Monday, April 12, 2010


In hunter-gatherer cultures the sharing of food helped ensure that everybody got something to eat. Those too old to hunt for game or search for edible plants could live to pass their knowledge and the tribe's history down to the next generations. In agricultural cultures today "barn raising" parties leverage the support of the community for the benefit of its individual members.  One of the pillars of Islam is zakat, giving alms to fellow Muslims in need: Proverbs 11:25 informs Jews and Christians that "A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." 

Gifting is one of the practices which helped humanity to become civilized and which helps maintain our culture and our standard of living. It reinforces our connections to our fellows and provides us with a safety net against inevitable bad times.  Fehu is the rune of commerce, the fee which workmen receive for their efforts. Gebo is the rune of gifts, those things which are given away. Yet like Fehu it represents obligations and exchanges - indeed, the demands of Gebo can be far more onerous than a simple bill for services rendered.

The gifts exchanged in marriage marked the joining of two families. Dowries and bride prices helped the young couple to establish their household and provided insurance to a surviving spouse.  It also helped to encourage the survival of the union: should the marriage fail, the gift immediately became due and payable to the givers. Other laws and customs described the passing down of a dowry or dower to heirs and the expectations incurred by those accepting the gift.

Under feudalism alliances were marked by gifting. A feudal lord might reward a vassal's service with land and the right to collect rents from the tenants thereon. The vassal could then pass this land down to heirs, who could hold it in "fee simple" (Fehu again!). They were entitled to the same privileges their ancestor held, but expected to provide loyalty and service in exchange for their freeholding. Should they betray that trust, their land could be taken away from them. 

In yet another manifestation of Gebo, tribute, a tribe or nation might provide a stronger power with regular gifts of gold, troops or other resources in exchange for peace. These tributes mark the defeated power as servants to the superior force. They help the stronger and weaker alike to avoid costly conflict. But those who give these gifts should know that they will only be accepted for so long as it benefits the stronger: they generally lead to ever-increasing demands and delay rather than avoid the day of reckoning. 

Gifting also marks the boundaries of a community and your relationship with its members. During the holiday season there are those who receive token presents and those who receive larger gifts. Your spouse may get diamond jewelry for Christmas while the paper boy receives $10 and your high school acquaintance in Peoria gets a card: at most workplaces gifts are given to subordinates, not to superiors.  And those who complain at length about "welfare states" reserve special horror for the fact that illegal aliens (i.e. those who are not an official part of Our Culture) might receive some benefit from social programs.

When Gebo shows up in a reading it marks an alliance of some kind: the runes which surround it will tell you more about the costs and rewards of that partnership.   They will tell whether you are the recipient or giver of the gift, and what responsibilities will come along with those benefits. You can then decide whether or not the obligation is worth the price... because Gebo teaches us that every gift has a price. Those who rely on charity are at the mercy of those who dispense it, and as Robert A. Heinlein reminds us, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Those who give expect, sooner or later, to receive.