Heathen’s Journey | Gyfu: Gifts for the collective

Gyfu gumena byþ gleng and herenys,
  Giving, to all people, brings credit and honor
Wraþu and wyrþscype, and wræcna gehwam
  Help and worthiness – and to every outcast
Ar and ætwist ðe byþ oþra leas.
  Is the estate and substance, that have naught else.

Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem

Gyfu is one of my favorite runes, because it is in this rune where we can start to crack open and get to the soft underbelly of heathenry.

From the outside looking in, the Norse pantheon is particularly brutal. Vikings were aggressive, brutal conquerors who sacked cities, whose reputation as violent barbarians preceded them. There is a heaven committed specifically to those who die in battle – it is the greatest heaven, and all who don’t die in battle are committed to lesser realms.

The Gods themselves are untrustworthy. The gods are temperamental jerks a lot of the time, looking out for their own self-interest. One of Odin’s names is “Oath-Breaker.”

I was speaking with a fellow heathen recently, and he reminded me that it’s actually very unusual that many practicing heathens go to the Gods so often. He reminded me that the ancient Norse went to their ancestors first for everyday troubles. The Gods weren’t reliable, and they had their own concerns. You prayed to your grandmother, because she has your best interest in mind. The gods? They have their own agenda.

You could argue it is their hubris that causes Ragnarok.

Sometimes people conflate the wrongs of the Gods with acceptable behavior to the ancient Norse.

And yet.

Throughout the Eddas are reflections on ethics and morals, what is “right” and what is “wrong.” Yes, the world of the Norse was brutal, but there are stanzas and stanzas about proper behavior, about being conscious of others’ needs, about the importance of social gestures. The Hávamál (or Sayings of the High One), is a lesson in wisdom, etiquette, and decency towards one another.

On our journey so far, we have focused on communication, abundance, protection – all things that work on a very personal level. Gyfu is the first rune that really talks about how to act in community.

First, let’s talk about the rune itself. In a reading, Gyfu can refer to contracts, agreements, alliances, as well as gifts and endowments. It’s a rune that is often used in magic for abundance with the idea that it will draw gifts to you. This is actually a bit of a capitalist rewriting of the rune itself, a modernization that doesn’t sit well with the spirit of Gyfu. This rune is actually about the reciprocity of gifts – it is a covenant, the understanding that if I receive a gift, I will give it forward. In a way, Gyfu acts as an oath. When you use this rune in your spellcraft, you are essentially saying that “yes, I am asking for something specific – but I plan to give back to the ancestors, Gods, community.”

Gyfu instructs us on how to use the gifts we are given for the greater good.

One of the things that I’ve struggled with in my life is accepting the privilege I have. Being white, cisgendered, and coming from a middle class background makes things a lot easier for me than for other people. I have thought about what to do with my privilege, how to wield it, and struggled with immense guilt over the privilege I have been given in this life.

If you believe in a creator God or Goddess, you may see the position you’re given as having divine origin. For me, it has always been difficult to understand why the gods would give me the privilege I have now, while others suffer. This is actually part of the reason that I have spent a good amount of time as an atheist witch – I had trouble connecting with gods that didn’t give us all an equal playing field.

I don’t have any resolution for this, other than that perhaps it’s time to shift my focus from the gods and towards ancestor worship.

Heathenry has a huge emphasis on ancestor work, and I have been doing much more of this recently. We inherit the legacies of our ancestors, but our lives are also built around the choices we make. While we may start in an unequal position, throughout our lives we are in constant exchange – of resources, trade, time, love, community.

A gift received demands a gift given. A gift is an oath to that person – a signal that yes, you are on the right path. I respect you. And I also know that we are in this together, as one society. In the Norse tradition, you do not get a gift without giving a gift. If you are not generous with the gifts you’ve been given, whether they be mundane or divine, you are considered immoral.

We all do better when we all do better – so give of your own resources freely.

It is necessary, when worshipping your ancestors or the Norse gods, to leave them offerings.

I’ve done this in many ways. It can be a shot glass of wine that I keep on my altar, and refresh every day. It can be setting aside the bones from your meat – the Gods and spirits will eat pieces of food that aren’t edible in this realm. Sometimes, when a blood sacrifice is necessary, you can cut your hand and let it drip onto your altar, any figures representing the gods.

If you do not leave an offering, one may be taken from you.

One time, I did a very large working. I thought that my offering of wine was enough. It wasn’t – the magic I worked probably needed a blood offering. The next day, I fell horribly ill and was housebound for three days.

The Gods will take what is theirs if you haven’t been generous enough in your offering.

Norse society used gift giving as a form of respect. Before the Viking age, wealth was not meant to be amassed – it was meant to be shared. Even in the family sagas, one of the markers of an enemy was someone who amassed gold for themselves, stealing from others and disrespecting their right to their own wealth and abundance.

From the perspective of a leftist heathen, the wealthy 1% hoarding their treasures while members of the community suffer is immoral. If you have enough for yourself, you need to give to the community. And if you are living with poverty, you are encouraged to ask for assistance. That’s part of why I highlighted the quote from the Anglo-Saxon rune poem above. To reiterate: “Giving, to all people, brings credit and honor | Help and worthiness – and to every outcast | Is the estate and substance, that have naught else.”

It is through asking for help, from people in your life, ancestors, and the gods, that you should not be ashamed of your need. There is also a sense that what goes around comes around – that if you are in need of help now, you will be able to help others later.

This is a radical understanding of ancient Norse culture, one that I feel in my bones.

Remnants of this culture of both equity and abundance still remain in Scandinavia today – though it has twisted a bit. There is a collective sort of concern about wealth and showing off your own abundance, and a deep self-consciousness about appearing gifted.

Remember, these countries are the ones that brought you mid-century modern minimalist design: clean lines, sturdy architecture, mass-produced quality materials. Much of the minimalism you’ll find in your favorite coffee shop comes directly from the aesthetic lineage of Scandinavian simplicity.

But I would argue that we need to take this further. It’s not just about lack, it’s about the radical idea that we can be content with a minimal lifestyle. That we don’t need extravagant furniture, lush backdrops, the most recent fashions, to be happy. Yes, there is a bit of sacrifice here – what we gain as a collective is more important than what we may lose on a personal level.

Gyfu, then, represents the reciprocity of abundance. It is the gift you are given, and the way you channel that gift back into the community.

Gyfu is not just a gift, but an oath: that you will use what has been given for the greater good.

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