Saturday, April 7, 2012

G is for Gratitude, Gebo and Generosity

I've been doing a lot of reading through Pagan forums today. For the most part, I don't really like what I see. I think many Pagans have this tendency to avoid proper, in-depth discussions. Maybe that's a symptom of the breadth of the Pagan umbrella, but at any rate to the casual observer it really doesn't look like Pagans are all that "serious". Which is daft because when you look a little closer, there are all these pictures of altars, all this dedication. So you wonder, is this people playing at Pagan and having fun ritually? What do you do in these rituals? Or is this just a lack of desire to speak about some of the more heavy topics?

Despite this I know Gratitude is going to be a big one in the PBP world. I actually wasn't going to write about it myself, as it's one of those "soft and squishy" topics I'd rather avoid. But when I was reading through those forums, I was seeing a lot of really.... shallow discussions, and I feel like gratitude is one of those day-to-day things that gives religious practice a little texture. It's not about flashy ritual or about witchy questions or sharing your favourite robe colour or anything like that. So maybe I will discuss it after all. It doesn't need to be soft and squishy. And it's actually terribly important.

I think gratitude is an aspect of most Pagan religions, whether or not is of primary importance. Many Pagans give offerings as a reflection of their love for and gratitude to the gods - if nothing else, we can be grateful for the presence of the gods in our lives. But I'm going to discuss gratitude mainly in the context of Heathenry, because this is where it is most familiar to me.

I feel like all Heathens should spend some time with the runes. Even if you've no interest in magic or divination, some of the rune-poems contain what I believe to be important lessons about Heathen culture and religion.

There's a sizeable number of Heathens for whom the Nine Noble Virtues are terribly important. I know a great many who have no time for them, and would rather just go to the Havamal; I've also met one or two who will say you are not an Asatruar if you don't follow and hold as important the Nine Noble Virtues. One of these virtues is "Self-Reliance". Now it's true that being able to rely on the self is important, but this is to a point. It's not a sign of weakness to acknowledge you can't do everything. You can't do everything. But you don't have to. Most of us live in a society in which there are people who will do things for us, in exchange for a fee, so we don't have to try to be our own electrician and die in the process. Not everyone at the feast is a skald. Not everyone at the feast is a warrior. Not everyone at the feast cooked the damn feast. We contribute together in a society. And when we look at the NNV we see, just as often as self-reliance, talk of generosity. Of hospitality (another NNV virtue). Of sharing with a friend. Of sharing with those in need. And you get more of this in rune-poems, such as those for Fehu and, importantly, Gebo.

Gebo means "gift", and it's tied up with gratitude.

Gebo isn't just the item given, but the act of giving. In Heathenry our contract and kinship with the gods are important, and this act of giving ties us together. It's a Mystery of major importance to us. The exchange of gifts cements relationships, it acknowledges the worth of others, and it is, simply, a pleasing thing to do. For the Northmen, generosity is important. Giving freely. 

Gift is an honour and grace of men / a support
and adornment, and for any exile / mercy
and sustenance when he has no other.
 - trans. Stephen Pollington

 "Gift" here - it could be an actual gift, or it could be the gratitude and the bonds of friendship and kinship between us and the gods, us and the spirits, us and the ancestors. For me, I think it's an aspect of all of these things. The bond we share with the sacred can keep us going in hard times, as can the blessings of the gods. But I think it's also about generosity: about sharing what we have with those who have nothing. I think this is reflected in the tendency in modern Scandinavia towards socialism. What is a gift, and what does it mean? What does it mean to the giver, and the one who receives it?

When I originally studied Gebo (a rune which my mind continually refers to as "Gyfu", its Old English name) my first thought was of a man sent out into exile with a token or item he had once received as a gift, giving him solace and strength in his time of need. Gifts mean more than just the item. They are thought and affection, they are shared time together. 

Men's generosity is a grace and an honour,
A support and glory,
and help and sustenance to any outcast,
Who is deprived of them.
 - trans. R.I. Page

Hospitality is terribly important in Heathenry. The man who can afford to be generous, though he is poor, is the man admired - not the rich miser. 

Even the shape of the rune seems to symbolise bonds built upon the giving and receiving of gifts and of generous hospitality. To feel gratitude is to show generosity; to receive generosity is to show gratitude. And, for my part, one of the most beautiful and spiritually rewarding aspects of Heathenry is simply sharing a glass of mead with the gods. Bonds are build. Friendships are formed. Love is found. We ask for things we need, and pour the mead. We thank the gods for their gifts, and pour the mead. And the act of drinking something dedicated to and shared with the gods is an intensely rewarding and moving experience.

This is all tied up with gratitude not simply because we are thankful when we receive a gift or blessing, but because in Heathenry a gift deserves a gift. If someone is generous to us, we return the favour. Saying "thank you" is good but it is only part of the equation; we return hospitality with hospitality, we thank the gods for their blessings, their love and their gifts with a gift - an offering, a sacrifice, an act - in return. This is an aspect of the whole thing, a major part of the whole tapestry of the religion. Without gratitude, and without Gebo, it falls apart.

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