Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

On Ceremonial Gift-Giving in Pre-Monetary Cultures

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. [Sur le don.] Trans. Ian Cunnison. N.Y.: Norton, 1967.

        Mauss studied the entertainment and social competition practices of Native Americans in the northwest, focusing on a phenomenon known to European anthropologists as "potlatch."   While this formulation of the practice may have been warped by European misunderstandings of Native American cultural practices, the basic rules seem to hold up well enough and are a great help to understanding the pressures that cause Gawain to speak up and that cause the Host to behave as he does.

--"Potlatch" or "Prestation" Rules

1) It is obligatory to give gifts.

2) It is obligatory to receive gifts.

3) It is obligatory to return gifts.


1a) The gift expresses a relationship between giver and receiver, challenging the receiver's capacity to have predicted the gift, to have merited the gift, and/or to respond to the gift. E.g., in patriarchal societies, lord to vassal, host to guest, husband to bride.

2a) Reception of the gift must be accompanied by a ceremonial expression of gratitude that adjusts the relationship (1a) according to the perception, or to the advantage, of the receiver. E.g., vows of loyalty unto death, return gifts, vows of obedience and chastity.

3a) The gift returned is both equivalent and unequal to the gift given (even if it is the same gift), and renews the argument about the relationship between giver and receiver, usually by outdoing the first giver's (now receiver's) gift. E.g., vassal dies for lord, guest returns hospitality, wife "offers" husband their children.

    To see these rules worked out in Gawain's "beheading game" and "hunt game," click here.