Posted by: nicanthiel | April 26, 2009

Ethics 4: Sylen

This is one of my favorite þéowas. According to the compilied Old English dictionary at Old English Made Easy, sylen is defined as ” a gift; 2. a giving, gift, donation, grant, tribute; 3. the habit of giving, liberality, munificence,” and is closely related to the verb sellan, from which we get our verb “to sell.” (though, interestingly, most of the definitions for sellan have to do with giving or entrusting something rather than exchange or selling for a price.)

Most Heathens know of the maxim in the Hávamál, “a gift for a gift,” and of the Germanic tribal customs of ring-giving and sharing wealth. As such, this is not usually a contested virtue in the way that ellen and árfæstness are. However, there are some things that do need to be said.

It is common in certain areas of Heathenry to exaggerate the requisition of the gift, so much so that one will not give without promise of return, or immediate return. As such, they twist their generosity into a form of miserliness and self-entitlement (an endemic problem in American society), rather than focusing on the joy and honor of giving freely, as the third definition states – liberality and munificence.

Too, many Heathens would also argue that the line in the Hávamál where Hár talks about giving too much is a reason not to be generous without expectation. However, there is a difference between giving generously of surplus, and giving “till it hurts,” as is expected by many Christians. Our Gods expect us to be proud enough to live in what measure of comfort we can based on our hard work instead of purposefully beggaring ourselves or being “downwardly mobile”; at the same time, They expect us to be generous enough to be able to give to others as they need and we are able, the idea here being moderation (another overly-neglected virtue among many Heathens).

American society has a very bad relationship with money and possessions. The honest attainment of wealth through hard work, and the enjoyment of it, is seen as sinful and undesirable (echoes from the Christian majority that has ruled our society and culture for the last several hundred years); conversely, being content with the things one has is seen as foolish and quaint, and everyone strives to have more and be like every other household to the point of ruining finances and families, and even national and global economies, as seen by the current recession that may very well become a depression all caused by speculation and people playing with money they didn’t have.

But sylen, in a Heathen context, is about the nature of giving rather than the gift itself. No one appreciates a gift given in resentment or grudgingly. In fact, most of the time, such an exchange isn’t a gift at all – it’s a tax. A true gift must be given generously, with gladness and no ulterior motive (though it’s always nice to receive one in turn). A gift creates a bond of friendship between the two parties, and if the cycle of reciprocity is continued, that bond can only grow stronger. And that is the true purpose of gifting – to create solid relationships between people, or between people and the Gods. It is also a community-building and maintaining practice, because generosity toward the less fortunate, sharing the Gods’ blessings among your community, enables all to live and grow together without undue envy or feelings of resentment or exclusion.



  1. YES!

    You’ve got it.

    If a gift has “strings” attached, it’s not a gift anymore. If a gift is given grudgingly, it’s not a gift. An offering is given freely, otherwise it’s not an offering. This is why I feel there is in fact a difference between devotional practice and formal ritual and why doing formal ritual at least for me is too much.

    and even national and global economies, as seen by the current recession that may very well become a depression all caused by speculation and people playing with money they didn’t have.

    This is something that cheesed me off about the “bailout” last year (OK not to bring up politics, but), let’s spend money we don’t have to feed the consumerist machine rather than encouraging people to buy local, plant gardens, and stuff. URGH.

    Anyway, as usual, good post, I agree with everything you’ve said here and think this should be said endlessly until people listen.


  2. Good stuff! I’m saving this post for deeper reflection when I have the time.

    • Thanks. 🙂

      I hope your reflections bring you many good, or at least interesting, thoughts.

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