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Money Grows on the Tree of Knowledge: Part I

The symbol for the dollar is familiar throughout the world. The same symbol that’s used in the USA is also used for other forms of the dollar, such as in Canada and Australia. There are several different theories about the origin of this symbol, although I don’t believe that they are mutually exclusive.

The first “dollars” to circulate in the American colonies were actually Spanish coins. In the year 1695, the British government stopped exporting coins outside of its borders, even to its own colonies. Thus, the British colonists in North America were forced to acquire coins from the Spanish colonies in Mexico.

The coins that were circulating there had been designed in 1497, not long after their hireling Christopher Columbus had returned from his first voyage to America. At that time, to celebrate the vast wealth of gold and silver that they had just discovered and were busy hauling back home, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of the Spanish house of Habsburg had a silver coin issued called a “peso”, the value of which was an eighth of a “real.”

This coin featured the Pillars of Hercules and the words “Plus Ultra”, Latin for “There is More Beyond”), with each word written on a banner that was coiled around one of the pillars. In other words, the monarchs were saying to their subjects, “You see this piece of silver? There’s more where that came from, Baby.” When the Spaniards opened a mint in Mexico (soon to be one of the largest in the world), they began circulating these coins.

The “Plus Ultra” peso became the most widely used coin amongst the thirteen British colonies, and the Scotch-Americans who used them called them “pillar dollars” after the “taler”, the name of a type of silver coin that circulated in Europe. The Americans didn’t establish their own mint until 1794. Even after that, since gold and silver were hard to come by, and the minting process expensive, the United States continued to circulate mostly Spanish silver dollars throughout much of the 1800s. So even though the U.S. did issue its own coins, the pillar dollar remained the “coin of the realm” for some time.

It is from the image on the pillar dollar that the dollar sign ($) is said by some historians to have been derived, originally made with two slashes through the “S,” instead of one, as is commonly done now. So the dollar sign would then represent a pillar, or pillars, encoiled with a banner.

This would then encompass, within a simple glyph, all which is implied about America by the words “Plus Ultra” and the Pillars of Hercules – that it is the great New World dreamt of by the philosophers of old. It was here that Sir Francis Bacon had envisioned that we would build a “philosophic empire” that would lead the world in the pursuit of knowledge of “the 6 days’ work”- that is, the hidden secrets of God’s creation.

An earlier prototype of this design comes from shekel coins made on the ancient Phoenician island of Tyre, which feature both the Pillars of Hercules, and a serpent coiled around a tree, ala the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It is with this that some authors, such as Ignatius Donnelly, see the true origins of the dollar sign.

However, there is still more to discover about this symbol if you go just a little bit beyond. To me, the dollar sign is more reminiscent of the caduceus, the magical wand of Hermes, a staff with a serpent entwined upon it, which has long been a symbol of alchemical transformation and healing (thus its use by the medical profession). This was its meaning in ancient Greece, as well as Rome, where it was associated with Mercury, the Roman equivalent of Hermes and the patron deity of alchemists.

The caduceus was literally a magic wand that the god used to transform reality, as an alchemist transmutes one substance into another. A simplified version of this symbol was used in astrology to denote the planetary power of mercury, and in alchemy to denote the substance of mercury, otherwise known as quicksilver. This symbol looked almost identical to the dollar sign.

But interestingly, this symbol also has a similar meaning in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is found in the story of the Nehushtan, the brazen serpent mounted on a stick that Moses used to heal the people of Israel after they had been bitten by “fiery serpents” sent by the Lord. In Christian theology, this symbol of the “crucified serpent” is seen as analogous to Jesus being hung upon the cross, which healed the sins of mankind.

The crucified serpent was one of the central images featured in the alchemical manuscript The Sacred Book of Abraham the Jew, famously translated by Nicholas Flamel. It represents the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone that can transform any thing into any other thing at will. All of this is related intimately to the history of the word “dollar” and the origin of the dollar sign.

In the year 1516, just five years before the Spaniards began looting silver and gold from America, Count Stephan Hieronymus Schlick discovered major silver deposits near his ancestral home in Jachymov, Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). He began not only mining the silver, but minting it into coins as well. These coins were soon being circulated all over Europe, where they became known as “talers”, after the “tal” or “valley” from which they were minted.

In 1527, Georgius Agricola was hired as the “mine physician” for Joachimstal. Agricola had spent his education studying alchemy. Over the years he had become frustrated with his studies, but, as Jason Goodwin writes in the book Greenback, “in Joachimstal… he saw something more interesting: incontrovertible proof that men could turn dross into silver. Mining, he decided, was what alchemy was meant to be.” Agricola went on to write the first scientific treatise on the subject of mining, and became known as the “Father of Mineralogy.”

But here’s the really interesting thing: some of the talers that came out of that valley actually featured the Nahushtan crucified serpent on one side, and a crucified Jesus on the other. The alchemical connection to the later US dollar, and the most direct origin yet for the dollar symbol, could not be more obvious.

In the Bible, the invention of metallurgy is credited early on in Genesis to the figure of Tubal-Cain. He was among the accursed race of Cainites, descended from the world’s first murderer, Cain, who killed his own brother. Thereafter, he was cursed to be a “fugitive and a vagabond” for the rest of his days. Cain himself was said to be the inventor of agriculture, described in Genesis as “a tiller of the ground.” His name, which appears in the histories of many other ancient Semitic cultures besides the Hebrew, has contributed to the formation of words in English and other languages that mean “grain”, “corn”, “bread”, or “cane.”

But in Hebrew, “Cain” meant “to acquire, to create, to fashion, to produce, or to accomplish.” When used as a noun, it meant “smith”; that is, “one who makes things.” Thus it seems easy to say that “Cain” is at the root of the word “coin.” For in addition to being a noun indicating a metallic token, “coin” can also be used as a verb, meaning “to invent.” The noun “coin” is derived from the verb definition, for a coin is an object that has been “coined.”

Both Cain and his descendant Tubal-Cain are portrayed in Judeo-Christian literature as evil geniuses, too smart for their own good. There is something sinister about their accomplishments — the invention of agriculture and metallurgy — and of their selfish desire to create things, no matter how wonderful those creations may be.

This reflects an attitude displayed by God towards man throughout the Book of Genesis. Thus we read about two other seemingly positive acts: the obtaining of ultimate wisdom from the Tree of Knowledge (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden), and the building of a magnificent tower leading to Heaven (the Tower of Babel). Both of these acts were portrayed in the Bible as sins. The message of Genesis (a word that means “creation”) is that creating things is God’s job, not man’s. Therefore mankind has no need to learn the principles of creation.

But in a sense, this rebellion, the original sin of obtaining forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden, was necessary for man’s development. Without it, we would have remained naïve and ignorant, never accomplishing anything. The wisdom, symbolized by the forbidden fruit, which was given to Adam and Eve made them “wise”, “opened [their] eyes”, made them see things “as gods.”

This is the very power of creation and transformation that was sought by the alchemists, and which they symbolized by a serpent on a staff. Sometimes, as with the caduceus of the Greeks, there were two serpents, just as the Jewish mystics, the cabalists, say there were really two serpents in the Garden, Lilith and Samael. Actually, they say that these were the male and female halves of a single Hermaphroditic being. Sometimes, as in the design from the Tyrian shekel described earlier, there were shown two pillars, just as in the Garden of Eden there were two sacred trees mentioned, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. The caduceus and the dollar sign both, then, really point to this same hidden wisdom that was passed down to mankind in the Garden: the power of God’s creation.

In a way, money itself is like this. It is intrinsically a Faustian, Promethean symbol of man’s rebellion against God in his quest for more knowledge of the world and control of his surroundings. In this world-view, at the extreme end of it, the invention of money could be seen as one of man’s most audacious acts: creating something and declaring it to have a particular value, from which the value of everything else in the world can be measured, and which, like the Philosopher’s Stone of the alchemists, can be used to transform any one thing into another thing, through the exchange of commerce.

And just like the transcendental power of the Philosopher’s Stone, just like the Holy Grail or the Spear of Destiny, this power can be used for Good or for Evil, for it is only by utilizing this power that things like good and evil can exist in the first place.

To learn more about alchemy and economics, buy the book Money Grows on the Tree of Knowledge, by Tracy R. Twyman:

This book is printed in an exclusive limited edition of 200 hand-numbered copies autographed by the author, and comes with a DVD with the first 26 episodes of Tracy R. Twyman’s notorious podcast about esoteric economics and psycho-politics, The Invisible Hand, compiled in a DVD in mp3 format. SHIPPING IS FREE TO THE US AND CANADA, $7 to all other countries. BUY IT HERE.

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