Gold, the most enduring, highly valued, and universally accepted monetary metal, is a chemical element represented by the symbol “Au” on the periodic table. A lustrous yellow metal, soft and malleable, gold does not tarnish or corrode, and is found in nature in a relatively pure form. From earliest times up to the present, the search for gold in nature has remained a never-ending quest. Man’s earliest chemical researches were inspired by a desire to find a means of converting other metals into gold.
Because it did occur in pure form, gold was one of the first metals that drew man’s attention, but it was too soft to be a practical metal for making weapons and farming tools. As a metallic medium for artistic work, however, gold had no rivals and elaborate artistic productions in gold rank among the most prized relics of antiquity.
Gold’s role as a monetary metal probably has its roots in the perception, widespread in ancient cultures, that gold was a divine substance. That gold suffered no deterioration with time and that its color resembled the color of the sun may have encouraged the belief that gold was a sacred substance. Gold adornments were a necessary part of religious temples, further underlining the connection between gold and the gods.
The ancient Egyptians held gold to be sacred to Ra, the sun god, and vast quantities of gold went into the tombs of the divine pharaohs. A religion of ancient India taught that gold was the sacred semen of Agni, the fire god, and Agni’s priests accepted gold as a gift for priestly services. The Incas of South America saw gold and silver as the sweat of the sun and the moon, and these precious metals adorned the walls of their religious temples. After the Spaniards took the Indians’ gold and silver the natives substituted foil paper, and threw gold and silver-colored confetti into the air. The Maya of the Yucatan threw gold, silver, and jade sacrifices into their gods’ cenotes. (The cenotes were deep pools of water formed when a limestone surface collapsed.)
The legend of El Dorado propelled Spain into one of the greatest searches in history, ending with the exploration and conquest of much of the Americas. El Dorado was the name of an Indian who ruled a town near Bogota, Colombia. According to legend, El Dorado celebrated festivals by plastering his body with gold dust, and plunging himself into Lake Guatavita at the end of the festival to wash off the gold, and make the gold a gift to the gods. His subjects also threw gold and other valuables into the lake. The legend of El Dorado grew, and the Spanish, Portuguese, and German explorers went in search of the golden Eldorado, a city in a land fabulously rich in gold. El Dorado himself was never found, but Eldorado came to mean a land of gold populated by several cities rich in gold. The English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh went in search of one of these cities.
Because gold was always in demand as a religious donation or sacrifice, it had an unlimited demand and was always valued. It was an excellent store of value because it did not tarnish or corrode, and it was divisible into units of any size, making it useful for exchanges of varying magnitudes, and making change. The high value of gold per unit of weight made gold more transportable than other commodities that might serve as money. For these reasons, gold became the basis for the most famous commodity standard in history, the gold standard, a monetary standard that dominated the world monetary system from the 1880s until 1914.