Seminar Dates and Formats      Articles      Joseph Campbell      Site Map      Search

The Lost Coin

by Jonathan Young

Creative Thought Magazine -- January 1996

separator scroll

There is a parable in the Scriptures about a woman who has lost a valuable coin. It is one of only ten that she has. She lights a lamp and sweeps day and night until she finds it. When it is found, she invites her friends over to celebrate with her.

In those days it was the custom for women to wear coins that had been something like a dowry. It is as if a person whose savings are all in the form of jewelry were to lose a piece. Even though the lost piece does not represent the whole of her wealth, it is a thing of considerable value to her. She devotes herself totally to finding the coin and when she succeeds, she wants her neighbors to share her relief and joy. We might imagine that she spent the value of the coin on the festivities.

The story is a marvelous illustration of the idea of regaining a lost sense of soul. On a simple level, a precious piece of her feeling that she was valuable was gone. It had fallen into the dust. When some part of one's self-esteem falls away, the sense of loss is tangible. Since the coin had been sewn to her dress, its absence also represents a loss of face. She had suffered a diminished self-image. It is like how we feel when a setback in a cherished project deflates us or a thoughtless comment gets us down. It takes some work to return to the full feeling of worthiness we had before.

The larger meaning of the lost item of value could be that it is the jewel of the soul, which in many lives goes missing until thorough searching finds it again. Loss of soul is more subtle than the loss of a prized object. When we devote too much of our attention to practical concerns, the deeper regions of the inner life turn to wasteland. Like in the landscape in the grail stories, the generative energy of creativity languishes. Nothing can grow in such neglected soil. We must search for the missing element. It is usually a lack of investment in that which the soul values. The searching can be in the form of devotional practice. Taking the time for beauty and reflection leads back to the soulful sense of connection.

The way we look at stories is a clue to how to search for soul. The exploration plays on the meanings of words like worth, value, face, lost, and found. The symbolism in these and other key words open up the wisdom of this ancient tale. This is a mythic story in the sense that it is probably not historical fact about any particular event in a real person's life. It is a poetic summary of an emotional and spiritual experience that anyone could have. Opening up aspects of such a story to multiple figurative readings is good practice for seeing the deeper meanings of the events in our lives. Soul does not live on the surface, but in the hidden recesses of everyday moments.

On a cultural level, we might consider that the lost possession was the valuing of story itself. For too long, the charm and elegance of mythology went undervalued in an era obsessed with hard facts and bottom lines. Fortunately, some folks have been sweeping diligently under beds and in every corner to find the lost treasure.

Many other associations about the images in the parable are possible. Coins and stories are among the oldest surviving cultural artifacts. Precious metals and prized stories tend to last. Each is a medium of exchange, a means of transferring value from one person to another. The point is, that mythic stories carry wisdom and guidance down from the ancients. These great tales are just waiting to be rediscovered. By extension, they help us see the soulfulness in common experiences.

Lost Coin, Domenico Feti

Lost Drachma

The parallels between coins and stories offer a clue to the visual nature of the rediscovery of soul. Coins usually bear images while stories are full of symbolic imagery. Every scene in a myth is a collection of images that we can study for spiritual significance. The woman sweeping to find the lost treasure reminds us of all the reading and searching that goes into reconnecting with the sacred in daily life. When she finds the coin, she calls in her friends to rejoice. This is a scene of ritual celebration much like the practice of gathering for worship.

Joseph Campbell was occasionally asked about his own devotional practices. People wanted to know if he prayed or meditated or followed some other tradition. He would reply "I underline sentences." The sacred, for Campbell, was in the stories. In particular, he felt we could gain access to the divine mysteries through studying the symbolic imagery in mythology. When we have this connection, we say we feel inspired, a word that means having the spirit within. When soul is rediscovered, there is often a great surge of energy.

People have gotten very enthusiastic lately about the inspiring qualities of mythic stories. A long-lost coin has been found. The word enthusiasm also refers to being one with spirit or, more precisely, possessed by the divinities. The root of the word, theus, is related to theology. When soulfulness fills us with enthusiasm, sacred currents take hold.

It makes sense that ancient stories, whether fables, myths, or folklore, really can open us to magical energies. Even though they seem simple, these stories are about eternal themes. It follows that meditating on large issues will enhance the sense of connection with things greater than ourselves. Seeing our lives as part of the dance of divine wisdom puts us into an experience of meaning.

The story of the woman who lost the coin reminds us that we can regain the sense of oneness with soul if we take the appropriate steps. First, we must endure the separation without collapsing into self-pity. Then, the situation may require lighting a lamp. This image may mean developing clarity of purpose. We will have to do much careful searching. The process may require sweeping away old accumulations of dusty ideas that hide the gleaming radiance of the lost beauty. In the end, when we reconnect with the treasure of the soul, joy abounds.

One of the marvelous aspects of parables, fables, and fairytales is that they come to us very easily. We do not have to turn to classic novels to find stories that mirror familiar events. The stories are everywhere. The heroes of the television adventure face challenges much like those the knights of the round table confronted when seeking the Holy Grail. The characters on soap operas deal with family conflicts like those among the Greek divinities.

When we hear, read, or tell a story, we have a visual experience. We are watching a movie in our minds as the tale unfolds. This is part of why television and film are so powerful. They match the inner process of a series of pictures moving through our minds.

The images in the coin story tumble out -- from the face of the woman who has suffered the loss, to the lighting of the lamp and her earnest sweeping, to the festive conclusion. The tale is a visual experience. Any one of these symbols is worthy of a close look. The lighting of the lamp, for example, can have many meanings. It can suggest an openness to the guidance of a transcendent presence, which is often represented by light or flame in mythology.

Our hope is in the images. If we can experience life more imaginally, not in the sense of illusion but in terms of vision and creativity, we can discover the powerful autonomy of the images. This is a new perspective on the image of the deities. We are talking about images as manifestations of the sacred. This means that the divine energy is available in our ability to perceive, create, and accept images.

We see images in stories. We also see them in dreams and fantasy. That which we may have dismissed as idle daydreaming is really a very fertile creative process. It has an autonomy to it. It is not just that we come up with these images. These are living pictures, each with their own unique qualities. They come to us with their own agendas. Imagination in this sense is a form of revelation. This is soul showing itself to us.

The simple teaching stories called parables, as well as the more complex creation stories of mythology, give us powerful imagery. Our imaginative responses to these pictures generate abundant additional images, all richly symbolic. This is one way soul speak to us. The passkey is receptivity. If we can be open to this divine flow and reflect on the meanings it presents to us, the inner life is greatly enriched.

It is then that we have found the lost coin. All the sweeping and searching is more than worth the prize. Let us call in the neighbors and rejoice.