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The Treasure Hunt
in Life, Mythology and Literature

by Tala Bar

The urge to embark on a quest is a basic human trait. The subjects of the quest are not only physical but also mental or spiritual. The most basic quest that humans undertake, after the instinctive search for food and a mate, is for territory. While on such a quest, our primitive ancestor Homo erectus reached China and Java, and the earliest Homo sapiens got as far as Australia and the Western Hemisphere.

On their wanderings, the territory-searchers encounter on their way many obstacles and difficulties until they reach a land suitable for settlement. Sometimes, when that land is not quite suitable, human beings try to transform it to meet their needs. Today, after all Earth’s territories have been discovered, humans are looking for more land in outer space, and one example of making land fit for human habitation is the plan to alter the conditions on the planet Mars to make it suitable for human habitation.

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One of the earliest myths to broach the theme of land reclamation is that of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason and his comrades set out on a long voyage full of obstacles in order to return the Golden Fleece to Greece. The fleece belonged to the golden ram on whose back the hero Phrixus rode when escaping from being made a sacrificial victim. The gold denotes the ram and his fleece as sacred to the sun.

According to the story, Phrixus reached the land of Colchis, on the northern shore of the Black Sea. There he died without being properly buried; his ghost has been wandering the world ever since, causing droughts and plagues. At least that’s what the king, Jason’s uncle, tells Jason when he sends him to bring back Phrixus’ ghost, which is connected with the fleece, and cure the land by giving Phrixus a Greek burial.

Jason manages to overcome the dragon guarding the Fleece with the help of the enchantress Medea, who is the princess of Colchis and has fallen in love with him. Jason flees the land after Medea kills her brother. When Jason and Medea return to Greece, Medea prepares a cauldron that can cure anybody who immerses himself in it.

Such a story is also told in the ancient Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwm (‘The Spoils of Annwm’), which tells of a cauldron stolen by King Arthur from the Celtic underworld Annwm. It helped Arthur renew his life and become immortal. In The Greek Myths, Robert Graves connects the story of the Golden Fleece with the story of the Cauldron, determining that the land that Jason reached was not Colchis, on the northern shore of the Black Sea, but an area on the northern shore of the Adriatic, from which the Celts emigrated to northwestern Europe. This area was also known for its amber, and the amber’s golden hue made it sacred to the sun, as gold was.

The story of the Cauldron was also connected with various tales about the search for the Holy Grail. The Grail, like the Golden Fleece, was supposed to cure the drought and plague rife in the land. Early Celtic myths about the Round Table knights’ quest for the Grail identify the Grail with the Celtic Cauldron and its valued features. Thus, the search for the Holy Grail is parallel to Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece, both in the merits of the object of the quest and the obstacles encountered in trying to find it.

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Many quests appear in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, which are also full of obstacles and cite the restorative merits of the quest objects. In “The Water of Life,” for instance, a king has fallen ill; his three sons are told he is going to die without the Water of Life. When the older brothers fail in the search, the third son sets out, overcomes many obstacles and difficulties, finds the water, wins the love of a princess whom he has saved from an enchanting curse, and becomes very rich.

Gold is also an integral part of another story, “Two Brothers,”, which tells of two poor children who find gold and escape from their uncle’s rage. They meet a hunter who teaches them hunting skills, and they acquire the friendship of various animals. One of the brothers wanders in a thick forest, kills seven dragons and wins the hand of a princess, but he is attacked and his head is cut off. After his animal friends find a root that cures him and he recovers his head, he saves his princess from his attacker, becomes king, and then meets his brother again. “And they all live happily and wealthily together.” Here again we see all the requirements for a quest story.

Since ancient days, gold has symbolized the ultimate in earthly riches. This idea was prominently exemplified in the 19th-century Gold Rush, which had its echoes throughout the world. Sometimes, when a man found even a few grains of real gold, he saw himself as very rich. Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Gold Bug” makes a play on the word “bug,” which has the double meaning of a scarab, i.e. a beetle made of gold, and an idée fixe. One of the special features of the story is the riddle found by a man who is searching for pirate treasure. The riddle gives clues to the treasure’s location. The story also involves a few murders, which are generally an integral part of a gold-quest story, as we have seen in Medea’s killing her brother.

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The symbolism of gold, as has been said above, is not only physical but also spiritual. In many mythologies around the world, gold is connected with the sun: it shines with its own eternal light, and does not fade or tarnish. This light also symbolizes purity, wisdom, nobility, honor, godliness, enlightenment and even immortality.

The general idea symbolized by these qualities is that of Truth. In David Hant’s “Tale of a Magician,” there is a short story of such a quest. A man sets out to look for treasure, wanders for twenty years on the track of various clues that lead him around the world, and finally ends up in a place not far from the one he set out from. There he finds a stone, which he must lift. Under it he finds letters spelling the word Truth. Only then does he realize that Truth is the most precious thing in the world. This story is reminiscent of a modern game called Treasure Hunt, in which various clues lead the searchers to finding some kind of true historical fact.

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Scientists also search for Truth. One of the best known discoveries is described in the story of Archimedes’ crying eureka (‘I’ve found it’) when he realized, while sitting in a bath full of water, how he could measure the volume of an irregularly shaped object.

A more modern scientist known for his many research discoveries is Louis Pasteur. He spent his life in searching for the truth, and in the book The Obstinate Boy, the writer and educator Yanush Korchak says of him: “The scientist searches, he makes mistakes; begins and stops, leaves and comes back, makes mistakes again and corrects them... Pasteur discovered Truths sought for two thousand years.” Pasteur’s story shows the elements needed to solve the treasure riddle: acquiring knowledge and understanding, aspiring, and working hard to discover Truth.

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Others, such as real and fictional detectives, follow similar paths. In Isaac Asimov’s novel The Robots of Dawn, humanity appears again inclined to wander in search of new lands, this time in outer space. On the first planet settled by humans, significantly called Aurora (‘Dawn’), detective Elijah Baley must find the culprit in the functional death of an android.

In solving that crime, the detective from Earth must acquire much knowledge and understanding of the strange planet, its inhabitants and their way of life, as well as the workings of its androids and robots. Only after exploring a maze of others’ secret thoughts and actions does he manage to solve the death of the android. As the author emphasizes many times, Baley is searching for Truth.

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Secret thoughts and actions also form the obstacles in Barry Hughart’s book Bridge of Birds, where the heroes seek to unravel a treasure riddle. The book contains all the elements connected with treasure hunt mentioned above. A fairy tale in form, it is set in ancient China and its complex mythology, but it also refers to later literature and actual modern reality.

The plot opens with a plague striking a village’s children. The plague is reminiscent of those mentioned in the myths of the Golden Fleece and the Holy Grail. The plague itself is a riddle, as no one knows where it comes from or understands its symptoms.

Before the hero can set out to find a cure for the plague, he must find a sage, a wise man who would explain the riddle. The sage discovers that the plague was caused by eating poisonous leaves from the mulberry trees on which the silk worms grow and feed and which are the main source of income for the villagers. This is reminiscent of Pasteur’s riddle of the sickness of the silkworms in France. The sage finds out that the cure to the plague is the “big root of power,” i.e. the ginseng plant, a parallel to the curing root found in Grimm’s story of the Two Brothers.

From the outset of the hero’s meeting with the sage there is an emphasis on the matter of Truth. To reveal the Truth and solve the riddle, the hero and sage set out on a meandering road full of obstacles, riddles and even one real maze full of dangers. Even a search for treasure is not lacking: it helps the hero and the sage acquire information and knowledge, the means of subsistence, and a way to reach the heroine of the story.

The book includes an actual riddle, a princess who had lost a golden crown that makes her divine, and a lost love that must be found again. All these help the hero and the sage find the heart of the “big root of power” that will cure the children of the village.

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Searching for Truth can be a means of curing a person’s soul. India is a country to which many young people go today for that purpose, enduring many difficulties, obstacles and sometimes even death because of the hardship in that country. In that setting, Rudyard Kipling told the story of Kim, a boy who set out on a quest for his destiny and on the way found his own personal Truth.

Another such personal quest is that of Henrik Ibsen’s Pier Gynt. All his life Pier Gynt is pursued by odd ideas, and he himself does not know what he is looking for. Throughout the book, different people also conduct various searches: Pier goes hunting and finds deer tracks in the snow, and soon after he arrives at the hiding place of his beloved Ingrid. Pier looks for Solveig while his mother is looking for him in the storm; Solveig is looking for Pier and his love, while the female troll he has made love to is searching for him after she had become pregnant.

While Pier Gynt wanders in the mountains, pursuing his hallucinations and looking for purity, he meets “Boig, the Great Bend.” Boig is an entity that speaks in riddles; he tells Pier Gynt he must go on his meandering ways to accomplish his purpose. Pier Gynt thus sets out to see the world. When people ask him what he is looking for, he says his ambition is to be an emperor with enormous wealth, though later he claims that he is looking for understanding and wishes to be the “ultimate researcher.”

Sailing home after many years of wanderings, Pier Gynt meets a mysterious passenger on the boat. This passenger seems to be a figment of his own imagination and demands that Pier Gynt be himself. He reaches home only to die in the arms of his beloved Solveig.

The identity and true hidden character of the man called Pier Gynt is thus the real riddle in this story, and it is difficult to know the truth about it even at the end of the road.

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From all that has been said above it may be concluded that these are the principles of the search for treasure: wanderings along hard, meandering roads; losing one’s way; and making mistakes, which sometimes involve murder. The search includes acquiring knowledge, understanding and wisdom on the way to discovering Truth; and in the end reaching good health, princely love and wealth as a result of solving a riddle.

It seems, however, that reaching the solution is not always the final answer: the human urge is to continue the search for its own sake. When Hughart finished The Bridge of Birds, having arrived at its solution, his hero and sage set out on another search, this time for a mysterious, magical stone, which is the subject of another book.

The quest itself, be it physical or spiritual, occupies many people as a way of life, and once they arrive at the solution of one riddle, they cannot sit peacefully but set out on a search for yet another treasure. In his article “El Dorado,” Robert Louis Stevenson remarks that what is important is the way to the mountain’s peak — the search for treasure — and not the arrival at the peak — finding the treasure. When a person has found his treasure but has no other goal to look for, he’d better cease to live, because he has no longer any purpose in life.


Robert Graves, The Greek Myths; The White Goddess
David Hant, “Tale of a Magician” Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds
Henrik Ibsen, Pier Gynt
Rudyard Kipling, Kim
Yanush Korchak, The Obstinate Boy (in Hebrew)
Edgar Allen Poe, “The Gold Bug”

Copyright © 2006 by Tala Bar

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