeus and Pan.
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