Friday, December 24, 2010

Pagan Gift Giving

One of the things that I've been thinking about lately is gifts.

I love giving gifts, often gifts not associated at all with any recognized holiday. And I love to receive gifts from people who have spent time thinking about who I am and what I'd like. But, especially at this time of year, I can get crabby about "expected" gifts, both those that I'm "expected" to give and those that others give to me because "it's expected."

In A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism, John Michael Greer talks about the act of giving gifts within the ancient Pagan world:
The principle of reciprocity provides the proper context to the much-misinterpreted Roman religious maxim do ut des, usually translated "I give that you may give." Too often, even by those alert to the complexities of Roman religion, this has been read as a commercial transaction in which Roman worshippers paid their gods in advance for some benefit.

This is unjust. What the maxim actually implies is the exchange of gifts as an expression of ancient rules of friendship and hospitality. Behind this conception lies a concept of an exchange of gifts between different orders of being as the bond that unites the universe. As Walter Burkert has pointed out, the exchange of gifts is among the foundations of human culture, and the sharing of food and the exchange of gifts remain important sources of interpersonal bonds even today.

Modern theorists of religion have wrestled with the habit of making gifts to gods, ancestors and spirits, on the assumption that there are no obvious returns on the investment. To ancient and modern Pagans alike, however, the assumption is transparently false. If such beings exist and govern the natural world, their gifts are as obvious as food and drink on the table, rain on the fields, fertility in the soil, and the fact of life itself. The gods are primarily and superlatively givers of good things, and the world in which life takes place is their gift to us.

In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, anything that is a source of benefit to human beings may be seen as a giver of gifts, and an appropriate recipient of reverence and offerings. This is the thinking behind Shinto habit . . . of worshipping the builders of irrigation systems as "water gods." The same principle underlies the Greek Pagan tradition, baffling to many modern scholars, of building temples and making offerings to abstract concepts -- Peace, Victory, Mercy, and the like. In modern India, where such ideas form one strand in the rich fabric of Hindu religion, musicians make offerings to their instruments and craftsmen to their tools in a similar spirit.

. . .

If Pagan gods are verbs, as the Christian god is sometimes said to be, the verbs in question are conjugation of "to give." Yet human beings and, indeed, all other entities have the capacity to give as well, and in giving, to imitate the gods.

I love that notion: that when we give, we should do so in conscious imitation of the Goddesses and Gods.

May you always receive what you most need.

Picture found here.

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