A Gift Economy: Could It Be Better To Give Than To Receive? by Carol P. Christ


carol p. christ 2002 colorIn a gift economy inequalities are balanced out by the cultural practice of gift-giving. If you have more, then you give more, if you have little, you still feel it is better to give than to receive.  A person who hoards wealth is not viewed positively.

The worldview of a gift-giving economy is so far from our own that we can barely comprehend it.

marika's rakiIn Skoteino, Crete, eighty-seven year old Marika awaits eagerly for the arrival of our group. She does not come empty-handed to join us after we have finished a meal lovingly prepared by Christina.  Marika brings a bottle of raki and urges us all to join her in downing a small glass of her homemade moonshine.  Often she offers us nuts she has cracked or raisins she has prepared as well .  She has almost nothing and lives without many modern conveniences, but she would not consider joining us without bringing a gift.

In Zaros, we arrive at our favorite hotel only to be told that the taverna that serves fresh trout is closed because the owner’s son will be getting married in the evening. When I complain that we have come to eat the special trout, our whole group is invited to the wedding.  Outside the taverna the grandmothers light fires under massive copper pots where they prepare the food. Over 600 people have been invited to the wedding. We are first served macaroni with virgin olive oil and goat cheese, then lamb, then goat, and salad. When the wine runs out, bottles of raki are brought to the tables. We dance all night long in a kind of a frenzy.

On our first Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, someone suggests that we end the tour with a give-away, following a Native American tradition.  Each of us is to find a gift that symbolizes the deeper meaning of the tour, wrap it up, and put it in a bag to be chosen by another pilgrim. The women worry about how much to spend, so we tell them about how much.  Though most of us enjoy receiving gifts, and though some of them are very carefully chosen, many of us find choosing a gift burdensome, and very few of us know the deep joy in giving that Marika feels. 

In a gift-giving society a person does not have to “save for a rainy day” because she knows that when a rainy day comes, someone will take care of her.  Secure in the knowledge that giving-and-receiving is the “grace” of life,  she can fully enjoy giving, even when she has nothing saved up for the future.

I am not like that. As a child I was taught to take care of what I have and to save for the future.  I am not an ungenerous person, but neither am I particularly generous.  For me there is often the calculation of not giving so much as to be taken advantage of.  I also think about not giving so much that I will not be able to take care of myself some day.

In a recent series of blogs, I defined patriarchy as a system of male domination created at the juncture of the control of female sexuality, private property, and war.  If private property is coterminous with patriarchy, we might ask if private property is a necessary foundation of “culture.”

This week I read Diane Wolkstein’s retelling of the story of “The Huluppu-Tree” in her book Inanna.  At the beginning of the story the God An “carried off” the heavens, the God Enlil “carried off” the earth, while the Goddess Erishkegal “was given” the underworld. The most powerful Gods took the heavens and the earth. The God Enki who was given nothing “set sail” for the underworld to claim it. The Goddess Inanna who was given nothing set her mind on fashioning a throne and a bed from the Huluppu tree.   Rather than enjoying the sacred tree she planted in the center of her garden, Inanna could think only of cutting it down to make use its wood.

In her forthcoming book Exploring Earthiness Anne Primavesi writes, “[G]iving life to all organisms, species, and plants, is Earth’s defining characteristic. And Earth is definitely not our property.”  Primavesi reminds us that to give back is the appropriate response to the gift of life.  I learned this in Crete.

Control of  “private” property is the animating force in US politics today.  Many of those who have do not want to give back through paying taxes to support social safety net programs. Nor do they want to pay inheritance taxes that will prevent them from passing their wealth on to their children.

Should any of us think we have right to own and dispose of nature however we choose? Should any of us think we have a “right” to have more than we really need? Do only some children have a right to inherit?

If we cannot learn to give freely of what we have as traditional peoples do, perhaps we can at least begin to understand the injustice inherent in ownership of land, property, and other people’s labor.  Rather than admiring those who accumulate wealth, we might rather admire those who give it away.

Then we might begin to see that taxing those who have in order to take care of those who do not is only one very small step along the road to repairing the world in the wake of patriarchal injustice.

Photo of Marika by Diane Gruppe Marshall

See Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different Worldview Is Possible, edited by Genevieve Vaughn.

Carol P. Christ leads life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute. There is still space in the spring tour May 25-June 8.  Join her and learn more about the pre-patriarchal Goddess culture of ancient Crete.  Carol spoke on a WATER Teleconference recently which you can listen to now if you missed it.  Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions



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7 replies

  1. Carol, this so spoke to my heart. The gift – the sheer joy – of giving! It’s symptomatic of divine grace and is all the more sacred when the giving isn’t expected.

    When I quit corporate life and abandoned old beliefs about ‘what works’ in 2002, one of my new habits was giving spontaneously, regardless. I found that people wanted to give back: Pre-paid parking tickets (happened to my hubby and me on Friday!); invitations to dinner, people stopping their lunchtime walks to show me the place I was looking for and lots and lots of tea and coffee.

    I was brought up to save, to be careful with what I have, and whilst that’s important, it’s not THE most important thing which is simply to be human! Having gone to school with American girls for 2 years, back in the 1960’s (in Ethiopia), I saw that they always had the most clothes, the biggest lunch boxes, but weren’t very willing to share, whilst the rest of us were.

    As a European, as an African (9 years in my childhood) I think we have much more of a habit of sharing. Go on, just do it!

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  2. “Control of “private” property is the animating force in US politics today.” YES. And US politics is also remarkable for the absence of any sense of history. Settlers took land from Native Americans and instituted a system of private ownership on a culture that celebrated the communal and the sharing of the earth’s resources. And they justified it through the odious “Doctrine of Discovery.” It’s also galling that today conspicuously Christian/Catholic politicians, whose faith teaches that it is more blessed to give than to receive, work very hard to protect the so-called “job creators” from tax increases but refuse to raise the minimum wage. I remember childhood stories of sharing: my mother described my grandmother spontaneously giving up her lunch to a beggar who turned up at the door in Kerala just as she sat down to eat after having served the rest of her large family. Your account of being invited to the wedding by the owner of the taverna sounded like so many festivities in Malaysia to which people came, bringing “auxiliary” guests…..happy memories that are tinged with the sadness of how formal we have since become. How we would not dream of doing that today and how we are much less prepared to take it stride when it happens. http://www.civilbeat.com/voices/2013/04/13/18819-two-churches-one-music/

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  3. There is so much generosity on the FAR blog itself, the number of exceedingly fine writers who donate their essays here free of charge is deserving of much praise and gratitude (we don’t even need a login to read or comment on them either).

    I love the intricate geometric beauty of quilt designs, and have been researching them online for some time — the patterns and their names have been joyously handed down for centuries to fellow women quilters without copyright. There are books that have illustrated more than 5000 copyright-free designs now in the life stream of many generations of quilters, dating back to the 18th century.

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  4. Thanks, Carol, for this post. I love Gen Vaughn’s work and love seeing here at FAR. She not only has a good analysis of what’s wrong with our society’s economy (and Oxana would agree with it, I think), but has looked at cultures where the gift economy is the norm, so her analysis doesn’t come from a particular theory (although it’s informed by Marxism).

    I love giving away things on the spur of the moment. It feels so liberating. Yesterday I gave a pair of gloves (that I had owned for a couple of years, and worn on and off) to someone at my UU church who owned the perfect hat to match them. She asked, “Are you sure you want to give them to me?” I was sure. In fact, when I held my croning ceremony a year ago, my nephew’s fiancé honored me by telling me that I loved beautiful things and shared them with others. Maybe that’s because for the last few years I have been “shopping in my closet” for Christmas, giving away clothes, etc. that I know others in my family would enjoy.

    That said, I’m not a paragon of giving and could learn to do much more. How wonderful to live in a culture where it’s at least partially a norm, Carol. I get looked at askance when I give money to beggars.

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  5. I loved Nancy’s experience. What a happy, affirming thing to do! Doing it ‘in the moment’ is
    really thrilling. At my uncle’s funeral in February, I wanted to give my aunt a gift, although she has everything money can buy. The only thing I could give her was the brooch I was wearing – a lovely, multicoloured, enamelled angel from Jerusalem. I left it with her to look after her, after her beloved husband of 59 years had gone. I hope it’s still lying on the coffee table where I left it!

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  6. I just love to give. I give away & share much of my excess produce I grow at home. Giving doesn’t always need to be material…I give my time & my self continually. It’s also imperative that we share our stories, wisdom & knowledge, which happens here at FAR. Sharing & giving; what joys. Thankyou Carol x

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  7. I forgot to mention that the meal we ate at Skoteino prepared by Christina and supplemented by Marika’s raki remains one of the most joyful & heartfelt experiences I’ve ever had. What a wonderful memory, what gorgeous women, so full of love & kindness. Xx

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