Monday, February 04, 2019

Grave Goods and Gift- Giving

I have sometimes wondered why so many valuable items were buried with ancient rulers. I understand there is some social pressure to make grand gestures in honor of someone who is beloved or admired.  Yet still, one would think that tribes which acted in this way were putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage.  That’s a really nice dagger you just put in there, Jack. We could use that.  Those two rings are all the gold we’ve got in the whole clan, and now they’re just going into the ground. Why didn’t people cheat on that?  Similarly, all those potlaches, funeral feasts, and sacrifices of animals – what if some tribe just said “That’s just a waste.  We’re keeping that stuff.”

I get that people worried that the ancestors would be ticked and try to punish you for that, but wouldn’t someone…wouldn’t lots of someones have tried it over many centuries and places, and wouldn’t those tribes have more food, more weapons, more trade goods than their neighbors? We think of it as a waste because we don’t believe the ancestors are really going to punish you for that.  We have slight vestiges of that in our language. “My father would come back and haunt me if I gave that to his brother’s wife.” “Miss Foley would turn over in her grave if they switched back to that history text.”

Look at these these things in the broader context of sympathetic magic rather than strict appeasement of hostile spirits.  If I act in generosity, the gods are do not merely like me better and consider being generous to me also, they are bound to do this, because that is the nature of the universe.  If I give, I make the universe give to me as well.  As far as grave goods go, the items are not gifts, they are not objects that the deceased owned, they are items which have the spirit of their owner in them. Especially with items associated with magic, such as metalworking or musical instruments, they would be regarded as something it would be wrong for another person to use, or might not work successfully.

Do we regard that as impossible and unnecessary?  The exhibition of the piano John Lennon used writing “Imagine” was booked solid, and people wept to touch it.  We have a strong Germanic and Celtic tradition of swords that can only be wielded by kings. In more abstract but only slightly less mechanistic terms, religions offer the same deal:  in Buddhism and even Confucianism, acting in accord with the true nature of how the universe is supposed to work means that the universe will help you; in Hinduism, the actions of karma add to your store of what the future will bring you – the wheel may turn slowly and you cannot force the hand of the universe, but a long justice will prevail.  The early Hasidic rabbis believed they could make the messiah come with their mystic practice, their recitation of letters and words. 

There are more than threads of it in Christianity, and those are the hardest parts for us to understand.  Bread cast upon the waters returns a hundredfold.  Is that a law, or a tendency?  Either way, it is an indication that generosity begets generosity, not just from the people around you in a mid 60s sense, but from the world itself.  The early church collected relics of anything that Jesus or one of the apostles may have touched (and there is NT support for this around a bit of cloth), believing that they might heal. The more complete teaching, of God being generous by his own choice because that is His nature, supersedes but does not discard the earlier, perhaps more primitive one.  We are judged in the measure that we judge.  We are forgiven in line with how well we forgive.  In neither case does God refuse to be merciful when we do not deserve it, but there is a strong sense that we must somehow go along with this to get there.  It is not a present we receive that God might withhold until we give something ourselves, it is a road we must travel to get somewhere.  I admit that God does phrase it in the former way sometimes, and does not draw back from framing it as an exchange, an almost mechanistic practice.  There is a deep truth that we must act in accordance with His nature to know Him, much closer to the eastern ideas of adjusting ourselves to the fitness of things, and the pagan ideas of making the gods provide fertility for the tribe by bringing plants and animals for sacrifice, than it is to our rather chilly and abstract notions of careful requests to God of how we think the world should be run.

Health and Wealth gospel has been dangerous not because it is a lie, but because something in it is true, though it comes to us without balance or caution. I am not trying to describe exactly how all this works, because I think we cannot know it as words – I can’t, at least.  We can begin to know it in action, and God seems to encourage it.  We see the danger of getting this wrong and people being disappointed, but He seems more concerned that we fail in the opposite direction, not risking treasures or blood. At the very least, we have to admit that other peoples and other eras, even outside the church, have been less puzzled and repelled by these ideas.  There may be default belief that this is how the universe does work, which we have overwritten with our abstract discussions, and perhaps not wisely.



Grim said...

The Greek festival sacrificed many animals and much grain into a pit; later, the rotted carcasses and grain were spread on the fields. Ecclesiastes’ verse modified: “Cast thy grain into the pit, and it will return to you in many days.” It worked.

I wonder if the grave goods were an attempt to effect the miracle of the grain and flesh with gold and steel. That doesn’t work; it is part of the riddle of steel.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Good thought. Even the agriculture that they knew from long practice seemed to need magic and sacrifice, so the idea of metal goods or pottery returning to them - not growing out of the ground but by some other route - would not seem so far-fetched to them.

Donna B. said...

Just wondering how grave markers/headstones fit into this line of thinking... if they do at all.

bs king said...

I have half a thought, not well developed.

Maybe there's something there about mental flexibility...encouraging people to see possessions not just as a means to an end, but something that can be used and disposed of. So not necessarily that you'll get anything back, but that it helps you to keep possessions in the proper context. Perhaps a society more likely to bury things with their dead is less likely to be torn apart by conflicts over possessions. If you're willing to let your dead neighbor take that urn to the grave, you're almost certainly more likely to let your live neighbor keep his.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

This is why we have comments, to make me smarter. My first thought was to dismiss both Donna's and Bethany's comments. With Donna, it was "No, that's way more recent, only the last few hundred years," when it occurred to me that the Yamnaya stelae were not that different than recent grave markers, even though they are 5000 years previous. The stelae were used for only the important burials, and they sometimes only stood upright to mark a spot until they built a whole kurgan a hundred years later and laid those stones flat, but still... it's pretty similar. There is a very strong tradition of "Flowers for the newly dead; Wood for the recent dead; stone for the completely dead" in Indo-European cultures of which the Yamnaya is the likely first. I don't think a culture can have such markers without some belief that the spirit of the ancestor is tied to it in some way.

That observation doesn't nail down a tie-in, Donna, but one can see that it suggests a few possibilities of what they must have been thinking.

WRT Bethany's thought, I shook my head and said to myself at first "But they didn't think that way," yet quickly realised that a tribe doesn't have to consciously think that way for there to be an advantage. It might work whether anyone was aware of it or not. The idea of Seven Generations for the Native Americans - one's own, plus the three before and the three after - is mostly crap, romantically imposed by late 20th C white people on earlier cultures. Yet it is not completely crazy. Most cultures, even primitive ones, have some idea of being aware of ancestors (usually in fear more than love) and of posterity. It's in CS Lewis's Tao. Even if the reason is fear, the ability to let something go may be a real advantage for group comity. We think of competition, and "nature, red in tooth and claw" as the driving force of evolution, but that is only half of it. The ability to cooperate, and thus engage in trade, division of labor, and shared ceremony was just as important.