No action is more important and fundamental to Heathenry than the gifting cycle. It is the method by which two strangers establish and build up frith. It is the central act of hearth cult rituals. Though the exchange of gifts seems like a simple concept, there are many nuances that are not immediately apparent and can change the meaning of the action.
Gifting cycle basics
The central mechanism of the gifting cycle is debt. Heathenry teaches that if a person gives you a gift, then you become indebted them. It is then your responsibility as a good, honorable Heathen to repay the gift — not to fulfill or cancel out the debt, but to “flip” it around so that the other person becomes indebted to you. It is then their responsibility to repay you. In this way, the gifting cycle goes on indefinitely.
It is important to emphasize the difference between a one-time transaction, such as paying money for a service or product, and the gifting cycle. The point of the gifting cycle is not to pay back one’s debt and wash one’s hands clean of it. That is why a gift given must be of a value that prompts the recipient to give again. However, the value of the gift is not determined by the giver, but by the recipient. Therefore, Heathens should pay attention to various factors that contribute to how another person could value a gift: age, gender, social status, occupation, hobbies and interests, and so on. Moreover, a Heathen should keep in mind that gifts that are physically unimpressive could have greater value to their recipients based on the context of their needs. In fact, “gifts” do not always have to be physical objects. Some examples of intangible gifts are:
- Letting an out-of-town friend stay at your house while they visit
- Listening attentively and compassionately to a person’s grievances, even if you cannot help them solve their problems
- Inviting a person to your house to share a meal with you
- Helping to care for someone who is ill or injured
- Spending time in someone’s company
Regardless of the recipient, Heathens should take care to never overextend what they can afford to give. It is unnecessary to give so much that you can no longer sustain yourself.
Some individuals may take offense at the notion of being indebted to other people. In modern Western society, “debt” assumes a negative connotation, but in Heathenry, debt between two individuals indicates some kind of beneficial relationship between them.
However, the fact that Heathens view this kind of debt in a positive manner does not mean people only engage in gifting as a positive action. Gifting can also be performed aggressively, as a way to either “enslave” or insult another person.
In most scenarios, a Heathen will give a gift to their friend in the spirit of goodwill, with the intent of deepening the frith bond with their friend. In order for the gifting cycle to continue, the Heathen must ensure that the value of the gift is one their friend can not only meet, but exceed, when repaying it. In most cases, a gift’s “value” takes into consideration its material cost and/or its personal significance to the recipient.
Aggressive gifting occurs when value of a gift is greater than what the recipient is able to meet in repayment, let alone exceed. If a gift’s material cost is greater than what the recipient can ever hope to repay, that is enslavement, for the recipient is permanently indebted to the giver. If the significance of a gift is offensive to the recipient, that is an insult, and can be viewed as a hostile statement. Historically, such gifts were declarations of war. Therefore, it is important for a modern Heathen to consider the implications of their gifts before they give it.
- The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies — Marcel Mauss
- On Benefits — Seneca
- Viking Friendship: The Social Bond in Iceland and Norway, c. 900-1300 — Jon Vidar Sigurdsson