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THOUGHTS ON HEATHEN GIFTING – GEFA By the Chieftain of the Tribe

Introduction


As the Yule season approaches, which of course is the Holiday Season for many faiths, we turn to think about gift-giving.  Our children also turn to gift giving – or rather receiving… For our ancestors gift giving had great significance and in Odin’s Warrior Tribe we continue to revive and honor that custom.  Heathen gift giving was not limited to special occasions as most do today though for birthdays, graduations, Christmas and such.  Gift-giving took place as part of a wider social construct related to friendship, service, bargains and deals, including courtship, and marriage.  As I will discuss in this blog, the concepts of gift giving touch on sacrifice, friendship, marriage, loyalty, and hospitality.  They are all interwoven. 


Gift-giving played a significant role in Norse Viking culture and religion, and it was a complex practice deeply rooted in the social, economic, and spiritual aspects of their society. The concept of gift-giving was closely tied to notions of reciprocity, honor, and the establishment of social bonds.  Gift giving in the Norse/Germanic cultures and faiths was not always simple and straight forward it could be loaded with meaning and tension. 


In “Germania,” Tacitus records of the Germanic Tribes, “They are peculiarly pleased with presents from neighboring nations, offered not only by individuals, but by the community at large; such as fine horses, heavy armor, rich housings, and gold chains.”


Gefa is the Old Norse verb for gifting and giving.  Gifting is such an important concept in our Norse Heathen faith that is mentioned often in the Havamal.  Gifting brings us closer to friends and in our Tribe, it unites us with our brother and sister heathen warriors.  In our Tribe we live and breathe the concept of gefa.  We give gifts to each other often and we also give books to military heathens, law enforcement, and first responders and run many free and exciting activities and events for military veterans.  In the case of books, we gift them and the events.  They are both part of our charitable mission to assist both military heathens and active and veteran military regardless of faith and background. 


“No man is so generous he will jib at accepting.

A gift in return for a gift,

No man so rich that it really gives him.

Pain to be repaid.

 

“With presents friends should please each other,

With a shield or a costly coat:

Mutual giving makes for friendship,

So long as life goes well.”

 

Havamal

 

Gefjun - sometimes Gefjon - is our Norse Goddess associated with agriculture, fertility, abundance, prosperity, and giving/gifting. Her very name is derived from the Old Norse verb gefa.  Her name means “Giver” or “Generous One.”  She is mentioned in the Poetic Edda, the older or Elder Prose Edda, and Heimskringla.  The spirit and cycle of gift giving as represented by the rune Gebo X. Gift giving is not a one-way transaction. 


As Vilhelm Groenbech noted in “The Culture of the Teutons,” “The gift is a social factor. Passing from man to man and to man again, it draws through society a mesh of obligations so strong that the whole state is moved if but one or another point of chain be properly grasped.”


We not only know about gift giving from the Havamal, but the Sagas, law and other sources.  In “Beowulf” we read that the Queen says, "Be glad towards the Geats, and forget not gifts for them.” "Beowulf" also refers to ring givers – the name used for powerful Kings, Chieftains, and Jarls, “They knew where the good man, the young war-king, doled out rings within his stronghold.” We also read that "Beowulf"received great treasure and when he returned to the land of the Geats (Southern Sweden) he bestowed upon the Queen a gift that had been given him by the Queen of the Danes.

 

“Through the life of Viking days runs the keens sense of gratification at being honored with gifts; how often do we not read that guests were honored with gifts on their departure and went on their homeward way in the well-being of that honor.”

 

Vilhelm Gronbech “The Culture of the Teutons”


Gifting in Egil's Saga


As an example of this, in Egils saga, Egill and his dear true friend Arinbjorn exchange gifts when they are departing England.  This exchange comes after Egill has been pardoned and granted his life by an enemy King Eiriker based on the intercession of Arinbjorn that gave Egill time to write a poem in honor of King Eiriker.  While Egill and Arinbjorn are friends, their gift giving demonstrates an obligation that goes beyond simple friendship. They take risks for each other.  Arinbjorn risked all defending Egill from the King’s bloody wrath.  So, we see a gift is not always a physical thing. 


I remember when departing Afghanistan on one of 10 or more deployments that Afghan soldiers I had trained presented me with a set of Afghan clothes and a ring. In a tribal way the Pashtun soldiers I was working with had their own code of hospitality that had a few elements shared with the Havamal. The Havamal mentions gifting of clothes. In Egil's Saga, "Arinbjorn gave Egil as a Yule-gift a trailing robe made of silk, and richly broidered with gold, studded with gold buttons in front all down to the hem. Arinbjorn had had the robe made to fit Egil's stature. Arinbjorn gave also to Egil at Yule a complete suit newly made; it was cut of English cloth of many colours."


Again we see the power of gift giving in Egil's Saga, King Athelstan gave Egil two chests of gold as recompense for his war service and the loss of his brother in batttle, as well as two gold rings, each weighing a mark, and "a costly cloak that the king himself had formerly worn."


Egil gave his friend Arinbjorn a costly sail - in Viking times this represented several years of work and was an expensive item. In another part of Egil's Saga, Egill had escaped after losing his ship in a fight with the King, when his friend Arinbjorn was able to again help him and said, "But you shall not want for money, Egil. I will make good the loss of your ship, and give you another, in which you can well sail to Iceland.' Asgerdr, Egil's wife, had remained at Arinbjorn's while they went to the Thing. Arinbjorn gave Egil a good sea-worthy ship, and had it laden with such things as Egil wished."


We see how important reciprocal gift giving is to friendship in Egil's Saga, which echoes in the Havamal.


"With presents friends should please each other,

With a shield or a costly coat:

Mutual giving makes for friendship,

So long as life goes well.”


“A man should be loyal through life to friends,

And return gift for gift,

Laugh when they laugh,

but with lies repay

A false foe who lies.”

 

“If you find a friend you fully trust.

And wish for his good-will,

exchange thoughts,

exchange gifts,

Go often to his house.”

 

Havamal

 

Again, as Groenbech noted, “…a gift is able to touch the wells from which feelings arise; it fosters not only unity of will, but also affection, joy and well-being in a relationship.”

“A gift carries with it something from the former owner, and its former existence will reveal itself, whether the new possessor wishes it or not. A king's gift has not only a more than usually sharp point, a particularly finely worked hilt – it strikes with luck. In order to know with what feelings the gift was received, we must go to the gift while it was in the possession of the clan itself, and see what it counts for there.”

 

Vilhelm Gronbech “The Culture of the Teutons”


Showing the power of the gift to achieve ones ends the Havamal mentions courtship,


“Gallantly shall he speak, and gifts bring.

Who wishes for woman's love:

praise the features of the fair girl,

Who courts well will conquer.”

 

A gift is not simply a gift.  It implies a relationship.  In our Tribe, members are not allowed to gift arm rings to leaders because that would imply not only loyalty but perhaps subservient loyalty.  That said, Tribe leaders can gift arm rings to Tribe members as accepting such a gift signifies loyalty to that person.  Mutual gifting of arm rings would signify mutual loyalty.  Outside of friendship, gifts might be made between husband and wife or as part of a contract.  All these gifting arrangements require trust. 

 

.  “a gift is able to touch the wells from which feelings arise; it fosters not only unity of will, but also affection, joy and well-being in a relationship.” Vilhelm Gronbech, “The Culture of the Teutons.” 

 

“Marriage is the great exchange of gifts, the gift-alliance before all others. In the modern Danish word for marriage, giftermål, the idea of giving – gipt – has been handed down to later generations; in the Anglo-Saxon, the same word – gift – is used chiefly to denote a bridal gift, and in the plural, it signifies, without further addition, nuptials. But in the ultimate essence of the matter, the bridal bargain did not differ from friendship, which was also a bargain, and likewise brought about by gifts.”

 

Wilhelm Groenbech “Culture of the Teutons

 

Giving and receiving gifts were intricately linked to the notions of honor and reputation. A person's status and honor were closely associated with their generosity. The more lavish and thoughtful the gift, the greater the honor bestowed upon both the giver and the recipient.


Hamingja and Gifting


In a very Harry Potter universe sort of way like a horcrux a gift giver is giving part of themselves with their gift.  “A giver has entrusted a lump of his soul to another.” Vilhelm Gronbech “The Culture of the Teutons.”  This lump of soul can best be described as hamingja.


Gronbech also explains, “The gift has an inner value in proportion to the giver, something which is expressed in the name which goes with weapons and valuables.”  So, if a gift is part of an owner who gives it the more powerful that person – the powerful hamingja they are sharing that with another person.  This helps explain the power that Kings – ring givers had in giving gifts.  They were seen as powerful and sharing their power came through gifts.  It also allowed the recipient to point to the gift and say, “The King gave this to me.”  If the King, Chieftain, or Jarl has a powerful hamingja the gifts they make can bestow part of that to recipients.


The King or Chieftain in their hall is he who gives out treasure, gifts, and rings, and provides hospitality in his hall shows his power and obtains loyalty binding his/her warriors to them.  By rewarding loyal followers with gifts in recognition of their service and achievements in battle, Viking leaders fostered loyalty.    


“Hamingja" in Old Norse translates to often "luck" or "happiness."  It is more though and to our ancestors luck was a real and tangible thing.  Hamingja is associated with personal fortune, well-being, and prosperity.  It is sometimes personified as a protective spirit or force that influences an individual's fate.   The hamingja force was a type of female guardian spirit that protected individuals and sometimes their blood lines. 

The concept of hamingja is complex and can be related to one's overall state of being, including their reputation, honor, and success in life. It is not solely dependent on external circumstances but is also tied to one's character and actions.


Gronbech explains hamingja: “Besides honour, man needs something which in the ancient language is called luck; our translation, however, which draws the sense of chance into the foreground, fails altogether to indicate the true force of the word. The associations of the modern term, stressing the sense of chance or fortune, all run counter to the spirit of ancient culture, and there is no other way of reaching a full understanding than by patient and unprejudiced reconstruction of Teutonic psychology.”


We all know those people who seemingly have a black cloud that hovers over them and entering a gift cycle with them because of their hamingja being unlucky and unfortunate. can be problematic.  You want to be very careful in any gift cycle with them. 


The gift of weapons and armor was and is an especially strong display of trust and respect.  A warrior receiving such a gift was expected to use it with honor and loyalty.  The Vikings gave each other special weapons and, in many Armies, and Navies the award of an embellished weapon was a great sign of distinction and honor.  Napoleon's Army made use of them as did the Armies of Germany, Russia, Great Britain and they were also popular in the United States in the Revolution and Civil War.  In the Tribe, weapons of honor may be awarded to any of the Tribe members and those who support our mission. 


Successful Viking raids often resulted in the accumulation of wealth and plunder. The Kings, Jarls, and Chieftains had the authority to distribute these spoils among his followers, ensuring that they were well-rewarded for their participation in raids. This practice not only enriched the warriors but also solidified their loyalty to the king.

Silver and Gold were often given as gifts, but more commonly silver.  Silver objects, whether in the form of coins, jewelry, or other artifacts, symbolized wealth and prestige in Viking society.  Giving silver as a gift was a way for rulers/leaders to elevate the status of their recipients, reinforcing their position within the social hierarchy.


In a spiritual sense, in our Norse Heathen religion, there is a belief in the power of gifting to establish positive relationships with the gods. Offerings and sacrifices were made by the ancestors to the Gods, and we continue to make offerings to seek favor, protection, and blessings.  These are a form of gift.  The Heathen ancestors understood a gift to be more than a physical possession.


“Even with one you ill-trust

And doubt what he means to do,

False words with fair smiles

May get you the gift you desire.”

 

“These things are thought the best:

Fire, the sight of the sun,

Good health with the gift to keep it,

And a life that avoids vice.”

 

Havamal

 

Asking the Gods for assistance is also a form of asking for a gift and one then enters the gift cycle with the Gods.  This is a powerful gift exchange, and they may demand much from you.  Only you know what it is they will demand in return for their favor.

 

“Better not to ask than to over-pledge.

As a gift that demands a gift"

 

Havamal

 

The Germanic heathens sacrificed their enemies and their weapons, which were bent or destroyed to the Gods. They would place them in bogs, lakes, and other places. After the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, the heathen Tribes who had been led by Arminius hung Roman legionnaires from trees. Roman soldiers found the skeletons still hanging in the forest years later. We have written accounts that at Uppsala people and animals were sacrificed. Fragments of the Oseberg tapestry showing hanging humans provide some confirmation. There were also sacrifices at heathen funeral rites and Ibn Fadlan’s accounts of one of those among the Rus Vikings and Norse grave finds attest to the sacrifice of animals and other grave goods (though also to accompany the dead) at the time of funeral rites. Ibn Fadlan also tells of sacrifices placed before God Poles accompanied by prayers for a good market. In Iceland, archaeological work on Viking era graves reveals horses were often sacrificed and buried and that 18 of the 19 buried horses were male.


Another Arab traveler, named al-Tartuchi wrote of how in Haithabu/Hedeby they celebrated at Winter (Yule). “They celebrate a festival, at which all come to worship the god and to eat and drink. The one who slaughters a sacrificial animal erects stakes at the entrance to his farmyard and puts the sacrificial animal on them. This is so that people know that he is sacrificing in honor of his god.”


“The obligation implied by accepting a gift is powerfully manifested in the Germanic ideas of law. As a legal formula, the position is stated as for instance in paragraph 73 of Liutprand's Lombard edict: “A gift not confirmed by gift in return or by thingatio, is not legally valid.”


Vilhelm Gronbech “The Culture of the Teutons”


A gift can be refused because it implies an obligation to the person that gave the gift though that can be a great insult.  Still, one might prefer that to having such an obligation. 


The Gift of Hospitality


Hospitality is also a gift.  Sharing food and drink is also a form of gifting.  Hosting elaborate feasts and providing hospitality were important aspects of Viking social culture. Kings would use these events to distribute gifts, demonstrate their wealth and generosity, and create a sense of camaraderie among their followers.  In our Tribe, as Chieftain I invite all available Tribe members and spouses/partners to a Chieftain's Yule dinner where the food and drink are on me.


In the Ballad of Sigurd there is a poem sung by King Ogmundson that describes generosity and hospitality that inspired then and should inspire now.  


     "Of cup or platter need has none.

     The guest who seeks the generous one, --

     Sigurd the Generous, who can trace.

     His lineage from the giant race.

     For Sigurd's hand is bounteous, free, --

     The guardian of the temples he.

     He loves the gods, his liberal hand.

     Scatters his sword's gains o'er the land."


“All that a gift could do, food and drink could also bring about; it could mean honor or dishonor, could bind and loose, give good fortune and act as a cheek upon luck.”


Vilhelm Gronbech “The Culture of the Teutons”


The Havamal speaks to it,


“A kind word need not cost much,

The price of praise can be cheap:

With half a loaf and an empty cup

I found myself a friend.”

 

“Fire is needed by the newcomer.

Whose knees are frozen numb.

Meat and clean linen a man needs.

Who has fared across the fells.”


I close with this advice. As this Yule Season approaches be generous and demonstrate hospitality with your family and friends. What you give will come back to you in even greater fashion.




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