A gift for a gift: a Pagan ethic of reciprocity

“A gift in return for a gift” – The Hávamál

In ancient times, hospitality was regarded as sacred. In English, the words ‘guest’ and ‘host’ are very closely related. In German, the words are ‘Gast’ (guest) and ‘Gastgeber’ (host, or literally, guest-giver). There were rituals of giving and accepting hospitality, and it was regarded as a sacred exchange. A guest under your roof was to be protected. That is why stories where the relationship of hospitality is betrayed are so powerful and shocking. In Germany and in Pakistan, it is still the custom for a guest to bring a gift for the host on their first visit to a house (even if they are not staying the night). This is the custom in other countries too. Hospitality was regarded as a sacred obligation in ancient Greece; it is mentioned several times in Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus is shipwrecked, it is because of the obligations of the host towards the stranger that Nausica comes to his aid; and when he returns home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, the shepherd Eumaios welcomes him as a guest. In India, the guest is regarded as a manifestation of the Divine, and hospitality is based on the principle Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning “the guest is God.”

The exchange of gifts is a way of establishing relationship. In gift economies, gifts are given without any formal agreement as to when the favour will be returned; however, the ethic of reciprocity is so strong that the gift creates an obligation to return the gift or favour, and in this way, an ongoing relationship is created. We can see this ethic at work in the giving of gifts for Yule and birthdays. If a friend gives me a gift, I feel an obligation to get them a gift in return. If someone looks after your cat while you are on holiday, you get them a gift while you are away.

Sadly, the giving of gifts has become bound up with monetary considerations, as we feel the need to buy something of equal value to the gift we were given. However, the point of a gift is the amount of effort that went into it. Perhaps your friend went to a lot of effort to find something that they knew you would like; perhaps they went to a lot of effort to make something beautiful. Either way, it is the effort that counts, not the money. It is the idea that the friend cares enough about you to spend time making something for you, or finding a gift that expresses something about who you are. The gift then becomes an outward and visible symbol of your relationship with the giver. This is why I disagree with the idea that we should give up on all material things and get rid of stuff; quite often the stuff that you have around your home represents friendships and relationships.

The giving of money in exchange for something does not create relationship, it ends it. If I pay in full for a service or a commodity, my obligation is discharged, and that ends the relationship. If I pay for a massage, a Tarot reading, or a workshop, that is because the masseur, Tarot reader, or workshop leader is not going to receive from me (at some unspecified future date) a massage, a Tarot reading, or a workshop. The relationship is ended by the payment. This is, I think, why Wiccans believe strongly that we should not charge trainees for training. Members of a coven are in a relationship, and payment for training would end that relationship. What you gain in return for teaching is an opportunity to formulate, clarify, and refine your own views in the process of transmitting them to others. You can also learn from your trainees. And in due course, you will have a coven to work with who can write rituals for you to take part in.  All members of a coven are expected to contribute food for the feast and candles and incense for rituals, and help with the washing-up, however.

A similar situation exists in the development of friendships. A friend is someone you can open up to, who will not judge you for your actions; they may offer constructive criticism, but they do not reject you for your oddities and quirks. However, the process of opening up to each other is gradual and reciprocal. One person will reveal something about themselves, and the other will reciprocate. Revealing your innermost thoughts and feelings is to make yourself vulnerable, to give the gift of yourself. If the other person does not reciprocate with a revelation of similar import, it feels as if there is a major imbalance in the relationship; you have made yourself vulnerable, giving the other person power over you; so you need them to reciprocate. The gradual peeling away of layers of the onion applies both to thoughts and feelings, and to social space. First you meet a new friend outside the home, in a pub or other neutral space; only later do you invite them to your house. At first you talk about current affairs and other relatively impersonal topics; only later do you reveal your more inward feelings and experiences.

This ethic of reciprocity appears in many cultures, but is grounded in the idea of creating relationships. We are social animals and like to form bonds and associations – friendship groups, clans, tribes, families. These groups gradually form their own traditions, rituals, and symbols, but they are grounded in the mutual relationships of the members, who help each other, forgive each other, and form bonds of obligation through the exchange of gifts and hospitality.

It can be a good thing that the money economy has developed; sometimes we do not want to enter into relationship with a person who has done something for us, because they are not part of our social group. But it is important not to confuse the practice of gift exchange with the money economy. The two “systems” work differently, and have different rules.

Traditional Pagan and other cultures had a strong ethic of reciprocity, hospitality  and gift exchange, and it is worth investigating these ideas. They can help us to understand the dynamics of gift-giving (always fraught with social minefields, especially at this time of year), and to learn to value what is of real worth (the emotional associations of a thing, rather than its monetary value), and not feel guilty about having stuff. They can also make us more aware of the underlying currents of social intercourse –  always a valuable insight for a magical practitioner who aims to be effective in all the realms (physical, spiritual, astral, social, and mental).

Reciprocity also exists in nature, in the form of balance. Birth is balanced by death; growth is balanced by decay; darkness is balanced by light. This natural reciprocity is found in ancient myths too. In order to gain wisdom from Mimir’s Well, Oðinn had to sacrifice an eye. He gave up part of his physical sight in order to gain inner sight or wisdom. In order to gain the knowledge of the runes, Oðinn hung nine days and nights on the World Tree. The gain of one thing entails the loss of another; that is how equilibrium is maintained.

About Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. She has written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is the editor of the Theologies of Immanence wiki, a collaborative project for creating grass-roots Pagan theology.

  • http://www.baringtheaegis.com Elani Temperance

    As a Hellenist, the acts of xenia (ritualized hospitality) and kharis (ritualized reciprocity) are at the base of my practice. It’s wonderful to see it addressed in a broad Pagan perspective. Thank you!

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yvonne Aburrow

    Hi Elani, I would love to hear more about xenia and kharis. Do tell.

  • http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/ P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    As Elani said, kharis is important in this regard, as is the Roman notion of do ut des, and the various contractual responsibilities that are entailed in various relationships within Irish culture. And, all of these matters apply to humans and gods just as much as to humans and other humans.

    Which is something that even the most hospitality-minded and concerned modern polytheists often don’t get, which confuses me…If you’ll be nice to someone who turns up at your door (even though they might eventually be hostile toward you), but won’t extend that same hospitality to gods and spirits who show up, are you really holding up your virtue uniformly?

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yewtree

    That also reminds me of the story from Greek mythology about Philemon and Baucis (from Ovid’s Metamorphoses), which was an illustration of xenia. The point of the story seems to be that you don’t know if your guest is a deity in disguise – or perhaps even that since we are all embodiments of the Divine, it behooves us to treat each other as divine.

  • http://pagaian.org Glenys Livingstone

    Reciprocity is called Ngapartji-ngapartji in Australian Indigenous understandings, and partly it means not knowing when one is “giving” or “receiving”: receiving is a giving, and giving is a receiving.

    • http://inhumandecency.org/christine Christine Kraemer

      That’s fascinating. Where could one read more about that blurring of giving and receiving?

      • yewtree

        I googled Ngapartji-ngapartji and there was a cultural exchange project called that, and it seems to mean “I give you something, you give me something” – but I am sure there is more to it than that.


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