10
$\begingroup$

I was watching Shoddycast's video on the value of bottle caps as currency in Fallout 4 today, and after having read part of Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance earlier this morning, my mind started to wander to the possibilities of currency far stranger than either bottle caps or the Stormlight-infused glass "spheres" with gemstones inside them seen throughout Roshar. Is it possible for food or organic materials and animal byproducts to be used as a practical currency?

Which leads me, of course, to slimes and honey. Honey is sweet, nutrient dense, and has a very long shelf-life. And slimes are the quintessential fantasy trash mob. Why not combine the two, and make honey (or perhaps some sort of similarly sticky-sweet "slime milk" or gel) the common currency of a fantasy world where these creatures exist? By themselves, they already fulfill many of the qualities of a good currency according to the definitions set by the Shoddycast video:

-They are "shelf-stable" (honey lasts a long, long time, and presumably so does slime)

-They are rare, but not too rare (since slimes are wild monsters and must be killed to harvest their byproducts)

-They're easy to identify (usually because they're brightly colored and, indeed, slimey)

-They're hard to fake (taking into account their distinct color, taste and texture compared to other foods and animal byproducts)

However, the problems I'm seeing are that slimes fail in a few other major categories. They aren't easy to carry around or turn into money (you can melt metal into coins but what do you do with a blob of slime?).

While slimes aren't usually considered good livestock or farm animals in most fantasy settings. The possibility of someone attempting slime farming or someone stumbling into a huge number of slimes at once in the wild makes runaway inflation a distinct possibility. Unlike metal or minerals, which tend to be a finite resource, organic materials like honey or a slime's slime can always be reproduced in large quantities after loss or consumption. Such is their nature.

Are there any ways to deal with these problems that could justify honey or slime as a practical currency, or will metal and gemstones always be a better "store of value" than organic materials?

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Well beekeeping was only made properly viable in the 18th and 19th centuries. Which is good. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jul 16 '17 at 0:59
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Honey also has medical properties. And: you can carry it in honey bears. + for this scheme! $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 16 '17 at 1:20
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It is a pain to move from container to container, I suggest some form of standardized small container, of course than you run into the issue of space. I think something that does not leave half its value stuck to the inside of the container would be better. $\endgroup$ – John Jul 16 '17 at 1:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Are you asking about (bee) honey or the slime analogue? We can give a concrete answer (yes) for the former, and you can tune the latter to be what you want. $\endgroup$ – Spencer Jul 16 '17 at 3:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In ancient Middle America, cocoa beans were used as currency. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 16 '17 at 5:38
16
$\begingroup$

OK, "organic materials" certainly can be currency -- paper money is made of an organic material.

But you're asking that the honey be used as some sort of specie - specifically a type of commodity money. The answer is "yes".

What is the key ingredient in honey? Sugar. Sugar has a long history in the development of Western European colonial empires (and the spread of slavery). (If you haven't read Sweetness and Power by Sidney W. Mintz, you should.) In the 17th and 18th Centuries, refined sugar was a rare luxury item that was locked away to keep the servants from nicking it, or even getting a taste.

The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies by Matthew Parker describes situations where colonial planters, far from home and a ready supply of coinage, used their own product (tobacco, indigo, sugar, whatever they produced at the time) in exchange for the goods they wanted. If metals are so rare in your world as to be impractical for use even as tokens, they might pick a commodity as currency.

But even in that case, people might find a way to make an abstract specie. In colonial New England, English settlers used Wampum as currency to trade with Native Americans. In Larry Niven and David Gerrold's 1971 novel The Flying Sorcerers, the rapidly industrializing natives adopt slices of bone as currency.

The difficulty of transporting honey can be overcome -- this blog by beekeeping enthusiasts talks about the advantages of crystallized honey. So your world's people could trade blocks of "rock candy" derived from honey. A little more problematic is standardization -- "Honey Money" could be measured by weight or have standardized block sizes, but then someone would have to monitor quality and that means refining the honey in a more complicated way, which would lead to industrialization.

But I think you're going to have to deal with some ugly social consequences of using honey or "slime milk" as currency. Funny things happen to people around lots of money, and the "slime milk" producers would have all of it.

I won't delve into all of the ills of the Era of Colonization or the Industrial Revolution it generated; you can take them for granted.

Even if you're using "slimes" (I pray they aren't sentient!) instead of bees, they aren't going to remain "wild monsters" for very long. Slimes would soon be extinct in the wild -- they will all be rounded up and kept where the rich and powerful can breed and harvest the slimes for filthy lucre, keeping the slime-milk to themselves.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ An important fact that would make honey a viable currency is its low moisture content makes it very stable over long periods, resisting mold and bacterial growth. Whiiich opens up an interesting way of "counterfeiting" money: diluting it with a small amount of water. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Jul 16 '17 at 5:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s "interesting" is a bit of a stretch seeing as dilution was the same method people used with gold coins. Instead of mixing in cheaper metals, you're just mixing in a cheaper fluid. $\endgroup$ – Sora Tamashii Apr 10 at 11:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @SoraTamashii While true, mixing water into honey is a lot easier than having to reforge coins. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Apr 10 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ Oh certainly. I'm not denying the process wouldn't be easier. Just that there is a historic precedent for that. That said, it's also a lot easier and more obvious to tell if honey has been diluted, also. So, you have to basically be very adept at not diluting too much lest you be found out and your product devalued. $\endgroup$ – Sora Tamashii Apr 12 at 0:26
2
$\begingroup$

The way this sort of thing usually works out is:

  1. So, hey, you like honey (or gold or silver or whatever) and I like honey, so how about I start paying you my rent with barrels of honey. Everyone is happy with this. For a while.

  2. Yeah actually moving all these barrels of honey around all the time is sort of a big pain for everyone. How about I give you this letter which states that you own these barrels of honey over here, and you can come pick them up whenever you want?

If everyone agrees to that, you now have a honey-backed currency. If everyone agrees that one buckaroo is worth a pound of honey, you're now on the Honey Standard.

  1. It turns out that hardly anyone is actually coming over here to turn over their buckaroos for pounds of actual honey, so... tell you what. I promise to keep enough honey around so that if, oh, ten percent of all the buckaroos out there suddenly need to get converted back into honey, then I'll be able to cover that.

Now we're moving off the Honey Standard. This will deeply-upset everyone in the business of producing honey and probably also upset other assorted random weirdos, but a lot of people won't care.

  1. Gather round, children, and let old Great-Grandpappy tell you the story of why that money in your pocket is nicknamed 'the sweetback.'

Eventually everyone just comes to agree it's obsolete and most people forget about it.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

They aren't easy to carry around or turn into money

Not a problem.

Yap is known for its stone money, known as Rai, or Fei,: large doughnut-shaped, carved disks of (usually) calcite, up to 4 m (12 ft) in diameter (most are much smaller). The smallest can be as little as 3.5 centimetres (1.4 in) in diameter. Rai, or stone money (Yapese: raay), are more than 6,000 large, circular stone disks carved out of limestone formed from aragonite and calcite crystals. Rai stones were quarried on several of the Micronesian islands, mainly Palau, but briefly on Guam as well, and transported for use as money to the island of Yap. They have been used in trade by the Yapese as a form of currency.

The monetary system of Yap relies on an oral history of ownership. Because these stones are too large to move, buying an item with one simply involves agreeing that the ownership has changed. As long as the transaction is recorded in the oral history, it will now be owned by the person to whom it is passed and no physical movement of the stone is required.

And from my answer in the link:

There is even one such stone that is in the bottom of the ocea due to a shipwreck. Legend goes that the owners kept using that stone for trade anyway, trusting that oral tradition would keep honoring the transactions involving the lost stone.

These stones are often cited when someone wants to make a point that nearly anything can be used as currency provided that a set of requirements are met. Anyway, if stone will do, so will concrete.

As you see, carriability is not a problem when considering materials for currency.


The possibility of someone attempting slime farming or someone stumbling into a huge number of slimes at once in the wild makes runaway inflation a distinct possibility.

Yes.

But consider Bitcoin. The amount of Bitcoin only increases with time (and will increase until the last bitcoin has been mined).

Also consider that in the past, people would use animals and grain as currency. There is a limit to how much you can farm of animals or plants, so that will cap inflation.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Honey would be a poor choice for currency.

The problem of adulterated honey is a big problem today, even without designating it as currency.

Chemically, honey and high-fructose corn syrup are very similar. Add some additional chemicals and coloring and you have fake honey that is not easily detected. If you don't care whether honey or HFCS are essentially equivalent currency, I suppose you could ignore this objection.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ “Is it genuine?” The old man pursed his lips. “it depends on how you define the term,” he said. “if you mean: is this coin the same as, say, a fifty-dollar piece, then the answer is no.” “What do you mean?” “Well, you see, what with one thing and another our coinage has been somewhat watered, over the years. The gold content of the average coin is barely four parts in twelve, the balance being made up of silver, copper-“ “What of it?” “I said this coin isn’t like ours. It is pure gold.” (There is a Pratchett quote for everything!) $\endgroup$ – ivanivan Apr 10 at 21:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.