Gifts and Reciprocality

It’s getting close to Yule, which for many of us means thinking about what gifts we’ll give and receive this year. A lot of people think the concept of Christmas presents comes from the Viking Yule celebration but while gifts were a very important part of Viking culture, the idea of giving gifts around the time of the winter solstice actually derives from the earlier Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was a celebration of Saturn, the sun. It marked the sun’s triumph over the darkness and was a time for feasting, partying and exchanging gifts. Bright coloured clothes were worn which were considered poor taste the rest of the year – much like the modern ugly Christmas jumpers.

Saturnalia - a sculpture
La Saturnalia, Jardín Botánico de Buenos Aires

That’s not to say gifts wouldn’t be exchanged by the Vikings at Yule. There are many references to Yule Feasts, and it was common practice to give gifts during a public feast. Generosity was a requirement of the upper classes of Viking society. A Jarl provided for his people and in return they worked, fought and even died for him. If he couldn’t keep them well fed and provided for he would quickly lose status – and people.

Gifts then were very meaningful to the Vikings. But, gifts are complicated – there must be balance. If you give too much or take too much the system fails. If you accept a gift you are accepting an obligation to reciprocate, not necessarily a gift for a gift, but a service or favour for a gift. Gifts could be a thank you for things that have already happened, otherwise they became a bond for the future. Gifts publicly cemented relationships.
The rune ᚷ means gift or generosity – the Anglo Saxon rune poem says “Generosity brings credit and honour, which support one’s dignity; it furnishes help and subsistence to all broken men who are devoid of aught else.”

So what does this mean for a modern day Viking? Well I can’t speak for all of them, but to me it means that being generous is important, that saying thanks is important and that giving giving and accepting gifts is a act of friendship. It also means I feel very awkward if I am given a gift I feel I do not deserve, and that accepting generosity from others makes me feel responsible for repaying kindness with kindness. I may not be a Jarl but I also feel that I need to recognise just how fortunate I am and use that privilege to help those who aren’t so lucky.

Public domain image from The Elder or Poetic Edda; commonly known as Sæmund's Edda. Edited and translated with introduction and notes by Olive Bray. Illustrated by W.G. Collingwood (1908) Page 60
“The Stranger at the Door” (1908) by W. G. Collingwood

For a more contemporary viewpoint, the Hávamál is a 13th Century poem found in the Codex Regis, part of the Poetic Edda. The Hávamál is said to be the words of Odin, It contains advice on social conduct, the story of the mead of poetry and tells how Odin mastered the runes. It’s believed to have originated as parts of at least six different poems the remainder of which are lost to time. The Hávamál has several verses about gifting, most notably the following section of verses.

A guest must depart again on his way,
nor stay in the same place ever;
if he bide too long on another’s bench
the loved one soon becomes loathed.

One’s own house is best, though small it may be;
each man is master at home;
though he have but two goats and a bark-thatched hut
’tis better than craving a boon.

One’s own house is best, though small it may be,
each man is master at home;
with a bleeding heart will he beg, who must,
his meat at every meal.

I found none so noble or free with his food,
who was not gladdened with a gift,
nor one who gave of his gifts such store
but he loved reward, could he win it.

Let no man stint him and suffer need
of the wealth he has won in life;
oft is saved for a foe what was meant for a friend,
and much goes worse than one weens.

With raiment and arms shall friends gladden each other,
so has one proved oneself;
for friends last longest, if fate be fair
who give and give again.

To his friend a man should bear him as friend,
and gift for gift bestow,
laughter for laughter let him exchange,
but leasing pay for a lie.

To his friend a man should bear him as friend,
to him and a friend of his;
but let him beware that he be not the friend
of one who is friend to his foe.

Hast thou a friend whom thou trustest well,
from whom thou cravest good?
Share thy mind with him, gifts exchange with him,
fare to find him oft.

But hast thou one whom thou trustest ill
yet from whom thou cravest good?
Thou shalt speak him fair, but falsely think,
and leasing pay for a lie.

Yet further of him whom thou trusted ill,
and whose mind thou dost misdoubt;
thou shalt laugh with him but withhold thy thought,
for gift with like gift should be paid.

Young was I once, I walked alone,
and bewildered seemed in the way;
then I found me another and rich I thought me,
for man is the joy of man.

Most blest is he who lives free and bold
and nurses never a grief,
for the fearful man is dismayed by aught,
and the mean one mourns over giving.

My garments once I gave in the field
to two land-marks made as men;
heroes they seemed when once they were clothed;
’tis the naked who suffer shame!

Not great things alone must one give to another,
praise oft is earned for nought;
with half a loaf and a tilted bowl
I have found me many a friend.

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