Is there anyone who doesn’t love a gift? Even the perennial “oh you shouldn’t have…” types secretly adore the idea that someone purchased or made something for them. But where does gift giving come from? Is it simply within our human nature to share? Or are there other factors that make it profitable for us to live within a “giving” society?
The very beginning
While it is probably a natural progression for us to share with friends what we learnt to share with family (food, company, forgiveness), anthropologists believe that gift giving in the modern sense started occurring with the development of coinage (currency) and market economics. This took place during the same time that the major monotheistic religions formed between approximately 800 BC and 600 AD. It is theorised that the act of giving gifts became a cornerstone of society as a reaction to the increasing sense of commoditisation of humanity as a direct result of slavery, markets, coinage and military violence. This concept of charity was in essence created to humanise the very impersonal act of trading with money rather than value as it is perceived by an individual.
Nothing in life is free …
Along with giving, however, come complex human interactions and exchanges. It is widely debated whether such a thing as altruism (giving without expecting anything in return) truly exists, as there are often unspoken expectations of reciprocity. While some of us might have one or two people in our lives with whom we share truly altruistic feelings, it is true that giving gifts in the cultural context often serves other purposes as well. It has been observed in many cultures, ancient and modern, that giving gifts aims to create a kind of debt with the person receiving it. Birthday and wedding invitations often arrive with a sense of expectation, and extravagant gifts are given to show off wealth and establish a higher social standing than others.
Interesting and Bizarre gifts in History
There is no shortage of crazy gift stories strewn across history. The last pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra, managed to get an audience with Julius Caesar (whose brother she was waging a war against) by having herself wrapped in a rug that was presented to him as a gift. Cleopatra managed to seduce him and had a son nine months after their first meeting. Caesar abandoned his plans to annex Egypt and instead supported Cleopatra as the pharaoh. Quite a cunning plan for a young woman who was only 21 years old at the time!
They say that it is unwise to give pets as gifts, but what if you are given a white elephant? Not the metaphorical white elephant, no, an actual white elephant. Although historians are not entirely sure how Hanno the white elephant came to belong to Pope Leo X in Rome in 1514, it is widely rumoured that the elephant was a gift from the King of Cochin (an area in modern day India). Although Hanno was a favourite with the papacy, he only managed to survive for two years. He died after he was treated for constipation with gold laced laxatives.
Elizabeth Taylor managed to amass an enormous amount of wealth during her career and through her various marriages. The Taylor- Burton diamond is a 69.42 carat diamond that Richard Burton bought for Taylor, who was his wife at the time. It was the most expensive diamond ever to be sold to an individual and Taylor managed to get handsome $5 million when she sold it later on. She used the money to have a hospital built in Botswana.
So, next time you are looking for great gift ideas (wedding, birthday, baby shower, or kitchen tea, etc.), don’t hesitate to learn from the truly extravagant figures in history.
Louisa Theart is a freelance musician and writer living, which means she never looks a gift (horse) in the mouth. Fortunately, she knows the value of giving as much as she does receiving.
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