Friday, March 29, 2013

PBP: Gift-giving in ancient Hellas

Giving gifts to friends, family members, or even acquaintances and complete strangers is a long standing tradition. It existed long before ancient Hellas, but was, indeed, a vital part of its culture. It was tied to both kharis and xenia. Gifts were exchanged between monarchs of city-states to create good will, and were thus an important part of diplomacy. All votives, thank-offerings, and pinakes were gifts from mortals to Theoi. Athletic competitions always concluded with a price--a gift--awarded to the winner. Gifts were given to the submissive partner in a pederastic relationship, and to favored prostitutes and serfs. Gifts played a much more significant role in ancient Hellenic society as a whole than they do in ours today. The giving of gifts in ancient Hellas was not just a social event, however. There was far more to the practice than one might assume, and today, we will look at the tradition of gift giving in greater detail.

I have spoken of the importance of gifts in xenia before. A gift given as part of ritual hospitality was called a xenion (ξεινήιον). This xenion was expected to be expensive, and was presented to the guest upon departure. Needless to say, this practice was mostly executed by nobility, or at least the elite, and happened mostly when a man of equal social standing from another nation or city-state came to visit. In the Odysseia, Telemachos, son of Odysseus, receives from Menelaus a cup made by Hēphaistos Himself:

"But stay here in the palace, till the eleventh or the twelfth day, and I will send you off with honours, and fine gifts, a shining chariot with a trio of horses, and a glorious cup with which to pour libations to the deathless gods, while remembering me all your days."

The practice of gift giving to someone of another nation whom you might never see again, might seem counter-intuitive, but it's actually quite the opposite. By presenting a foreign equal with a great gift, not only do you establish kharis between the two of you, you also indebt the other person to you: they can not repay your kindness at this time, but they will compensate you for it when you visit, or when you are in need. On top of that, the recieving party will go home with tales of your hospitality, and your wealth, providing a boost in stature to the family and the land. It increases the honor of both, something very important to the ancient Hellenes. Gifts, in this context, functioned as a means of communication, legitimization, and mediation between benefactors and cities.

Beyond the elite, gift-giving was still very important, especially between men. The practice was a feature of the symposion, where it was displayed between men in a pederastic relationship, as well as between men of equal standing. Pederasty was where a mature male would take a young boy as his pupil and lover. The relationship was not about love: it was a social construct that allowed to boy time to get to know influential men, and to work himself up into their ranks. Because of this, there were many ritual acts connected to the practice, amongst which the giving of gifts, from mentor to pupil. Three gifts were traditional: military attire, an ox, and a drinking cup, but the youth most certainly received more expensive gifts.

One of the places the young lover would have been taken was the symposion. By allowing the young boy into the symposion it enabled the adults to prepare them for adult life and war in particular. Once the boys grew up, they became one of the men, taking young boys as lovers themselves, and teaching them the ropes of adult malehood. Gift giving in this context allows for a community to become closer, and for a young boy to prepare for his life as a man. Giving gifts--to their young lovers, as well as to those of equal age and standing--allowed men to teach the importance of equal distribution and redistribution of wealth, which was a founding factor of (mostly Athenian) society. It was also a status symbol: if one had time to visit the symposia, and give expensive gifts, they were not only citizens, but wealthy citizens, a clear mark that they were fit for greater responsibility within the political landscape of the city.

Most of these examples are from wealthy city-states like Athens, but there is evidence of gift-giving in other city-states as well. Sparta, for example, greatly frowned upon the flaunting of wealth, but they, too, gave gifts. These, however, were mostly practical in nature between the citizens themselves--fresh game, honey, perhaps a hunting dog--and were honors bestowed upon the person in the case of big events, or an a-symmetrical relationship. A Spartan winner of important sporting events, for example, would be allowed a place in the royal guard of the King, where Athenian winners would be set up for life, including food, housing, and status.

Another form of gift-giving was from a wealthy citizen to the community. This practice was dubbed 'Euergetism', from the Hellenic 'εὐεργετέω': 'I do good things'. While the money spent this way was, indeed a voluntary action on the part of the citizen, he was socially obligated to participate in the practice. Many roads and public buildings were funded this way, and thus bore the name of the citizen that had donated the funds--something we find archeological evidence for to this day.

Gift giving was of vital importance in the Archaic and Early Classical times, most notably in a social, ethical, economic, and political context. In the Classical period--which witnessed the development of elaborate monetary and law systems--the giving of gifts, and the associated benefits, became less prominent in economic and political contexts, though it did remain central in social and religious systems. Gift-giving and reciprocity did return to the Athenian stage, however, in the Hellenistic age, when much of the previously described took place.

Gift giving was of unparalleled important to the ancient Hellenes, but has lost much of its standing today. For those who reconstruct the ancient Hellenic religion, it might be a good exercise to examine these practices, and implement a symbolic exchange. Lavish gifts would not be necessary, but a parting gift by the host on days then the group comes together might make a nice, ritualistic, reminder that the contributions of the group were welcomed, and the effort to travel to the meeting place recognized.

Image taken from: Sparta Reconsidered

3 comments:

shannonphoenix said...

I like the idea of xenion, and I think I pretty much do it now (except for the 'expensive' part :p).

This was a great exposition on the ancient art of giving, especially the parts that show that there was more to it than "here, have a nice whatever." It had meaning and cultural importance beyond a holiday of exchanges.

Betty said...

Thank you for the info! I always thought the ancients gave gifts as a kind of one-up-man ship.

Elani Temperance said...

@shannonphoenix: I think xenion is a very nice tradition as well, and very easy to implement, really. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. The same goes for you, @Betty!