Modern Contemplation of the Runes: Gebo


Giving to all men brings credit and honor
Help and worthiness - and to every outcast
is the estate and substance, that have naught else.

Continuing our series examining modern pagan practice via the Elder Futhark, we move on to the seventh rune, Gebo. As with the others, the rune-poem above gives us a place to start.

All interpretations of Gebo focus around the exchange of gifts, and the value of generosity. This makes a lot of sense, as gift-giving knits societies together in a more profound way than simple friendship might. It's one thing to have a drink with somebody you just met at a bar, it's another thing to be buying each other's drinks. This is also particularly important in social circles and cultures where resources are scarce rather than plentiful, when generosity may determine whether somebody eats today.

Giving Done Right

The basic guidelines for a really great gift are many, but they all serve an importance purpose. The best gifts are:

Something the Recipient Values

If you give somebody something they don't actually want, it's not really doing them much of a favor. Obviously, there are times when this happens from ignorance rather than intention, where the giver is unaware that, say, the acquaintance they are giving to can't enjoy that tasty peanut brittle because they are allergic to peanuts. In those kinds of cases, the best you can do as a giver is ensure that it is something you and most other people in the world would value, and try to offer something else in exchange.

Something the Giver Values

Giving away things you don't want isn't doing much of a favor either. While these items may indeed be of value to the recipient, everyone involved also knows that your intentions are as much about finally getting the garage cleaned out as they are about your valuing the person you are giving them to. That doesn't mean that every gift should be near and dear to your heart, but it should represent some kind of value to you. For example, in a "regifting" scenario, while the gift itself might not be particularly valuable to you, the love it represents from the person who gave it to you probably does.

Something the Giver Can Afford to Give

If you give away something you actually can't afford to give away, then that leaves you immediately needing assistance yourself. That means that you are now creating guilt for the recipient, because the recipient will find out sooner or later that you couldn't afford to give the gift. All of a sudden, what was supposed to be an expression of kindness starts looking much more like a demand for something of equal or greater value in return. Which leads nicely to ...

Given Without Expectation of Immediate Reciprocation

A gift given with the expectation of immediate reciprocation isn't exactly a gift. It starts seeming much like barter: I give you that book you've always wanted to read, you gave me that tea I really like, is that gift-giving or simply a trade? To truly give a gift is about relationship between the giver and recipient, not about the stuff being given. This is the main reason why gifts given in the Yuletide season can feel a lot more like a chore or meaningless ritual than a true expression of love for ones' family and friends.

Given Without "Keeping Score"

"Keeping score" is when you assess the value of what they gave in, for example, monetary terms, and attempting to ensure that what you are getting is of equal or greater value than what you are giving. This again turns the giving of gifts into a simple exchange of property, and in this case can often appear at least to be exploitative, where your gift is all about maximizing your return on investment. One form of this that also deserves specific mention are those that view paying the expenses for a date to be an investment that is supposed to be repaid in sexual favors - this is a violation of both the ethics around giving, and the ethics around sex that will be the subject of the upcoming article on Wunjo.

The Importance of Balance

Giving of gifts takes place in the context of a human relationship, and help cement the bond between giver and recipient. The giver expresses that they value the recipient, and also demonstrate their value in general to others. Generosity is particularly important for leaders, who depend more heavily on the loyalty of others than many would like to admit. Being overly stingy, for a leader, causes dissention among the followers, and can motivate satire and other caracature lampooning the leaders' reputation. Being overly generous, meanwhile, can cause the leader to be unable to spend the time and money needed to lead.

However, there is another side to the importance of generosity: If one person in a relationship is always giving, and the other always receiving, that creates an imbalance. Those kinds of imbalances can be perfectly reasonable: A 2-year-old can't do much for their parents, or a disabled person can't always contribute back to the family and friends that are caring for them. But all imbalances can create strains on the relationship, on both parties: The giver, for their part, might begin to feel taken advantage of, or more trapped by guilt rather than sharing in love. The recipient might begin to feel like an unmanageable burden, and be considering all sorts of measures to try to end that burden up to and including suicide.

These feelings might seem negative, but they actually serve to protect us from unhealthy relationships and behaviors. The extremes of "giver" and "recipient" are both problems in their own way:

  • The martyr freely gives everything they have, expecting nothing in return. They give out love, they give out stuff, the give of their time, trying to make the lives of everybody around them better. This can seem downright inspirational at first, and indeed major religions have been founded from observing this kind of behavior. The problems, though, arise when the martyr has nothing left to give, and keeps right on giving. At that point, the martyr needs support from others, but being an extreme giver will refuse to take said support, with catchphrases like "Don't worry about me, I'll be alright." What they've failed to realize is that they are now creating feelings of guilt for all those normal recipients of their aid that cannot now be satisfied because the martyr is refusing to accept that aid.
  • The mooch takes as much as they can grab from everyone around them, and gives as little as possible or even nothing in return without the slightest bit of guilt. The problems with this behavior are a bit more obvious than with the martyrs: the mooch creates a very real burden for everyone else, and the lack of guilt or reciprocation means that they will simply take until someone gets fed up, and then move on to somebody else. Experienced mooches are often very skilled at hiding the fact that they are mooching, with promises to repay "loans" and taking small amounts from large groups of people rather than large amounts from a single person. The key pattern to look for when identifying mooches: A mooch will not, unprompted, offer even the most minor of gifts or assistance, e.g. helping to carry a heavy object or chipping in cash for a group purchase. A mooch differs from a helpless person who truly can't offer anything in return from the fact that they don't even make the attempt to offer even token assistance to anyone unless asked.

Mooches often seek out martyrs, because they can take much more from a martyr before the martyr is exhausted than they can from a normal person before the normal person walks away. These kind of dynamics are very unhealthy in a relationship, and harm the community at large: Somebody closer to the martyr end of the spectrum can do far more good if they are giving to a wide variety of normal people who are inspired by their example, rather than just exhausting themselves for a mooch or two.


Give without fear to your friends and family and guests and hosts. Give to gods and spirits. Give especially to those who do not have enough. Give what you can give freely, and you will build relationships and bring joy to others.

While you should not keep close track of gifts, periodically evaluate your relationships to look for imbalances. Are you giving to a mooch? Are you taking from a martyr? Look for ways to reverse those trends and to balance out future relationships more thoroughly.

For a more in-depth look at the importance of giving in both ancient and modern pagan culture, I would recommend the short book Sacred Gifts, by Kirk Thomas.

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