Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Female Financial Firsts 3: The Keys to Banks

A supplicant seeks an answer from the Oracle at Delphi

Greek Priestesses and the Keys to Banks

The superpower of the ancient world was Persia, a successor to Babylonia. Persia’s greatness stood unchecked until the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. For several hundred years Greece ascended to the pinnacle of “soft” power and influence in the Ancient World (aka, the Golden Age of Greece). The Battle of Marathon also gave us one of our most enduring symbols of the financial sector: what today we call the “treasury”.[i]

Immediately following the victory, the Athenians built a “Treasury” for the city below Apollo’s Temple.[ii] Crafted of cut marble from the remnants of Marathon, it was intended to be sturdy, inviolable and burglar-proof. This treasury became the repository of valuables, wealth and functioned in many ways in the same way that a bank does today. In fact, recreations of this first treasury – pictured below – look remarkably like our classic bank building.[iii] The similarities are not accidental.

The Treasury at Delphi

The most prominent of all the Greek temples was the temple to Apollo at Delphi. The prominence of this temple was in part due to the future-telling prowess of the priestesses who, because they were deemed married to the Greek god Apollo, “were subject to the extraordinary requirement of perpetual celibacy.”[iv]

But these women were more than vestal virgins. Delphi’s pre-eminence derived from the perception that women prophesied the future there. Modern scientists (including Professor Richard Neer of the University of Chicago) have determined that in fact Apollo’s temple was built over a fissure in the earth, from which gaseous hydrocarbons rose. The “Pythia” (as the priestesses were called) propped themselves up on a three-legged stool over the fissure, inhaling the pneuma. Within a short time, the Pythia “would go into ecstatic union with Apollo, the god of phrophecy….In short, the high priestess got high.”[v]

At Delphi, “temples functioned as virtual [and actual] treasuries, filled as they were with precious offerings.”[vi]  As professors Homer & Sylla conclude. “The shrine at Delphi, the greatest of them all, is sometimes described as the great banker of the Greek world.”[vii]

Like their earlier, Babylonian predecessors, priestesses at Delphi guarded the wealth of their fellow citizens. While Athen’s Delphic Treasury may have been the first and most prominent, it was not the only temple. A modern archaeological website suggests that there are twelve excavated treasuries at Delphi.[viii]

More than 2,000 years ago these treasuries were under the protection and integral to temples. These temples were devoted to a specific god or goddess and controlled by Greek priestesses. It was only the Greek priestesses who – literally – possessed a key to the treasury in the temple.[ix] These keys were metal and locked and unlocked the temple treasury doors.

In short, treasuries, the modern day bank building – and the literal keys to the treasures within – owe a great deal to the Greek priestesses of Delphi.

Collier's painting of the Oracle at Delphi

[ii] Ralph T. Neer, “Delphi, Olympia, and the Art of Politics,” pp.225-264 in H.A. Schapiro, Ed., The Cambridge Companion to Archaic Greece, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.249
[iii] “Prior to 1930, most American banks were designed in the classical style. To attract depositors, owners and trustees favored traditional architectural imagery – large, often free-standing, stone structures in the classical style that signaled financial stability and integrity. These structures, whether located in small towns or large cities, projected a strong civic presence and many became centerpieces in their communities.” http://home2.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/jamaicasavings.pdf
[iv] Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.73
[v] William J. Broad, The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets, (New York: Penguin, 2006), p.238
[vi] Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.93
[vii] Sydney Homer and Richard Sylla, A History of Interest Rates, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), p.37
[viii] http://www.stoa.org/metis/cgi-bin/qtvr?site=delphi  Accessed May 4, 2013 This is a fantastic website for trolling thru the archaeological site at Delphi and comparing the ruins to artists’ renditions in their original state.
[ix] Men sometimes held the temple key in extant carvings but “images of men carrying temple keys are rare.”Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.93

Copyright 2013 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form without my prior, written consent. That means you!

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