The rise of the gods of money
In modern fantasy literature, such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, currently serialised on Amazon Prime, gods arise because humans give them power to exist. It’s entirely plausible that the ancient gods of human civilisations were similarly identified and worshipped. Or feared.
Gods of money weren’t as ubiquitous as we might think. Money was often a by-product of what a god of many other things might be in control of. In the ancient Hindu tradition, Lakshmi was the “mother of prosperity, peace, tradition and values”. In the Celtic tradition there was Teutates, god of war, fertility and wealth. And the Norse had the Vanir, gods of wealth, fertility and commerce.
The Greek pantheon, however, was more developed. A demigod called Plutus is associated with money. And his evolution is very interesting. And it parallels with Mammon, a power of money and greed with vague origins. This article mostly concerns these two gods of money, and where they might be lurking today.
Plutus’ parents were Demeter and Iasion. Demeter was sister to Zeus and while usually identified with the harvest, she in fact has a much broader brief, stretching to that of the goddess of the whole cycle of life. Being of Zeus’ generation, she is “pre-Olympian”, and was born in the era of the Titans, before the gods of Olympus were brought together with Zeus as ruler. Iasion, meanwhile, has little written about him, other than he was the son of Zeus and Elektra the nymph (and hence nephew to Demeter) and is believed to be a deity of agriculture.
Demeter seduced Iasion in a “thrice ploughed field” and gave birth to twins: Plutus and Philomelus. Plutus took the role of demigod of the wealth of the earth while Philomelus was demigod of ploughing.
So what we have here is an anecdote of how the “cycle of life” seduced agriculture, conceiving the riches of the earth and the toil of working it. Already the two farming functions: work and reward, are separate yet paired.
Plutus was depicted by Aristophanes as blind and lame, then sighted and winged. He was said to dispense wealth without knowing who the recipient was, and would fly away afterwards, departing quicker than he arrived. However when he was sighted, he was able to discern who was worthy of riches. This was around 400BC.
But by the time of Lucian of Samesota (150BC) he had become more demonic.
“I do not go on my own feet on those occasions, and it is not Zeus who sends me, but Pluto, who has his own ways of conferring wealth and making presents; Pluto and Plutus are not unconnected, you see.”
From Classical to Middle Ages
In the middle ages, if Dante’s Inferno is our guide, Plutus has become
” …the god of wealth, the arch-enemy because he embodies greed, the craving for material goods (power, fame, etc.) ” (Heilbron).
In fact more of a demon than a god. Said to guard one of the circles of hell.
Meantime, another god of money has been invoked. By Jesus. In Matthew 6:24, Jesus proclaims “You cannot serve God and Mammon“. In some translations, Mammon has become simply “money”. But that appears to reduce the entity wrapped up as Mammon to something inanimate. Mammon has a number of roots, in different cultures, but it is uncertain which, if any, Jesus would have known about. Could it be that Jesus identified then invoked a god of money, or more accurately material wealth and greed? Certainly by the middle ages, Mammon was considered an old deity of money, a demon or perhaps the devil himself. Like Plutus, he was connected with Hell, and had become one of its seven princes.
So we have a direction of travel from the Plutus of old, and the wealth of the earth, through a transformation from god to demon and thus, as with Mammon, to an agent of Hell, spreading evil through greed.
Today’s gods of money
Few today have heard of Plutus, and Mammon mostly exists as a rival to God in the Gospels. The powerfully evil figures from the middle ages have lost their power.
In American Gods, Neil Gaiman pitches a battle between the old gods who came to America, led by Odin, and the new gods, representing technology, media and suchlike, and led by Mr World, the god of globalisation. Because these new gods are now being worshipped. There is no explicit god of money.
But the discourses haven’t gone away. When we reached “peak capitalism” in 1987, Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street featured Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) uttering his famous “Greed is good” speech. The speech continues “…[money] captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit“. Stone suggesting here that Darwin and the “survival of the fittest” is justification enough for greed. Have we found our new god of money in Darwinism and the pro-science movement?
There would be irony in that.