The golden touch.
Some of humankind's most precious commodities -- such as gold, silver and gemstones -- are valued both for their beauty and their rarity. A symbol of purity and incorruptibility, gold is associated with divinity, royalty, the sun and the highest aspirations of the spirit. The golden apples of the Nordic heaven, Asgard, like those of the Hesperides in Greek mythology, prevent the gods from growing old, while images of the Buddha are often gilded as a sign of enlightenment and perfection. As a traditional symbol of wealth, gold features in the regalia of monarchy and high office, and it is also used to symbolize human achievement -- as in a gold medal or, figuratively, in the notion of a "golden age".
As production of goods and services became more diverse and specialized, trade by simple barter ceased to be practical. Universally recognized tokens, which gradually developed into money, solved the problem: as long as everyone accepted the symbolic value of the tokens they could be exchanged for anything. Items such as shells and beads were used by some societies, but metal, when it was available, was more versatile and was more commonly used. Originally, coins represented the intrinsic worth of the metal from which they were made, but the value of modern coinage, and of banknotes, is purely symbolic.
Designs impressed on the faces of coins usually signified the authority of the ruling body (typically the ruler's head). They also bore iconographic signs of the culture -- such as horses, boars and trees on many Gaulish coins -- a tradition that continues to this day. Chinese cash had a square hole in the center symbolizing Earth surrounded by the circle of Heaven, with a superscription of the emperor, son of Heaven and Earth.
One way of distinguishing rank is through ceremonial dress and accessories. The head is often seen as the "seat of the soul" and the noblest part of the body, and elaborate headdresses are almost universally used to indicate high status -- the leader being the "head" of the group. They range from the elaborate feathered headdress of a Native American chief to the richly jeweled crown of a monarch. Many leaders carry a golden globe, or orb (a piece of regalia first used by Roman emperors to show their dominion over the world), and a scepter similar to a staff. In Japan, one of the items of imperial regalia is a bronze mirror, associated with the goddess Amaterasu and passed down to the imperial family, who claim descent from her.
The principal item of clothing forming part of the regalia is typically a robe or cape. The Chinese emperor's robe had a round collar with a square hem, identifying its wearers the intermediary between Heaven and Earth. The robe of a shaman bears a wealth of symbolism: in ancient Uralo-Altaic cultures, for example, it was decorated with a three-branched emblem known as the mark of the bustard, which symbolized the communication between the world's of death and rebirth. Today in the West, white ermine, symbolic of moral purity and justice, is still used to decorate the robes of state, judicial, ecclesiastical and academic dignitaries.
The trappings of power help to maintain the mystique of those who occupy a "seat of office" that sets them apart from the lowly rank in file. This "chair" takes many different guises: the chairperson is the head of an organization, while in academia, the holder of a chair in a particular subject is at the very top of that discipline. A throne is a special chair that symbolizes the authority of a god or sovereign. It is often positioned on a raised platform to signify the ruler's elevated status, and is usually richly embellished. In the Bible, King Solomon's throne is described as being of ivory, overlaid with gold, standing at the top of six steps, flanked by a pair of golden lions. The intricately decorated beadwork thrones of the Bamum kingdom in Cameroon incorporate the figures of men and women to illustrate the monarch's wealth in people, while the beads themselves, the preserve of royalty, symbolize his material wealth.
POWER AND GOLD. Man's recognition of the intrinsic beauty of certain materials and minerals, especially gold, has led to their constant use in totally unconnected civilizations separated by vast barriers of time and space.