10,000 Years Ago, Elon Musk Would Have Been Casting Spells Into Feathers, Rocks, and Shells

How the ‘Technoking’ imbues assets with value in the same way medieval kings would

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk poses on the red carpet of the Axel Springer Award 2020
Photo: Britta Pedersen/Pool/Getty Images

Where does money come from, and how did it get that way?

Most people assume that it all started with bartering, but the barter theory, popularized by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations — which supposes that human societies traded goods for one another before developing currency — has been widely disproven. No example of a pre-currency barter economy has ever been discovered anywhere on Earth.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The late 19th-century European anthropologists and ethnographers who conducted field studies among what were then perceived to be the “primitive tribes” of Africa, Asia, Australia, and Oceania reported at length about the role that symbolic media played in a wide and complex variety of rites, rituals, ordeals, and ceremonial sequences such as exorcisms, gift-giving, inheritances, marriages, oath-taking, punishments, ransoms, rewards, entry fees for secret societies, and as payments for corpses on their journey to the land of the dead.

If the first anthropologists who set foot on the shores of New Guinea thought they were going to discover bilateral exchanges of, say, candle wax for cassava or a dog for 10 pairs of slippers, they were likely surprised to discover an economy of bones, seeds, shells, skins, and polished rocks that appeared to possess symbolic value akin to crowns, pesos, and shekels. Money — or something that acted very much like it — had been around long before Adam Smith cast his analytical gaze upon his nation of shopkeepers.

How did those rocks, shells, and beads become money? Matt Levine at Bloomberg gives us a hint in a recent newsletter about how money appears to be functioning in our current moment. “The way finance works now,” he wrote, “is that things are valuable not based on their cash flows, but on their proximity to Elon Musk.”

Levine was referring to Musk’s propensity to tweet about cryptocurrencies and financial instruments, thereby sending their value through the roof. But since I am an English professor and not an economist, Levine’s words made me think of a metaphor known as metonymy — the metaphor based on proximity and contiguity, and thus the key to what Levine calls, “Elon Musk Proximity Pricing.”

Metonymy is the metaphor of contiguity and comes from an imaginary force anthropologists call sympathetic magic, or the belief that some invisible substance or contagion can creep from one material body to another and bind them together. That includes, of course, human bodies — such as the body of Elon Musk.

A familiar example of sympathetic magic is the voodoo doll adorned with a lock of a target subject’s hair. The hair had been in close proximity to the target, and as a result, that hair has supposedly been infused with the spirit of that person. Because of this magical sympathy, the hair connects the target individual to the figure of the doll. The result is that a pin stuck in the doll’s heart affects the heart of the adversary. Or consider the phrase: “Nothing but suits in that room.” Since the suit is contiguous to the businessman, their proximity enables the sympathetic contagions of metonymy to kick in, and the “suit” becomes the man.

An example of metonymy more specific to the nature of money is the use of a term such as “the crown.” A king can be referred to as “the crown,” because the king’s authority seeps from his person to that which sits atop his head. The crown has been invested with the power of a king, and can return the favor, and invest a king with its own properties — such as shining brilliance, or an elevated position. This same contagion plays out in language, so that the wholly distinct king and crown become metaphorically one and the same, to the extent that instead of paying taxes to the king, one may be ordered to pay taxes “to the crown.”

The identification between metonymy and money is so strong that a “crown,” imbued with the authority of the sovereign state, to this day remains the unit of value and media of exchange in Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. The English “crown” (first minted under the authority of Henry VIII in 1526) was thus a metonymic coin. Today, a tweet from Musk can do much the same thing for the newest sorts of crowns — known as cryptocurrencies, or for that matter, for anything the “Technoking” would like to imbue with value.

Long ago, the prophet, the soothsayer, and the storyteller made money out of myth and coaxed the cosmos into allegorical figures for human fears and desires. Before the truck and barter of market economies, before coin and cash and stocks and bonds, money became money through the power of metaphor. We may think we are beyond the superstitious magic that turned shells, teeth, feathers, and skulls into stores of value and units of account. But clearly, as the Elon Musk effect on cryptocurrency demonstrates, this is not the case.

Professor of journalism, magazine writer, author of The Money Plot: A History of Currency’s Power to Enchant, Control, and Manipulate.

Sign up for Buy/Sell/Hold

By Marker

A newsletter that's 100% business intelligence, and 0% investment advice. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store