Welcome to a more or less Celtic Reconstructionist blog, where love of the Old Gods is still strong

Montag, 19. November 2012

Scientific Sunday: Marcel Mauss's The Gift

Welcome to the second installment of Scientific Sunday. Today’s post will focus less on the scientific text, but rather on some thoughts I had while reading, concerning the Eddas and Loki in particular.
But first, some words to the author of today’s text are in order:
Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), whose work we will be looking at today, was a French sociologist. His major work, The Gift (1923), which sparked my thoughts, analyses reciprocal exchange in archaic societies (I’m not happy with his use of ‘archaic’, as it implies that societies develop from ‘primitive’ ones to the more ‘civilised’ Western ones, but let’s not open that particular can of worms here).

On his view, gift-giving works reciprocally: you give a gift to somebody (either the chief of a tribe in lieu of the whole tribe, or, in modern Western societies, a friend or family member) and they are obliged to give a gift back to you at some later point. Needless to say, when one party fails to pass on another gift, aggression can ensue. This can take the form of either full-out wars, or simply ceasing to have contact with your friend.

Giving offerings to our gods, to me, works kind of in the same principle. We offer up something dear to us (either because we created it with our own hands, or because it has a certain emotional and/or monetary value) in return for a gift by the deity. This gift can encompass help on the part of the deity, or simply Their attention and benevolence towards you.
Mauss notes that “the recipient is in a state of dependence upon the donor” (Mauss p. 58). While this may be true for human exchanges of gifts, I wouldn’t think that the Gods are dependent on us in any way (at least when we’re talking outside of a Neil Gaiman/American Gods context).

Mauss further notes that invitations, just like gifts, are also reciprocal. So a certain tribe invites their neighbouring tribe to a festivity, counting on the fact that in the next year/season, they will be invited, too. Failing to invite somebody can have disastrous consequences, as we can see in Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Sleeping Beauty’s parents fail to invite one fairy to the baptism of their baby daughter. It’s this neglected fairy, then, who crashes the party and curses Sleeping Beauty to die (the other fairies present soften the curse to a very long sleep after the “bad” fairy left, but that’s not the point here).
I find it interesting that I first typed ‘the bad fairy’ without quotation marks – we tend to automatically assume that the one doing the cursing is the bad one and cast them in a negative light, but do we consider the fairy’s feeling on being the only one not invited to the party? Had she been invited all along, I’m fairly sure she’d given Sleeping Beauty a gift of beauty, riches or the like, and there would not be a story worth telling.

Consider now the (hypothetical) situation that this particular fairy had been a family friend for years. She’d helped out the King and Queen when they faced problems in their kingdom, and she continuously brought them riches which helped them to defend their kingdom, all the while risking her very own life to obtain them. You’d surely agree that if the King and Queen failed to invite her under these, changed circumstances, she’d have the right to be very angry and to express her anger.
Maybe this scenario has reminded you of something in the lore.
Because interestingly enough, many Heathens discussing the Lokasenna cast Loki* in the role of the bad guy. (For my non-heathen readers, the Lokasenna is – very shortly summarized – a tale of all the Aesir being invited to a friend’s hall. All except Loki. He then comes, slays a servant and starts ‘insulting’ the Aesir (by insulting I mean ‘quite often telling the unwelcome truth that one can glean from the other tales’), Who are not happy about this – the Binding of Loki follows).
However, Loki’s situation – at least in my point of view – resembles that of the fairy in the alternative scenario. He has lived with the Aesir a long time, has brought them treasures like Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir, Odin’s spear Gungnir and Frey’s ship Skidbladnir and has risked His own safety more than once on Their behalf. So, in my view, He has every right to be angry at not being invited.
But it goes even further than that. We’ve discussed reciprocal invitations above. Reciprocality doesn’t just hold between tribes, but also for kin. If you fail to invite my kin, I have the right to attack you (Mauss p. 38f.).
We’ve seen in the lore that Odin and Loki are blood brothers. So, from this follows that if you invite Odin, you have to invite His kin, a.k.a. Loki, as well. A failure to do so can result in an attack, which you should be aware of as a host. So Loki’s reaction in the Lokasenna could be seen as an exemplification of a certain honour codex. He reacts atypically (that is, different than in the other tales told about Him) because the failure of the host to invite Odin's blood brother gives license to Loki destroying the festivities.

I am aware that the death of Baldur will also play into the events in the Lokasenna (however, I do find it interesting that Loki’s binding follows a verbal attack on the Aesir and not the alleged murder of Their kin). But let’s not open that particular can of worms here and save it for a later post; this one’s long enough in its own right.

Blessed be,

* disclaimer: I’m Loki’s. I know that many people see Him very differently from the way I do, and that’s fine. So please refrain from any hate in the comments.
I’m looking forward to discussions and a friendly exchange of different opinions. 

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift. Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Transl. by Ian Cunnison.  London: Cohen & West LTD, 1966.

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