Wyrd Relations: Relational Ontology and the Gift Ethic

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Practices of making offerings and giving gifts and toasts at sumbel in contemporary Canadian Heathen practice enact a relational ontology, or way of being, and create a gift ethic that sustains a distributed network of social ecological relations that Heathens understand as the web of wyrd. While “wyrd” is often translated as “fate” Heathens understand it as the bonds that sustain us, and through which we sustain the world in gifting relations. The Heathen gifting rituals of sumbel and making offerings illuminate the origins of ethical sensibility, the basic motivation of ethical behaviour. We feel obligated when we are given a gift – giving a gift creates a debt (Offer 1997: 455, Mauss 1990). Obligation is directly related to oblation, ritual practices of giving gifts, etymologically and in practice. Felt obligation is prompted by gratitude for gifts received. These findings are based on participant observation fieldwork from 2018-2019 focusing on ritual and environmental values with Heathens at Raven’s Knoll, the location of Frith Forge 2020, and within Vindisir Kindred, which is based in southwestern Ontario.

Excerpt from Wyrd Ecology:
It is perhaps not immediately obvious what sumbel has to do with ecological conscience formation. Examining the social and psychological effects of gifting in sumbel shows that it sustains the social web of relations, and models ethical relations more generally, which in the context of a Heathen relational ontology includes the more than human world. Gifts given in sumbel sustain the human social web of relations, but gifts given as offerings at other times extend it beyond the interhuman. This is implicit in Heathen understandings of relations in wyrd, but more directly evident in practices of ancestor veneration such as Dísablót, and rituals honouring god/desses and generative powers of the land such as the procession of Nerthus and blóts. Sumbel conveys and enacts a Heathen understanding about the right way to relate with others, which is to participate in gifting relations. In my interpretation, high sumbel at Hail and Horn enacts a relational ontology, or “way of being” that is better understood as a way of relating rather than being. Heathens describe these relations in terms of wyrd and frith.

Gifting is fundamental to Heathenry as it is practiced at Raven’s Knoll. What distinguishes high sumbel as a ritual is the presentation and reception of gifts with the understanding that those gifts are tangible tokens of the relationships their giving and receiving sustain. When one receives a gift, this creates the desire to give in turn. Gifting relations create mutual indebtedness in an overlapping system of delayed reciprocity – ideally, I argue, mediated by third parties in indirect reciprocity. This gives us a model of how we should relate with others to sustain ourselves ecologically, and generates what I call a gift ethic.

Sumbel illustrates how gifting practices inspire ethical relations and generate frith. I relate the generation of a gift ethic in the Heathen ritual sumbel to Emmanuel Levinas’ understanding of the origins of ethical sensibility, the development of ethical subjectivity, and his criticisms of reciprocity. (Levinas is little known outside of postmodern theory and Jewish philosophy, but it was his work that inspired what is known as “the ethical turn” in Continental thought, serving as the direct inspiration of Jacques Derrida’s widely known essay “Violence and Metaphysics.”) While Levinas locates the origin of ethical sensibility in a transcendence of being without expectation of reciprocity, Heathen ritual gifting practices show that the gratitude felt for gifts received, and the desire to give in turn in delayed reciprocity, sustains ethical relations. Heathens understand the web of wyrd as the interlacing connections between all our relations that form complex patterns through what we are given and what we give to others. The psychosocial consequences of sumbel are gratitude and relational ontology. Relational ontology and gifting are mutually self-reinforcing. Each produces the other, which makes a self-sustaining pattern, creating a gift ethic feedback loop.