Proving The Past

old-booksOne of the difficult things we deal with when trying to understand ancient practices and beliefs is “proof.” All too often proof means empirical, repeatable evidence. Such things are rare in humanities. Instead, we have to deal with a preponderance of evidence to support our arguments. The flaw of preponderance of evidence is that it is, no matter how well examined, still subject to error. It’s not chemistry. Sodium and chlorine in the right mixture is always going to make table salt. That’s empirical science. Antibiotics are never going to cure the common cold. That’s empirical science. What we are dealing with when talking about culture, language, history, and all these other social science topics is almost as much an art as anything. The scientific method can still be used to make sure our work is as accurate, thorough, and effective as possible but the ability to generate empirical evidence to offer up as proof is limited.

Take the Ultimatum Game, for example. When it was used in only Western, industrialized societies, a consistent result of behavior dominated and caused the experimenters to conclude that there was a universal sense of fairness among humans. When this same experiment was performed (only recently I might add, and by an economist no less) among gift-giving societies, the behaviors were very different, both in terms of what was offered and how it was received.

moneyFor those that don’t know, the Ultimatum Game takes 2 test subjects and provides one of them a commodity of value, typically money, but not always. The first participant is told that they can divide up the money however they see fit between the two of them. However, if the recipient rejects the offer, both players go home empty handed. In Western society, people often rejected offers that were “too low” simply out of spite because the other person was being greedy. This is, of course, in opposition to getting free money. In essence, the offering player was punished for unfair behavior. Acceptable offers ranged from roughly 45-55% of the money. In gift-giving societies, the offering player often made offers well in excess of 60-70% (and often amounts into 80-90%) of the money when the receiving player was of higher social station. These offers were almost universally rejected. The reason for this is because in gift-giving societies, accepting a gift means that some form of reciprocity is required at some other time, essentially creating a debt. In the case of Ultimatum Game players, that debt was either unwanted or the recipient was insulted that the offering player would so blatantly try to curry favor.

What does this have to do with Heathenry? While this isn’t “proof” that such behaviors would likely occur among our ancestors, the fact that it happened repeatedly in different gift-giving cultures around the world provides a preponderance of evidence about how they would have reacted. It also sheds light on the nature of our religious offerings. This is something that I believe the Anglo-Saxon Heathenry and Theodish groups have a much better understanding of than most Asatru groups. Our relationship with the gods is a reciprocal, gift-giving relationship. We don’t just offer to them to give thanks for what we have received (a rather Christian notion, to be honest), but to bind them in a sort of debt wherein they are obligated to provide aid and blessings to us just as if it was the relationship between a thane and his king. This is why we are told that a gift goes looking for a gift and that it is better to not offer at all than to offer too much.

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