Book Review: Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods
Posted on July 6, 2019
I periodically – very infrequently – write Pagan, Heathen, and other Western polytheistic book reviews. Typically, the books I read which inform my writing here are academic in nature, so I do not feel the need to do reviews for them. I must also admit that I am out of touch with the plethora of pan-Pagan publication (say that five times fast), and I rarely purchase the works of my colleagues.
It is for that very same reason that I am writing a review of a near four-year-old book. Why? I absolutely forgot that it existed until this week. It’d been on my list when I first heard about it being published, and then my life went absolutely topsy-turvey. I only recently saw a suggestion for it on my Amazon that a light went back on and I remembered it was a thing.
My apologies to Rev. Thomas.
Without further ado.
Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods
Date of Publication: 2015
Publisher: ADF Publishing
Author: Rev. Kirk S. Thomas
Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods (2015), by Kirk S. Thomas of Ár nDraíocht Féin, a Druid Fellowship, presents a broad survey across the breadth of pre-Christian, Indo-European religious beliefs and focuses on the act of gift-giving within what is ultimately a divine context. Deriving itself not as a commentary on any other Contemporary Pagan publication but, instead, presenting and synthesizing an academic study into a wide scope Pagan context, Thomas’ book distills both original and secondary source material into what amounts to a functional introduction to what is often a confusing system of reciprocity and relationships between humanity and the divine. Thomas’ utilization of Vedic, Greek, Norse, Roman, and Irish source material throughout the chapters of his book highlights the religious commonalities that these peoples had regarding the act of giving a gift, however distantly they were related.
While ultimately geared towards, and including features which may be more appropriate to, practitioners and initiates of the wider sphere of Ár nDraíocht Féin (Neodruidism, at large), a solid portion of the book contains useful, worthwhile reading material for beginning Pagans who seek to expand their understanding of the gifting cycle as it can be interpreted from the past. It clearly delineates the myriad cultural expressions of the phenomenon of gifting, settling it within a Pagan (not THE Pagan) cosmogonic expression.
This book introduces and covers concepts such as the sacred-profane dichotomy, ideas of gifting as systemic recreation of the universe (cosmogony), the axis-mundi of varying pre-Christian pagan peoples, and other varying types of gifts (votives, foodstuffs, etc.) as well as their acts of offering (libations, burning, drowning, etc.), which are all supported by archaeological, literary, and legal precedents. These precedents are provided in a concise manner, drawing an unmistakable conclusion that this practice was, indeed, pan-Indo-European.
Of particular value in the this discussion is the fallacious concept of gifting being equivalent to what Thomas, among other writers, calls the “Great Vending Machine in the Sky”. This concept, so common among both theistic and atheistic Western thinkers, is a theme which belies the cultural ignorance that has been accepted regarding what was once the fundamental paradigm of reciprocity within religious engagement. That Thomas addresses it speaks to the recognition of these wider forces that practitioners of contemporary polytheistic religions must grapple with. That he directly calls it out is only beneficial for people who may not be able to articulate their concerns, and can only aid in dispelling false notions of polytheistic worship as simple transactions or business-like dealings.
However, for more seasoned researchers within Pagan studies, this book will not offer much in the way of new material for consideration. It is very much an introductory survey, attempting to fit a wide paradigm of pan-Indo-European views into a mere 222 pages (including the index). This fact necessarily leaves much to be desired with the individual cultures mentioned, each requiring their own monograph for further expansion. Its brevity precludes more unique manifestations of the gifting cycle within these religions, which may be more desirable by a specialist or experienced practitioner. Further, the latter section of the book includes rituals which are ADF-specific, which can be discarded at the whim of the reader.
One criticism of this work is the lack of comparison between traditional gifting cycles from its historic context, compared to the attitudes which inform the contemporary societal views that continue to foster a lack of respect for this institution. Thomas details a section of his book titled “The Great Heresy“, where he attempts to explore the nature of “Abrahamic” (really, Christian and Islamic), submission with regards to divinity, versus the competing gifting cycles of the polytheistic religions. It is scant, perhaps by design.
It would have been better to expound on Max Weber’s views of Do Ut Des being that of a “formalistic ethic” and not any true belief [Weber, 1963], or of Pauline theology’s fundamental positioning of this very same view as inferior to the unilateral concept of Christian grace. Approaching the criticisms of the gifting cycle and identifying and deconstructing them can only combat the unease with returning to this traditional mode of worship, and in doing so the groundwork can be laid for a more concerted effort of dismantling these indoctrinated views.
While this book covers the act of gifting in broad strokes, by necessity, it cannot include what is wholly appropriate (or inappropriate) for each particular religion. In this we can think of the particular value of the sacrifice (libation) of wine in various Mediterranean religions, of being one of the most important acts of offering which can be enacted.
Readers must be made aware that this book cannot be a ‘one stop shop’ regarding this topic, and further study depending on the chosen ethno-cultural paradigm will absolutely be required. Thomas’ work presents a rough road map for those individuals curious for a crash course in this style of religious veneration, connecting various dots of disparate religious perspectives which we often group under modern Paganism. This single book cannot be expected to give us an exacting and comprehensive account throughout that will satisfy all readers.
What Sacred Gifts does is lay out a starting point for those curious as to the precedents of the gifting cycle, outside of what might be considered an unnecessarily restrictive “reconstructionist” view. Thomas doesn’t preach from the pulpit about maintaining unerring and constraining historical purity, which may turn some hopeful readers who want an easily accessible, yet rigorously enforced paradigm away. Of the non-Wiccan, non-Wiccanate introductory Pagan books, Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods should find a prominent home on any beginner’s bookshelf.