Friday, September 14, 2012

The Gift-Cycle in the Modern World

One of the centerpieces of ancient Germanic culture was the gift-cycle. Warriors in the service of a chieftain would be rewarded with gifts in return for their loyalty; one of the kennings (poetic circumlocutions) for “king” is “giver of rings”, a reference to the practice of giving arm-rings of precious metal to one’s supporters. It is said to be cyclical because gifts are given in return for service, which is given in return for gifts, which are given in return for service, etc.

This same concept is seen in the Germanic approach to the Gods. Sacrifices (Old Norse blót) are made to the Gods in order to secure Their favor. This could be for some specific purpose (such as the votive offerings in the form of tiny ship figurines that have been found, presumably offered for safe passage while at sea) or for a more general effusion of good fortune (what those in the Théodish branch of Heathenry would call luck). Snorri Sturluson makes it plain that at certain times of the year, sacrifices were made to elicit specific things in return:
“þa skydi blota I moti vetri, til ars, onn at mðjum vetri blota til groðrar, it briðja at sumri, þat var sigrblot”
“On winter day there should be blood sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop, and the third sacrifice should be on summer day for victory in battle.” – Heimskringla, Ynglingasaga ch. 8
Modern Heathenry is similarly informed by the gift-cycle. Most contemporary Heathens make offerings to the Gods with a motivation similar to that of their ancestors; they give gifts, thus obligating the receiver (in this case, the Gods) to reciprocate. This is one reason that many Heathen rituals will seem quite different than Pagan or Wiccan rites; they are not magical in nature so much as votive. Most contemporary Heathens make offerings of food and drink, although other sorts of offerings are not uncommon.

Théodish Heathens, with their emphasis on the tribal social structure and system of “hold oaths” that bind the individual members of the tribe together in a “web of oaths”, demonstrate this gift-cycle within the tribal structure as well as between tribes. The chieftain of a tribe will give gifts to the members of the tribe (often in elaborate and ritualistic settings such as the ritual known as sumbl (in Old Norse) or symbel (in Anglo-Saxon)), who in turn reciprocate with their service to the tribe and its leader.

This does bring in a question for contemporary Heathens and others who follow the gift-cycle either on a social or purely religious level; how does the gift-cycle fit in to modern society? Instinctively, we have some idea of the mechanism on a cultural level, which was humorously and pedantically pointed out in The Big Bang Theory episode “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” (2008):
Sheldon: Wait! You bought me a present?
Penny: Uh-huh.
Sheldon: Why would you do such a thing?
Penny: I don't know. 'Cause its Christmas?
Sheldon: Oh, Penny. I know you think you are being generous, but the foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven't given me a gift. You've given me an obligation.
Howard: Don't feel bad, Penny, it's a classic rookie mistake. My first Hanukah with Sheldon, he yelled at me for eight nights.
Penny: Now, hey, it's okay. You don't have to get me anything in return.
Sheldon: Of course I do. The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you've given me. It's no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year.
Where things get curious is when we have ordinary transactions in the context of modern living. When I hand someone $5 and get a hamburger in return, have I just participated in the gift cycle? When I am taxed, and those taxes are given to someone I don’t even know in the form of food stamps, is that part of the gift cycle? The answer would be no, as those sorts of transactions are lacking in one crucial aspect; the expectation of reciprocity. There is no expectation on the part of the hamburger cook that I will, having finished one burger, then pay for another (or that I will seek out that particular establishment the next time I am hungry), nor do I feel any obligation to do so.

Salaries and other pre-agreed payments for services rendered do not fall under the rubric of the gift cycle, for exactly the same reason. Bear in mind that the very name implies that what is given is given voluntarily on both sides; as a gift between friends.

Taxation and the receipt of government largess is a different story, but is similarly outside the gift-cycle because it is impersonal. There can be no expectation of reciprocity unless there is a face to whom one can reciprocate; when someone receives a welfare check, there is no single individual to whom they can offer thanks and reciprocate (except in some instances where a particular government official positions himself to be seen as the font of such largess, which is a phenomenon politicians are all too aware of and willing to exploit).

Similarly, notions of anonymous charity such as those espoused by certain Christians and others, would fall outside the gift-cycle because they explicitly break the notion of reciprocity. By dropping a coin into the poor box when no one is watching, one is taking steps to ensure that whatever use is made of the money, it cannot be traced back to the donor, and thus no thanks can be given (except, one imagines, by the Christian God, so perhaps in that sense it’s not so anonymous after all!).

This is not to say that “tribal” Heathen communities are somehow isolated from the rest of society, and such Heathens have one set of rules that apply to fellow tribe members and not to others. As noted above, the idea of the gift-cycle is embedded within us on a cultural, and perhaps psychological, level. It can be seen to work on as simple a plane as the man who rakes his neighbor’s leaves while he’s gone for the weekend, only to find his walk shoveled a few months later after a snowstorm. We instinctively know the gift-cycle to be a healthy and community-building way of behaving, even if we don’t always call it by that name, or indulge in it self-consciously.  The Hávamál may say that “a gift demands a gift”, but in more modern terms we can simply acknowledge that being good and generous to others tends to make others good and generous to us. By following traditional modes of dealing with others, such as the gift-cycle, we set ourselves up as a good example for our non-Heathen neighbors.

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