An Evaluation of the Connection Between the Concepts of Gift Exchange and Taboo to Spiritual Power

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A taboo is an action that is prohibited by social custom or religious practice. Gift exchange is gift exchange is a mode of exchange where valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. Traditionally it was held that Taboo and concept of gift exchange and money value only served basic purpose: either taboos depicted a general disgust to an unpleasant action such as incest, whilst gift exchange and money value merely facilitated the exchange of goods.

This not the case, as both concepts have much deeper meaning functions. However this essay will argue that these functions have very little connection to the spiritual. Aside from in religious contexts, the concept of gift exchange and money value and taboo have no connection to the principle spiritual power and danger. By first looking at Mauss’ account of a spiritually charged gift exchange the connection between gift exchange/taboo and the spiritual will be seen to be plausible.

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However Levi Strauss’ updated theory of reciprocity as well as Durkheim’s ideas of collective representations, show that gift exchange and taboo’s can be only connected to the social. Despite this there is strong evidence to suggest that in religious contexts, through symbolism, historicity and classification, gift exchange and taboo can be connected to spiritual power and danger. However this is shown to be limited solely to religious contexts such as the Christian or Hindu traditions.

The concept of gift exchange and money value is connected to spiritual power and danger through the relationship of reciprocity between the gift giver and receiver.

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Mauss in his book “The Gift’ explores gift exchange in various cultures. Mass argues there is a universal need to pay the giver back after receiving a gift. When one receives a gift, one also receives debt to the gift giver. For Mauss, this exchange is spiritually charged. As Dodds notes: “The system depends on hau or mana, the spiritual power with which the gift is laden that underpins the obligation to reciprocate” (Dodds: 2014: 31). The Maori ‘hau’ means literally ‘spirit of the gift’. Hau ties the receiver to the giver spiritually, through the concept of souls. The giver and receiver both have souls, these must be equally balanced spiritually through a relationship of reciprocity. There is a identification of the gift with the spirit of the donor. Retention of a gift without reciprocation is spiritually dangerous. In Polynesia, failure to reciprocate the act of gift giving means a losing ‘mana’. Mana’ can be seen as a personal source of wealth, both spiritual and literal, as well as authority. When you give something away you lose some of your ‘mana’ in the hope of drawing something back over time. Money adopts a certain spiritual power, symbolising the strength of a given clan. Gift-giving is spiritually powerful therefore, in creating social bonds. Giving is a way of forming social bonds. The act of receiving accepts these social bond, reinforcing them spiritually. One of the ethnographic examples Mauss gives is known as the Kula exchange or the Kula ring (Mauss: 1924). In Papa New Guinea communities exchange bracelets and necklaces charged with names and a spiritual history, purely for purposes of enhancing one’s social status and prestige or rank. Bracelets and necklaces represent certain levels of prestige and status. Temporary possession through a system of gift exchange can lead to an enhanced prestige and status. There is a positive reciprocation principle here, allowing for an advancement of prestige and status. The gift giver is always in a higher status, meaning the receiver is always advanced. The Kula ring provides a connection between the environment, the spiritual world, and the other tribes. Here reciprocation demonstrates a good regard for the spiritual, through concepts of ‘hau’ and ‘mana’, and helps to uphold social integrity. Purchasing power is seen as a powerful spiritual force to eliminate debt, and in doing so, one can maintain ‘mana’, connecting gift exchange and money value to spiritual power and danger through the gift giver and gift receiver relationship.

Levi-Strauss (Levi-Strauss: 1949) focuses on the incest taboo, building on the ideas of Mauss, however he offers a reduction in the connection between taboo and gift exchange and money value and the spiritual. He rejects the idea that incest is only prohibited due to its biological explanations. However for Levi-Strauss the incest taboo is not a negative rule of marriage avoidance, but instead a positive rule of marriage prescription. The taboo forces people to marry outsiders, thus establishing contact networks and thus social groups. For Levi-Strauss marriage is seen as a form of gift exchange between two different social groups. He describes reciprocal notions of money value and gift exchange, including the incest taboo, universally as exchange phenomena. These have their origin in the “fundamental structures of the human spirit” (Levi-Strauss 1941: pg 61). Rather than having a connection to the spiritual, this reciprocal relationship, linked with the social, is ingrained in all human consciousness and thinking. Levi-Strauss regards this as a complete social fact that acts as the universal basis for all kinship systems, but excludes the spiritual mechanisms Mauss depicts above. There is no need for a connection with the concepts of spiritual power and danger. Rather the system of gift exchange is connected socially. The system of reciprocity is only maintained due to social obligations. There are feelings of obligation to the gift giver to repay them for a nice gift. There are social obligations; not repaying the gift will dismantle social bonds. There may even be legal obligations which mean the receiver must repay the gift in order to not break the law and risk prosecution. Overall the incest taboo exists solely to enable relationships with other social groups. Gift exchange and money value is only connected to the social, as a means of allowing society to function. Mauss’ essay on The Gift acts as the origin for anthropological studies of reciprocity, but doesn’t qualify the need for a connection between the spiritual and the concept of gift exchange and money value and taboo.

Indeed gift exchange and money value and taboo can only be seen connected to the social, rather than having a connection to spiritual power or danger. Reciprocity is key in binding social relationships, however it isn’t obviously connected to the principles of spiritual power and danger. Durkheim (Durkheim: 1912) suggested that society is shaped socially. Society is shaped by the collective consciousness or representations of the masses. In this way every action, including gift exchange can be explained socially. Take the gift exchange shown at a dinner table, when one is pouring wine. It is the social norm to offer to pour wine for others at the table before pouring a glass for yourself. The function of this action is to uphold social integrity, showing care for the other people at the table, exhibiting generosity. There is no connection here to spiritual power or danger. The only power gift exchange exhibits is social. It has power to reinforce social bonds, and danger to destroy social bonds, but holds no spiritual connotations. Similarly taboos can be connected to the social, rather than the spiritual. If one were to break a taboo, by committing incest for example, this would lead to a reduced social status and maybe even social exclusion. There are no connections to spiritual repercussions, it is merely socially beneficial to follow the social norm. In Plato’s republic, Socrates suggest that laws serve the purpose to strike the balance between what people want to do and the ability of society to function. The same can be said of taboos. They mark a balance between what is socially acceptable and what is not. In some way act as unwritten laws, dictating social behaviour. Both gift exchange and taboos are connected to social power and danger in this way, by a human need to conform to a given notion of ‘normality’.

Despite this strong evidence to suggest that gift exchange and money value is only connected to social power/danger, there is significant evidence to suggest that they are connected to the spiritual though history and symbolism. The huge social social connections between taboo and gift exchange carry great spiritual significance. Take gift exchange in the Christian tradition. Gifts at Christmas stem from the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh given to the baby Jesus by the three wise men. In the Christian tradition any gift exchange can be seen to be connected to this gift. The timing of gifts also connects gift exchange to the spiritual power and danger. Gifts are given on special occasions, on birthdays or at Christmas. Gifts represent more than just the gift itself, marking rites of passage. These can be linked back to sacrifices. In the early Christian church lambs would be sacrificed, as a gift to God. These sacrifices carried spiritual power to please God. They also seek to represent the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross to save mankind. A similar gift exchange can be seen the modern day church in communion in the gifts of bread and wine. These gifts mirror the early sacrifices of the church, linking modern day gift exchange to spiritual power and danger historically. Modern western money value can be seen to be founded in these connections with the spiritual. Modern western society evolved from a gift economy, to an economy based on money.

Taboos can also be seen as connected to spiritual power and danger through symbolism. In the Hindu tradition the cow is considered sacred. To consider it not sacred is a huge taboo. To the Hindu, the cow symbolises all other creatures. The cow is a symbol of the Earth, the nourisher, the ever-giving, undemanding provider. The cow represents life and the sustenance of life. By protecting the cow, one protects what it represents. Its symbolic nature links it to spiritual power and danger. Veneration of the cow is able to instil powerful spiritual powers into the venerator such as the virtues of gentleness, and allows one to obtain a certain closeness to nature. Through this symbolism, by protecting the cow, one is able to avoid spiritual dangers. For the Earth is a provider, but can also be a destructive force through natural disasters for example. Drinking a cow’s urine is seen to have great medicinal benefits, offering a connection to a greater spiritual power and being able to ward of danger. Taboo and spiritual power/danger is seen to be connected through the symbolism of the cow and what it represents in a wider context.

The principle of spiritual power and danger is clearly connected to religious taboo through religious classification. Mary Douglas (Douglas: 1966) sees religious taboo as a manifestation of a human need for classification. It is those that fall outside the normal lines of classification that are regarded as taboo. Douglas gets to this conclusion by looking at Kosher food laws. Douglas rejects the idea that Jewish food laws acted as basic food hygiene laws. The Jewish rejection of pork through their kosher laws was traditionally explained due to the pigs uncleanliness, and the danger of eating not properly cooked pig meat. These factors were then masqueraded in the religious. However Douglas argues that there is a much more complex spiritual connection to these food laws. Instead, Douglas argued that the laws were about symbolic boundary-maintenance. Prohibited foods failed to fall within a given category. Unlike Cows, Sheep or Chickens, Pigs have cloven hooves. Where there is difference, the human mind finds a need to exclude that. Humans have to classify when they face situations of uncertainty. The pig’s make up creates uncertainty that readers it a taboo. Douglas notes that through this classification the taboo carries great spiritual power and danger. On food laws she notes: “observing them draws down prosperity, infringing them brings danger” (Douglas: 1966: 51). In disobeying religious taboo, one faces the ultimate danger in violating gods will. Religious taboos are reinforced by the fear of this spiritual danger. There also seems to be positive benefits by following the taboos, with the taboos having spiritual power through classification.

Overall spiritual power and danger and taboo/gift exchange and money value are not so distinctly connected. In certain contexts, such as the religious, or in spiritual belief systems such as the Polynesians or in the Kula ring, there is a strong connection to the spiritual. These concepts are highly symbolic, linking to the spiritual through historicity, religious classification and reference to a greater spiritual force. However much of this connection can be explained socially and any overt link to the spiritual is limited to such religious or spiritual contexts. There is a strong suggestion that the concepts of gift exchange and taboo are connected to social power and danger. They have the power to build and destroy social bonds. Gift exchange and taboo can be linked socially, as the expected social behaviour. They exist as a manifestation of human consciousness to maintain the social balance of society. This analysis of gift exchange and money value/taboo renders Mauss spiritual connection obsolete.


  1. The social life of money: Nigel Dodds 2014.
  2. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 1966.
  3. Social Do’s and Dont’s: Anthropology: the basics – Peter Metcalf 2005.
  4. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life – Durkheim 1912
  5. Levi-Strauss, C. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Volume I, Chapter V – The Principle of Reciprocity: 1949
  6. The gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies – Marcel Mauss 1990 (1924)
  7. The vicissitudes of The Gift – Lygia Sigaud 2002
  8. Cow: Hannah Velten 2007.




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An Evaluation of the Connection Between the Concepts of Gift Exchange and Taboo to Spiritual Power. (2021, Sep 27). Retrieved from

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