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09 April, 2012

G is for Gifts

One of the things that's common in a lot of discussion of ancient religions is the phrase "do ut des", which means something like "I give so that you may give."

The idea goes something like this: the stuff of being, particularly food, would not exist if it were not for the gods who embody those processes doing Their work, and thus it is appropriate for the people to return some of that which has been provided to the gods so that the cycle may continue. In ancient Egypt, this was amazingly recursive: the crops were harvested by the people, who paid a fraction of their crop to the church/state complex, which would use that to provide offerings to the gods, and after the "main" gods in a given temple had taken their share the offerings would go around to lesser shrines until, at last, they were given back in a process called "reversion of offerings" to provide the pay for temple officials, each according to their rank. (Who would then trade some fraction of their take for goods and services within their community.)

This sanctified version of gifting, however, is simply an example of what is, fundamentally, a natural process.

It is fundamental to the energy of life that it moves.

On the macroscale: the sun gives its light and heat. That gift is taken in by plants and used. Animals take the energy from the plants, converting some of it back into heat, sustaining themselves. Other animals eat those animals, repeating the process. In the end, the bodies of all animals are consumed by microorganisms and reduced to nutrients and heat, which are then given to the plants as part of the return to the cycle. The energy moves, passed from species to species until it returns to its interrupted journey through space, and the nutrients, similarly, are passed around in a great big circle.

One can think of this as a theft economy, of course, and there is a lot of critique to be made about the way people frame themselves as entitled to these things.

But it is also a process of gifting. Consider those plants who have evolved fruits - a massive investment of energy - so that animals will eat them, which scatters their seeds in the animals' dung - providing those seeds with a distribution network and a tidy package of nutrients to sprout in. Deer breed with the expectation of predation, and in fact in areas in which the big predators have been killed or driven away, the deer suffer horribly, as overpopulation leads to both starvation in the winter and the deaths of the plants that the deer wind up nibbling to death, which of course only aggravates the problem in the long term.

The network of exchange of this energy is a vastly complex one, but it is built on gift and sacrifice. (Recall that sacrifice literally means 'to make holy'.)

Likewise, human lives, not just human food traditions, are built on gift and sacrifice. Every one of us was born from someone who gave us a space to gestate and sacrificed of time, energy, health, nutrients, and other things so that we might live. Our intimate lives are built on gifts and exchanges and compromises, so that we may all have what we need to thrive.

An ancient Egyptian might have presented a gift to another with the phrase "for your ka". The ka being the soul carrying life. Because it is by these gifts that we sustain and encourage this soul to grow and be healthy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think of offerings as opening a reciprocal channel. Trade or bribe makes no sense. Unless you think of it as being like a child making a drawing for their parent. The child doesn't buy the paper or crayons, but...