Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
Deities of prosperity
The ancient gods have long suffered from a simplistic account of their activities, put into popular circulation by an orthodox tradition of anthropology. On this account, they were mere personifications of the natural elements, phenomena that our ancestors propitiated by invoking them as fearsome, wrathful or benign presences. The truth is somewhat more complex, for every ancient culture imagined its gods through a symbolic language that was drawn in equal measure from its ambient ecology and from the economy developed within that natural habitat. The pantheon so summoned into being were not simply remote and universal presences; they were, rather, complex figures who entered into intimate and specific transactions with humankind, even as they played their impersonal roles in a cosmic dramaturgy.
Kichijoten, Female deity of Fortune, derived from Lakshmi. One hand is in Varadamudra signifying the granting of desires, the other holds a wish-fulfilling jewel.
This dual canon of behaviour, under which the gods were actors both in society and in nature, is best embodied by the ancient deities of wealth, the guardians of fertility, prosperity and abundance. For wealth represented the optimal point of intersection between human effort and the natural cycles. In material terms, wealth was the fruit of the union of technological ingenuity and environmental resources; it was a reward for the correct interpretation of the riddles of the universe. In psychological terms, however, wealth represented a condition in which various impulses came into conflict, and required to be held in harmony: the fear of the failure of effort had to be balanced off by the desire for abundance; the individual drive to turn adverse situations to profit had to be reconciled with the social imperative to share the rewards of labour. In every ancient culture, the deity of wealth was the archetypal figure who contained these competing energies, the compelling poetic device by which the religious imagination harnessed potentially divisive energies towards a common welfare.
In Indic myth, we find the features of the monsoon ecology and its attendant agrarian-mercantile economy suitably encoded in the figure of Sri, the early goddess of wealth (her cult and iconography, first elaborated during the Kushan period, was later integrated into the worship of Lakshmi). As a divinity of the abundant and nourishing waters, Sri presides over the cycle of growth and regeneration. The animals most closely associated with her are the elephants, who are synonymous with the rain-bearing clouds (it was a favoured trope of the Sanskrit poets to describe the rain-clouds as airavatas, after the feared war-elephant of Indra, king of the gods). As befits a goddess of fertility, Sri is symbolised by the purna-ghata or pitcher, the fecund womb; her flower is the lotus, which symbolises immortality; upon her worshippers, she bestows showers of gold, the abundance of rain translated into a more readily convertible currency.
In Iranian myth, it is Mithra, the god of solar fire, who protects natural abundance and material well being. Praised as the lord of the wide pastures in Zoroastrian prayers, Mithra is a warrior-god who guarantees that the sanctity of the agreement shall be upheld, so preserving social order and laying down the basic parameters within which industry and trade may be conducted. It was to Mithra that the victims of injustice turned when the covenant was broken; it was Mithra who was invoked to ensure the seasonal melting of the winter snows and the run-off of spring rain in the mountains. Mithra's power to fill rivers and lakes was analogous to his ability to grant sons; he is celebrated in a special hymn dedicated to his glory: "We worship Mithra whom the Supreme God, Ahura Mazda, appointed as guardian and supervisor over the prosperity of the whole world; we worship Mithra who watches over Ahura Mazda's creatures." (Mithra Yasht, XXVI, 103)
Japanese mythology depicts Hotei (God of Prosperity) and Daikoku (God ofWealth) as Sumo wrestlers.
Prosperity, in Viking religious belief, was the gift of the god Njord, who presided over the winds and the currents, and was the patron genius of navigators. Njord was the natural candidate for the post, since the Vikings had amassed their fortunes and earned their legendary reputation in his domain, which the bards described as Noatun, the field of ships, drawing an image from the farmer's life and transposing it into the sailor's rather more perilous realm of experience.
The Vikings, feared raiders who overran and settled on the coasts of first-millennium Britain, Ireland and France, had even sailed as far south as Istanbul in their dragon-prowed longships. Martial and restless as they were, the Vikings were not immune to the dictates of quiet domesticity and prudent husbandry. Njord's son Frey was the god of peace and marriage, and was associated with gold and the horse; his daughter Freya was the goddess of love, beauty and fecundity.
The ancient Greeks invested the goddess Demeter with the power of granting or denying humankind the pleasures of wealth. Demeter was the goddess of the fields, and famously withheld the harvest when her daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the lord of the netherworld. Nature's rhythms having been disrupted, Zeus, the king of the gods, intervened. His solution was that Persephone could "divide the circling year in equal halves" as the legendary Latin poet Ovid puts it in his Metamorphoses. The seasons that Persephone spends with her mother are spring and summer, which mark Demeter's happiness and her consequent fertility; when Persephone disappears into her husband's subterranean kingdom, Demeter grieves, and humankind retreats into the barrenness of autumn and winter. To an agrarian economy, due understanding of and preparation for the changing moods of Demeter was essential to the garnering of wealth.Through the mythic narratives and ceremonial rites that evolved around them, these ancient deities of wealth served a critical social purpose. As custodian figures and trustees of wealth, they could be presented as exemplars to the influential elites in their societies. Arising as regulatory presences in the collective religious imagination, they bound community and environment together in a web of relationships, customary duties and earned rights. Above all, they personified an ideal relationship between the human consciousness and material resources, between society and capital.In the age of the gods, the production of capital was not an end in itself. Capital was generated so as to sustain other modes of human expression and endeavour in society, other modes of ecstasy and renewal, reflection and discovery. This stands in marked contrast to the present, when Marx's diagnosis that capital has become a self-perpetuating entity in modern times borne along by hectic commodity production and the incessant negotiation of exchange value has found its extreme application. The runaway production of capital has now become humankind's pre-eminent activity; it now overshadows all other expressions of human possibility, which are measured against it to determine their usefulness and significance. Given the conversion of the entire planet into a landscape of unrestricted enterprise, scant regard now obtains for the specificities of local ecologies and economies. As the adrenaline of financial adventure, risk, speculation and profit goads private individuals as well as national economies towards disaster, the relationships of interdependence and mutual responsibility that formerly bound communities to their environment have collapsed. In such a context, the ancient gods of wealth still have at least two vital lessons to teach us. The first is that a successful economy can be sustained only through the long-term translation of capital into other expressions of possibility, not the myopic reduction of all such expressions to capital. The second is that an economy's success is ultimately dependent on its ability to establish a symbiosis with its ambient ecology, approaching it in a spirit of nurturing renewal, not one of exploitative depletion.
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