Posted by: Rajesh Shukla | May 23, 2010

The Gift


Speaking of the hau, the spirit of things and particularly of the forest and forest game, Tamati Ranipiri, one of Mr. Elsdon Best’s most useful informants, gives quite by chance the key to the whole problem. “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 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 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 deisrable 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 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.”

[…]

‘Each of these precious objects and tokens of wealth has, as amongst the Trobrianders, its name, quality and power. The large abalone shells, the shields covered with them, the decorated blankets with faces, eyes, and animal and human figures embroidered and woven into them, are all personalities. The houses and decorated beams are themselves beings. Everything speaks – roof, fire, carvings and paintings; for the magical house is built not only by the chief and his people and those of the opposing phratry but also by the gods and ancestors; spirits and young initiates are welcomed and cast out by the house in person.

Each of these precious things has, moreover, a productive capacity within it. Each, as well as being a sign and surety of life, is also a sign and surety of wealth, a magic-religious guarantee of rank and prosperity. Ceremonial dishes and spoons decorated and carved with the clan totem or sign of rank, are animate things. They are replicas of the never-ending supply of tools, the creators of food, which the spirits gave to the ancestors. They are supposedly miraculous. Objects are confounded with the spirits who made them, and eating utensils with food. Thus Kwakiutl dishes and Haida spoons are essential goods with a strict circulation and are carefully shared out between the families and clans of the chiefs.’

–Marcel Mauss

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