Historical Echoes: Throwing Coins into a Fountain—Who Is Getting Paid?
Do you throw coins into a fountain when you see that others have done so? A comprehensive and thoughtful student project on wishing well use in Southern California has been posted on the internet by University of California, Irvine, anthropology professor Bill Maurer. The 2006 project bases its findings on interviews of people throwing coins into fountains and states that:
Although the exact origins of this practice are unknown, offering money to water is an old tradition that can be dated back to Roman-British and Celtic mythology. Since then, the tradition of making a wish with a coin has been passed down through generations by socialization, evolving from a religious ritual into a fun, yet superstitious, cultural practice in Southern California.
Wishing wells or coins in a fountain: who or what is getting paid? By this question, we don’t mean who is literally taking the money. The answer to that question will vary by fountain. In Florida, according to a 2010 article from the Sun Sentinel, the funds may be taken by the maintenance company that cleans the fountain, pocketed by folks bathing in the fountain (assuming they have access to their pockets while bathing), or donated to charity. The Trevi Fountain in Rome, according to this blog post, “currently receives over €3,000 per day, and the proceeds assist with funding a market for Rome's poor.”
But who or what is getting paid from the perspective of the thrower of the money? Some sort of deity or spirit either associated with the fountain or temporarily “listening” through the fountain? If so, would this be called a financial transaction? According to the definition of “financial transaction” on businessdictionary.com—an “event which involves money or payment, such as the act of depositing money into a bank account, borrowing money from a lender, or buying or selling goods or property,” the wish would seem to qualify. The fact that payment has taken place does seem to presuppose the existence of a payee. (Could this be a new version of the famous ontological argument?)
If it is a kind of financial transaction, can we assume that the more given in payment, the better the wish outcome? In the wishing well piece posted by Maurer, the authors note that in Coventina’s Well in northwestern England,
most of the coins found . . . were “low denomination bronze issues . . . . ” People who offered coins to the well chose coins that were either worth very little or nothing at all. This suggests that the economic exchange value of the coin is not equal to the value the coin had as a gift to the divine power.
However, the interviewers did find people who believed that the higher the coin value, the better the wish-granting “service”—that is, the more likely their wish will come true.
Any online wishing wells? A simple Google search will find you many. One site has you use your cursor to “lift” a coin and “drop” it in a well. No site seems to take real money.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.
Amy Farber is a research librarian in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.