“There’s gold in them thar fleece!”

Jason returns with the Golden Fleece, shown on an Apulian red-figure calyx krater, ca. 340–330 BC

The California gold rush began on January 24, 1848 with the accidental discovery of gold in the water during the construction of Sutter’s sawmill. When President Polk announced the discovery later that year, it caused a national and international sensation and the “Forty-Niners” swooped down to begin sifting and panning for gold in the streams and rivers of California.

Gold has been associated with wealth and opulence throughout history. It is especially associated with gods and divinity and royalty. Gold coins protect people from hunger and poverty. Gold coins in the Tarot (Pentacles) deal with earthly, daily experiences related to work and endeavors that support our emotional and physical well-being.

Gold is mentioned in Greek mythology for examples as varied as King Midas, the Golden Fleece stolen by Jason which possessed the power of resurrection, and the Golden Apples of Hesperides. The Golden Apples bestowed immortality on whoever ate them. Gold has always been associated with the eternal, the unending, incorruptible and embracing powers of the divine. The color and shining quality of gold continues to be associated with the sun and the sacred masculine.

There is a fascinating connection between the Golden Fleece and the California gold rush. A widespread interpretation relates the myth of the Golden Fleece to a method of washing gold from streams, which was well attested from c. 5th century BC in the region of Georgia to the east of the Black Sea. (The myths of the Golden Fleece say that the Fleece was kept in Colchis, i.e. the modern Georgia in Eastern Europe.) Sheep fleeces, sometimes stretched over a wood frame, would be submerged in the stream and gold flecks borne down from upstream would collect in them. The fleeces would be hung in trees to dry before the gold was shaken or combed out. Collecting gold flecks from the rivers was what the Forty-Niners would do in California, often using pie pans to swirl the water in and then pour through filters–the same idea as the sheep fleeces.

Gold represents the best in us but also brings out the worst in people. Legends of Aztec and Inca gold drove the Conquistadores to seize the Native American empires. Jealousy and Greed, simmering beneath the surface of our emotions, are brought out into the open when we see someone else has something–such as gold–that we want for ourselves.

Click here to read more about folklore associated with gold.

The Fool, one of the Major Arcana of the Tarot, shows a golden sky that the pilgrim is stepping off into. He trusts that the universe will protect and shield him from exterior evil as well as from his own worst instincts.

The Cave of Bethlehem

Eastern Orthodox icon of the birth of Christ by St. Andrei Rublev, 15th century. Note that the shepherd speaking with St. Joseph in the lower left is shown in profile, a pose reserved only for this shepherd, the Devil,  and for Judas Iscariot and which indicates their interior wickedness and efforts to hide themselves from God. Also, the cave in which Christ is born is painted with the same absolute black pigment -- unmixed with any other dark colors, which is more usual -- as is the tomb of Christ or the abyss of Hell, into which the Divine Presence has entered.

Eastern Orthodox icon of the birth of Christ by St. Andrei Rublev, 15th century. Note that the shepherd speaking with St. Joseph in the lower left is shown in profile, a pose reserved only for this shepherd, the Devil, and for Judas Iscariot and which indicates their interior wickedness and efforts to hide themselves from God. Also, the cave in which Christ is born is painted with the same absolute black pigment — unmixed with any other dark colors, which is more usual — as is the tomb of Christ or the abyss of Hell, into which the Divine Presence has entered.

We talk about Christ being born in a manger, in a stable and most crèche scenes have the manger inside a straw-roofed hut. But traditional depictions based on ancient models, like the icon above, show the manger inside a cave instead of a straw-roofed hut. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem also marks the traditional place of the manger inside a cave beneath the church. Why?

In the Middle East, animals were often stabled in the small caves that dotted the countryside. The inn at Bethlehem that offered a place to Joseph and Mary doubtless had a stable-cave attached. But in western Europe during the 1200s, when it began to be common to erect crèche scenes, the stables there that people were used to seeing were huts. Not caves. So Europeans and Americans expect to see a manger in a hut, not a cave. But the cave was the more likely, original, and actual location of the manger.

A lot of traditional poetry for both Christmas and Good Friday point out that Christ was born and buried in a cave that belonged to someone else, each time protected by a man named Joseph. His swaddling bands, the strips of cloth a baby was wrapped in to keep him/her warm and cozy, look like a the strips of cloth a corpse might be wrapped in. The manger itself looks like a coffin. The celebration of the incarnation and birth of Christ already points to the celebration of his death and resurrection.

In Orthodox icons (such as the one above), the Star of Bethlehem is often depicted not as a bright light but as a dark aureola, a semicircle at the top of the icon, indicating the “divine darkness” or Uncreated Light of Divine grace, with a ray pointing to “the place where the young child lay” (Matt 2:9). Sometimes the faint image of an angel is drawn inside the dark semi-circle, pointing the way for the Magi.

Time Zones, Time Travel

Time itself will end if this clock ever stops–evil and black magic lurk in the shadows of The Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Square of Prague. (photo by Joseph O’Neill, 2016)

Time is a mysterious, ever-flowing stream that seems to pool and eddy and tumble forward more quickly some days than others. Some days, we wish that it would flow backwards–even if only a few moments so that we can get on the subway train that is pulling out of the station as we come down the stairs onto the platform.

Folk tales and fairy tales and science fiction take the manipulation of time for granted. A princess can sleep for 100 years. Rip van Winkle can snooze for a 20 year nap. A hero can walk until seven pairs of iron boots wear out. But Aladdin can travel across Asia in the blink of an eye and Beauty can return to the side of her beast before she has drawn a breath. Once Mr. Spock discovered how to whip the star ship Enterprise around the sun to travel through time, it became a trick to use on multiple occasions–sometimes even with whales swimming in the ship’s hull. And the TARDIS of Dr. Who or the Way-Back machine of Peabody and Sherman are on everyone’s Christmas list at some point!

We also want to look further down the stream of time by dealing out cards or examining the lines on our palms. The position of the stars when we are born might effect something that happens more than 30 years later.

We want to control time and it remains forever elusive and just beyond our reach.

But on November 18, 1883 a Connecticut school teacher, Charles F. Dowd, was able to impose a method of human control over Time. He proposed a uniform time zone plan for the U.S. consisting of four zones. We take these time zones for granted now; television stations indicate what time in which time zones their programs will air and we know without being told that planes from the East Coast are in the air for three hours longer than their landing time on the West Coast indicate. We are actually able to land before we take off, sometimes!