Ernest Becker 11: Bartering with the gods: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.


Bartering with the gods: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

So, the forces of nature are pretty scary and can be downright devastating, mean and nasty killers.  What does a primitive to do in the face of such capriciousness?  Well, it’s always better to have something tangible to deal with so instead of thinking about the ‘forces of nature’ early humans created immortality projects that usually incorporated a god, or at least some kind of entity that served as a stand-in for those anonymous forces.  The forces of nature, gods, were obviously the source of life but they could just as easily be the source of death.  So a two pronged approach was required.  Gods had to be thanked for the bounty they provided, but they also had to be appeased in case they got pissed off at something humans were doing.  Humans were in debt to the gods all the time and paying off that debt was a constant preoccupation of primitives.  They were driven to accumulate a surplus so they could offer something to the gods and food was a logical choice.  Becker writes:

Food is a sacred element because it gives the power of life.  The original sacrifice is always food because this is what one wants from the gods as the basis for life.  “Give us our daily bread…”

And of course food is not just a physical thing.  After all, milk contains the essence of the cow, beef too.  Sharks fins are more than a delicacy for certain people, they embody the fierceness and boldness of the fish itself.  Maybe that fierceness and boldness gets transferred over in the process of eating the things.  So, giving food as a gift to the gods meant that you were also giving them mana power, “the strength of supernatural life.” (p. 39)

This is how we are to understand the potlatch giving and one-upmanship, the destruction of quantities of goods: the eternal flux of power in the broad stream of life was generated by the greatest possible expenditure; man wanted that stream to flow as bountifully as possible. It then became hard to distinguish who gave and who received, since all were bathed in the power of the movement: everyone participated in the powers that were opened up – the giver, the community, the gods.  “I give you power so that you may have power.” The more you give, the more everyone gets.

 Of course, we need things to flow, to move, to grow.  We get all bent out of shape when the stock market falls.  We need to keep the economy moving.  The magical free entreprise powers are working only so long as goods keep moving.  That’s why at every turn we are pressured to buy, buy, buy.  Buy anything.  Don’t have any more money?  Well then, borrow some, borrow lots.  If you don’t, prosperity will cease and the whole deck of cards will come toppling down.

Like the primitive, modern man feels that he can prosper only if he shows that he already has power.

 Giving gifts to the gods or the gods of your kinsmen Hocart sees as the origins of trade.  Of course the exchange was always a contest.  Who could give the most.  Who  had the power.  Who was obviously already favoured by the gods.  The more you could give, the more heroic you were.  The one who gave the most away was a ‘big power’ man.  Why, because everyone benefited if the gods were appeased and life flowed out of soil and there was plenty to eat.

And so, all this seemingly useless surplus, dangerously and painstakingly wrought, yields the highest usage of all in terms of power. Man the animal who knows he is not safe here, who needs continued affirmation of his powers, is the one animal who is implacably driven to work beyond animal needs precisely because he is not a secure animal.  The origin of human drivenness is religious because man experiences creatureliness. The amassing of a surplus, then, goes to the very heart of human motivation, the urge to stand out as a hero, to transcend the limitations of the human condition and achieve victory over impotence and finitude. 

 In fact, in primitive society, the greatest prestige went to the ‘big man’ who gave everything away and kept nothing for himself.  The ‘smooth flow of life’ had to be ensured.

This reveals a central fact about social life; primitive man immersed himself in a network of social obligations for psychological reasons.  Just as Rank said, man has to have a core psychological motive for being in a group in the first place, otherwise he would not be a group-living animal.  Or as Brown, who likes to call a spade a spade, put it, “man entered social organization in order to share guilt.  Social organization…is a structure of shared guilt…a symbolic mutual confession of guilt.” 

 What the hell!  What does guilt have to do with anything?  Well, stay tuned for the next post when we discuss the nature of guilt.  It’s a good one.

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