The tricksterish nature of money – capricious, protean, promiscuous, amoral, transgressive – has long been recognised. At least from the early 18th century onwards, money was associated directly with the devil, particularly in a series of popular prints (mainly from the French Epinal company) depicting ‘Le Diable d’Argent’.
Here, the Devil flies over a collection of tradespeople spilling money into their greedy outstretched hands from bags, bleeding coins from the stump of his partially severed tail (the end having been pulled off by the greed of one of his admirers) and defecating coins from his rear end. The people gathered below vary from version to version, but usually include an artist, a poet, a baker, a winemaker, a ropemaker and a lawyer. The not-too-subtle- message of these images is that money blinds and distracts people from the craft of their professions. All the characters arranged below the Devil have demonstrably abandoned the tools of their trade in pursuit of money alone. In this particular image, the devil is accompanied by another lesser demon – this one with a clerk on his back, probably a reference to the evils of banking and/or bureacracy. Interestingly, this second demon carries the staff of Hermes/Mercury, the traditional Greek trickster figure.
That many of these images are French is no accident, France’s experience with the rapid growth in the use of money having been very problematic. The infamous ‘John Law experiments’ of the early 18th Century were an early, and disastrous, attempt to develop a paper currency of the kind we now take for granted. The failure of the system (commonly blamed on Law himself but more likely a consequence of Governmental mismanagement) produced a profound distrust of money which was, at the time, still the preserve of wealthy merchants and bankers.
More generally the very rapid reduction of ‘value’ (social, aesthetic, cultural, use) to money within the proto-capitalist economies of Europe led to deep unease about the social consequences of monetization – famously encapsulated by Marx in the Communist Manifesto as the reduction of everything to the ‘cash nexus’.
The imagery of the Money Devil, however, taps into far more profound fears about the satanic and excremental nature of money. As Sigmund Freud put it with respect to the deep psychological association between money and shit :
“We know that the gold which the devil gives his paramours turns into excrement after his departure, and the devil is certainly nothing else than the personification of the repressed unconscious instinctual life. We also know about the superstition which connects the finding of treasure with defecation, and everyone is familiar with the figure of the ‘shitter of ducats [Dukatenscheisser]’.Indeed, even according to ancient Babylonian doctrine gold is the ‘faeces of hell’ (Mammon = ilu manman). Thus, in following the usage of language, neurosis, here as elsewhere is taking words in their original significant sense, and where it appears to be using the word figuratively it is usually simply restoring its old meaning.
It is possible that the contrast between the the most precious substance known to men and the most worthless, which they reject as waste matter (‘refuse’), has led to this specific identification of gold with faeces.”
When we talk about ‘filthy lucre’ and the ‘stinking rich’, we are not just being glib, we are drawing on some very ancient fears about the nature of money.
A range of other Money Devil images can be found at the Harvard Business School’s Baker Library .