Notes on Mauss

March 25, 2009

In primitive or archaic types of society what is the principle whereby the gift received has to be repaid?
What force is there in the thing given which compels the recipient to make a return?

Mauss talks mostly on Polynesia, Melanesia, and North West America systems of gift exchange, however he speaks also about potlaches in the societies of North-East Siberia.
Potlatch meant originally ‘to nourish’ or ‘to consume’. Mauss gives different examples of potlaches and talked about reason of giving gifts. Most of them, like the Tlingit and Haida inhabit the islands, which were very rich, they passed their winters in continuous festival, in banquets, tribal gatherings, gave the gifts for determination their position in the hierarchy of their own clans.

The system of contractual gifts in Samoa is confined to marriage, in respect of childbirth, circumcision, sickness, girls’ puberty, funeral ceremonies and trade. The elements of the potlatch there have been attested to: the honour, prestige or mana (magical, religious and spiritual power) which wealth; and the absolute obligation to make return gifts under the penalty of losing the mana, confers authority and wealth. The elements of rivalry, destruction and fighting seemed to be absent in Polynesia although they were present in Melanesia.

The Maori had a kind of system of exchange, or rather of giving presents which had later to be exchanged or repaid.’They exchanged dried fish for pickled birds and mats. The exchange was carried out between tribes or acquainted families without any kind of stipulation.
The Maori spoke about the hau, the spirit of things and particularly of the forest and forest game, ‘I shall tell you about hau. Hau is not the wind. Not at all. Suppose you have some particular object, taonga, and you give it to me; you give it to me without a price.We do not bargain over it. Now I give this thing to a third person who after a time decides to give me something in repayment for it (utu), and he makes me a present of something (taonga). Now this taonga I received from him is the spirit (hau) of the taonga I received from you and which I passed on to him. The taonga which I receive on account of the taonga that came from you, I must return to you. It would not be right on my part to keep these taonga whether they were desirable or not. I must give them to you since they are the hau of the taonga which you gave me. If I were to keep this second taonga a for myself I might become ill or even die. Such is hau, the hau of personal property, the hau of the taonga, the hau of the forest. Enough on that subject.’

‘The taonga and all strictly personal possessions have a hau, a spiritual power. You give me taonga, I give it to another, the latter gives me taonga back, since he is forced to do so by the hau of my gift; and I am obliged to give this one to you since I must return to you what is in fact the product of the hau of your taonga.’

Hence it follows that to give something is to give a part of oneself. Secondly, we are led to a better understanding of gift exchange and total presentation, including the potlatch. It follows clearly from what we have seen that in this system of ideas one gives away what is in reality a part of one’s nature and substance, while to receive something is to receive a part of someone’s spiritual essence. To keep this thing is dangerous, not only because it is illicit to do so, but also because it comes morally, physically and spiritually from a person. The thing given is not inert. It is alive and often personified, and strives to bring to its original clan and homeland some equivalent to take its place.

Total presentation and the potlatch by Mauss doesn’t only carry with it the obligation to repay gifts received, but it implies two others equally important: the obligation to give presents and the obligation to receive them. There is a large number of facts on the obligation to receive, A clan, household, association or guest are constrained to demand hospitality, to receive presents, to barter or to make blood and marriage alliances. The obligation to give is no less important. To refuse to give, or to fail to invite, is like refusing to accept- the equivalent of a declaration of war; it is a refusal of friendship and intercourse.

In the societies of North-East Siberia and amongst the Eskimo of West Alaska and the Asiatic coast of the Behring Straits, the potlatch concerns not only men who rival each other in generosity, and the objects they transmit or destroy, and the spirits of the dead which take part in the transactions and whose names the men bear; it concerns nature as well. Exchanges between namesakes- people named after the same spirits-incite the spirits of the dead, of gods, animals and natural objects to be generous towards them. Men say that gift- exchange brings abundance of wealth. On the extreme north-west of Siberia they have the potlatch also. They practised most the obligatory-voluntary gift exchanges in the course of protracted thanksgiving ceremonies which follow one after the other in every house throughout the winter. Mauss quotes Bogoras and his comparison with the Russian koliada customs in which masked children go from house to house begging eggs and flour and none dare refuse them.

North-West American and North-East Asian potlatch contain the element of destruction (sacrificial destruction implies giving something that is to be repaid). It is not simply to show power and wealth and unselfishness that a man puts his slaves to death, burns his precious oil, throws coppers into the sea, and sets his house on fire. In doing this he is also sacrificing to the gods and spirits, who appear incarnate in the men who are at once their namesakes and ritual allies.

Marcel Mauss THE GIFT: FORMS AND FUNCTIONS OF EXCHANGE IN ARCHAIC SOCIETIES

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