New Worlds: Ring-Givers and Potlatch Chieftains

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series. It has been edited since its original posting to correct errors regarding the potlatch tradition.)

All around the world, generosity is an admired trait — and there’s a good reason for that.

Multiple good reasons, actually. Phrased in selfish terms, of course you want to praise other people’s generosity, in the hopes that they’ll give something to you. But I’m reminded of something a friend said at the start of a single-session live-action roleplaying game he ran: “If you go into this trying to make sure you have a good time, there’s one person dedicated to your fun. But if all of you go into this trying to make sure other people have a good time, there will be twenty-nine people dedicated to your fun.” That kind of social cooperation is one of our superpowers as a species, and generosity means we survive better overall.

We’ve talked before about how society operates in the absence of a monetary economy, and our attitude toward generosity very much has its roots in that. When your wealth consists of something imperishable like coins, sure, you can stockpile them and go swimming through your wealth like Scrooge McDuck, if that’s what you really want. But for most of our history, a large portion of our wealth has been much more ephemeral, taking the form of stuff like food that will rot or mold if you don’t consume it soon enough. If you’re rich enough to have more than you and yours can possibly eat in time, then the best possible use of it is to share it with others, exchanging your material possession for the intangible value of their gratitude and friendship. (Even if you don’t have more than you and yours can possibly eat, it’s a better idea to share than to gorge.)

One of the places this plays out is in hospitality — here not just in the sense we’ve already addressed of sheltering a traveler who may be a stranger to you, but in the broader sense of being a good host. Someone who never invites their neighbors over for dinner gets a reputation for being standoffish. And since eating meals together is a significant method of social bonding, even if neither you nor your neighbor is in need of help staying fed, the reciprocal acts of dining at each other’s houses fosters cohesion within your community. So does drinking together: another key form of social bonding.

But this isn’t just about food and drink. I’ve lost track of which culture this is supposedly true in — if you know, leave a comment — so I can’t verify its authenticity, but I know I’ve encountered the idea that if a guest in your house admires one of your possessions, you’re supposed to give it to them as a gift. We’ll discuss gifts more at the end of the month; for now, the key idea is that generosity is, in its strong form, supposed to be unstinting. You don’t merely decide “I will feed my neighbor this pre-planned meal;” to be truly open-handed, you need to be willing to give things you hadn’t planned on.

Although I rarely see it in fiction, this is actually a very distinct feature of certain kinds of kingship. Anybody who read Beowulf in school might remember the kenning “ring-giver” as a way of referring to a king; the reason is that kings were literally expected to give rings to their followers. Not just little finger-rings, either, but massive bands of gold for the arm, or torcs for the throat: in other words, portable wealth.

It would be an error to conceive of this in terms of wages. There weren’t agreed-upon rates, where if you follow me into battle I promise you one arm-band of no less than 100 grams of gold. Instead, the king rewarded his followers after battle according to their valor and effectiveness, often out of the spoils acquired in victory. Even outside of combat, anyone who did a good service could expect to receive some kind of gift in return — but the size of that gift depended on the king, not upon a set salary. If the king was wealthy and open-handed, he would regularly honor the people around him with jewelry, fine fabric, horses, livestock, land, and more. If he was poor or stingy . . . well, pretty soon he wouldn’t have many people around him expecting rewards. Being generous was one of the expected functions of kingship, right up there with being a successful war-leader. A king who failed at that duty would hemorrhage followers to somebody who did the job better. And this is part of what differentiates, say, Anglo-Saxon kingship from British kingship in the seventeenth century: while James I still gave gifts to his courtiers, there wasn’t a sense that any failure to do so meant his nobles would be justified in taking their loyalty elsewhere.

Generosity can even take on a competitive aspect. I’m not going to attempt to unpack the entire Pacific Northwestern tradition of the potlatch; it’s an incredibly complex practice that goes well beyond economics into religion and politics and law, and whole books have been written on the topic. (It also differs from group to group; the version I’m basing these comments on is that of the Kwakwaka?wakw.) The key element for us at the moment is that during a potlatch ceremony, the hosting chieftain is expected to give away enormous quantities of wealth, such as blankets, copper artifacts, and food. But instead of just being passive spectators or recipients, his guests may be challenged to match or even surpass his generosity. Whoever gives the most away acquires the most social capital, in the form of interpersonal bonds and status. Even if the earlier recorded forms of the potlatch were influenced by colonialism, which unbalanced the previously existing system and may have significantly inflated the scale of the gifts, the core concept remains: the true utility of wealth is not so much to be owned as to be distributed it to others.

But you may recall me saying that the principles which drive a pre-monetary economy are dependent on a certain kind of society, one small and cohesive enough for the social forces of friendship, expectation, and shame to exert real pressure. I suspect the same is true with generosity: we may still admire it today, but the understanding of it that prevails under a capitalist system is very different. It’s much easier now to hoard wealth, and “saving for a rainy day” means having a sizable bank account, not a bunch of friendships you can call on in your time of need. We expect and rely on known salaries or hourly wages, which can be calculated in a predictable manner, unlike the unpredictable generosity of a ring-giver. And our richest citizens get their status from displaying their wealth, rather than by giving it away.

Up to a point, at least. We haven’t forgotten the concept of charity — so next week we’ll look at that.



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Ring-Givers and Potlatch Chieftains — 7 Comments

  1. A long time ago there was an SF/F book “The Practice Effect.” On this world tools and ornaments needed to be used to remain useful. Neglect a knife and it quickly becomes a dull lump of slag metal. Cease to wear a gold necklace and it too will revert to it’s native state. The custom of a birthday celebrant giving away gifts instead of receiving them is a relief. He/she no longer has to employ people to constantly use possessions. Heaping tons of gifts on a person can be a financial burden, where as the gift of a simple tool or weapon that the recipient NEEDS is a blessing.

    • I feel like somebody (you?) brought this up, or a similar book, some months ago? Maybe years ago, who knows. The whole “needing to hire people to use my stuff” thing is ringing a bell, though I know I’ve never read that book.

      The whole bit about it being a blessing to receive something of practical utility is interesting because in many cases, non-practical gifts are valued more, and practical ones can even be seen as an insult (because they imply you can’t take care of your basic needs yourself).

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Ring-Givers and Potlatch Chieftains - Swan Tower

  3. I’m reminded of two things – the farmer tradition of banqueting neighbours, which is all about generosity, but it’s about reciprocal generosity. I feel Bret Deveraux covered that well in part 1 of his ‘Bread, How Did They Make It?’ collection on his blog.
    Secondly, about the Jewish (and non-Jewish) ancient tradition of marriage companions, where when you got married, yo had a group of young unmarried men who would party with you, feast you, and give you gifts (today’s groomsmen/ushers) with the expectation that when they got married, you’d do the same to them. So much so that in Jewish law this was considered an actual debt that could be sued for in court.

    • Devereaux’s comments on the behavior of subsistence farmers were very much on my mind as I wrote this, yeah. And nice to know about the marriage companion/debt thing!

  4. “But instead of just being passive spectators or recipients, his guests may be challenged to match or even surpass his generosity.”

    Descriptions of Melanesian “big men” by Marshall Sahlins are like that. Bigger and bigger gifts or feasts, if you can’t outdo it you lose. Creating a tension between being generous to your faction, to keep its support, and generous outside your faction, to keep/gain status with others. (And working your own polygynous households extra hard to generate the surplus to give away.)