The Spirit of the Gift

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Let us first examine some of the most seminal insights on gifts and gratitude

formulated by anthropologists. According to them, one of the main

characteristics of gifts is that they should be given and reciprocated. A

gift that cannot “move” loses its gift properties. A very clear example

is the Kula, the ceremonial exchange of gifts by the inhabitants of the

Trobriand Islands nearNew Guinea.Malinowski, who lived among them

during the FirstWorldWar, describes this ritual in detail in Argonauts of

the Western Pacific (1950 [1922]). The Kulais afor m of exchange on the

part of the communities inhabiting a wide ring of islands, which form

a closed circuit. Along this route, articles of two kinds constantly travel

in opposite directions. Long necklaces of red shell move in a clockwise

direction, whereas bracelets of white shell move in a counterclockwise

direction. After some time, these articles meet articles of the other class

on their way and are exchanged for them. It takes between two and ten

years for each article in the Kula to make a full round of the islands. This

practice shows that it is not the articles that count but the exchange itself,

the principle of give-and-take, as Malinowski terms it. The important

thing is that the Kula gifts are kept in motion. If a man keeps a gift too

long, he develops a bad reputation. Somebody who owns something is

expected to share it, to pass it on. Among the Trobriand Islanders, to

possess is to give, as Malinowski says.

Another example of a gift cycle can be found inMauss (1990 [1923]). In

his essay on the gift he describes the habits and traditions of the Maori,

the native tribes in New Zealand. The Maori have a word, hau, which

means spirit, in particular the spirit of the gift. Returning from the forest

where they have killed birds, the hunters of these tribes give a part of their

game to the priests, who cook the birds at a sacred fire. After they have

eaten some of them, the priests have an offering ceremony in which they

return the hau, in the form of apa rt of the birds, to the forest where it

is supposed to produce a new abundance of birds to be killed by the

hunters again. As occurs in the Kula, there is a cycle of gift giving: the

forest gives its richness to the hunters, the hunters give it to the priests,

and the priests return it to the forest. The ceremony performed by the

priests is called “nourishing hau,” feeding the spirit, alit eral form of

feedback. The spirit of the gift is only kept alive by returning it to where

it comes from. By placing the gift back in the forest, the priests treat the

birds as a gift of nature.

The key ideaof Maori law is that the thing given or received is not

inactive. After a thing has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses

something of him, hau. Through hau, the giver has a hold over the recipient

because, asMauss writes, “it is the hau that wishes to return to its

birthplace, to the sanctuary of the forest and the clan, and to the owner.”

The spirit of the gift remains attached to the chain of beneficiaries until

they give back fromtheir own property, “their goods, or fromtheir labour

or trading, by way of feasts, festivals and presents, the equivalent or something

of even greater value.” The legal tie in Maori law, a tie occurring

through things, is “one between souls, because the thing itself possesses

a soul, is of the soul. Hence it follows that to make a gift of something

to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself ” (1990 [1923]:

12). Therefore, the recipient of the gift “must give back to another person

what is really part and parcel of his nature and substance, because to

accept something from somebody is to accept some part of his spiritual

essence, of his soul. To retain that thingwould be dangerous and mortal.”

The reason for this is that things do not only come from persons morally

but also physically and spiritually. Gifts exert a magical or religious hold

over people. The thing given is invested with life and “seeks to return

to . . . its ‘place of origin’” (13).

Several scholars of authority have criticized Mauss for his spiritual

interpretation of the hau. Firth (1929), for example, prefers secular to

spiritual explanations. According to him the fear of punishment or social

sanctions is the real reason to fulfill one’s obligation to return a gift. These

sanctions can include a threat to the continuity of economic relations

or to the maintenance of prestige and power. Another anthropologist,

Sahlins (1972), offers an alternative explanation, which is secular as well.

Returning to the original text of the Maori legend, he discovered an

interesting aspect thatMauss had neglected in his rendering of the story.

The participation of a third party in the cycle of gift exchange is crucial

to Sahlins’s conception of hau: for a gift to bring increase, it is necessary

that a third party causes this increase. In the Maori legend, after having

received the birds taken by the hunters, the priests offer some of them

to the Mauri – a sacred stone acting as a shrine – which can then cause

the birds to abound. According to Sahlins, the term “profit” would have

been a better translation of hau than Mauss’s “spirit.” Sahlins conceives

of hau as the “increase power” of the goods of the forest. The ceremonial

offering of birdsby the priests restores the fertilityof the forest. InSahlins’s

words, “the hau of agood is its yield, just as the hau of afor est is its

productiveness” (1972: 160).

More recently, the French anthropologist Maurice Godelier (1999)

reevaluates the various interpretations of hau. Godelier interprets the

game the hunters give to the priests as an “offering of thanksgiving in the

hope that the forest and the priests will continue acting on behalf of

the hunters” (1999: 52). According to him, the essential idea in hau is that

the original donor retains his rights over the object he has given regardless

of the number of times it changes hands. Here he is paying tribute

to the work of the late Annette Weiner (1992), who analyzed the Kula

ceremonials from the perspective of “keeping-while-giving.” She stated

that certain categories of objects, in particular sacred objects, are given

and kept at the same time because their ownership is inalienable in the

end.Objects may circulate, and every person who receives them becomes

a donor in turn. But only the original donor has the ultimate rights over

the object because his ownership is inalienable; the other donors merely

enjoy alienable and temporary rights of possession and use, which they

transfer when they pass on the object. Following Godelier’s view, it is not

so much the spirit or the soul of the gift that makes it want to return to

its original owner, or its profit or yield, but rather the owner’s inalienable

rights over the object, which are known, felt, and respected by the other

donors. Godelier makes an interesting shift here from explaining the return

of gifts on the grounds of properties of the object itself to attributing

the cause to characteristics of the recipient, namely his original rights: he

replaces the animistic and spiritual interpretation with a psychological

and personal one.

However interesting Godelier’s interpretation in terms of the first

donor’s rights may be, the spiritual explanation cannot so easily be dismissed.

In many other tribal communities, there are examples of things

that are thought to possess a spirit, to be animated or alive, to have a will

of their own, to wish to return to where they originally come from. An

animistic way of experiencing things often originates in situations where

natural fertility and growth are felt to be important. Lewis Hyde (1983

[1979]) describes a practice among American Indian tribes who depend

on the ocean for their primary sustenance, especially the salmon that

annually enter their rivers. The salmon are believed to dwell in a huge

lodge beneath the sea and to have a human form when they are at home.

Only once a year they change their bodies into fish bodies, swim to the

mouths of the rivers, and sacrifice themselves to their land brothers as

food for the winter. The first salmon in the rivers is welcomed with an

elaborate ceremony. The fish is caught, placed on an altar, and laid out

before the group with its head pointing inland to encourage the rest of

the salmon to continue swimming upstream. According to Hyde,

the first fish was treated as if it were a high-ranking chief making a visit from

aneig hbouring tribe. The priest sprinkled its body with eagle down or red

ochre and made a formal speech of welcome, mentioning . . . how much the

tribe had hoped the run would continue and be bountiful. The celebrants

then sang the songs that welcome an honoured guest. After the ceremony the

priest gave everyone present a piece of the fish to eat. Finally . . . the bones of

the first salmon were returned to the sea. The belief was that salmon bones

placed back into the water would reassemble once they had washed out to

sea; the fish would then revive, return to its home, and revert to its human

form. . . . If they were not, the salmon would be offended and might not

return the following year with their gift of winter food. (1983 [1979]: 26–27)

This beautiful Indian story, demonstrating the idea that gifts of nature

can only bear fruit if people show them gratitude in a proper way, clearly

illustrates the action tendency of gratitude. The view that natural wealth

should be treated as a gift is as old as the Old Testament, where the first

fruits of the earth are perceived as belonging to God. The fertility of the

earth is a gift from God, and in order to continue it, its fruits should

be returned to him (Hyde 1983 [1979]). Perhaps this religious origin of

gratitude also has an ecological aspect. Throughout history, people have

had some sense that it is wrong to usurp the wealth offered by nature.

Traditionally it has been a common practice among European farmers

to let their fields rest after they had intensively cultivated them for some

time. It is difficult to separate the religious awe felt by humans for the

abundance of the earth from their feeling that they should not exhaust

its resources.

Hyde describes another interesting category of gifts where gratitude

can be seen at work, namely gifts given at funerals. Gratitude apparently

not only binds the living to nature and to one another; it also connects the

living to the dead. Gifts given at someone’s death are part of a general class

of “threshold gifts” that mark the passage from one state into another.

By means of these gifts, the transformation from one identity to another

is facilitated. Often some attributes pertaining to the life of the deceased

(human or animal) are inserted into the coffin: pharaohs are buried with

their most valuable treasures and jewelry, and children are accompanied

by their most cherished toys on their journey to another state. Many

people believe that corpses should be buried with gifts intended to help

the soul on its journey. If the dead are not properly laid to rest, they will

walk ceaselessly on earth, according to some folk beliefs. Gifts not only

help transform the identity of the once living being into the now dead

one; they also express our gratitude to the deceased, to the fact that we

knew them and enjoyed the privilege of being in their company for a

certain period of time.

Hyde speaks of gratitude as a “labour undertaken by the soul” to effect

the transformation after a gift is received. “Between the time a gift comes

to us and the timewe pass it along,we suffer gratitude. . . . Passing the gift

along is the act of gratitude that finishes the labour” (1983 [1979]: 47). In

this final act, the true acceptance of the original gift is accomplished. The

spirit of the gift has been kept intact by giving ourselves away: our tieswith

people who are or were dear to us have been renewed and strengthened.

Howpeople react to natural abundance and howthey create and maintain

mutual bonds by exchanging gifts can be interpreted in terms of the

concept of gratitude. Malinowski’s principle of give-and-take seems to

be based on an underlying feeling of indebtedness to the giver, which

we are now inclined to call gratitude. Gifts returned to nature because

nature “expects” us to do so and gifts “wanting to return” to where the

original giver lives both seem to indicate an inner feeling of obligation

to the outside world, which is projected onto that world. That sense of

obligation can only be resolved by means of an act of gratitude. Also the

story about the “spirit of the gift” can be regarded as a metaphor of gratitude.

The difference with our modern conception is that gratitude is not

thought of as an internal feeling or emotion but as an external force that

compels the recipient to reciprocate. Perhaps this conception of gratitude

derives its compelling force exactly from the fact that it is externalized

and objectified: acting in the spirit of gratitude is felt as a generally endorsed

obligation that you cannot afford to shirk on the penalty of social

disapproval and exclusion.