Friday, November 07, 2014

Prestigious Gifts

Giving gifts that show respect is an important theme in both the Vatnsdaela Saga and the Ponnivala Legend. Just as pointed out in many anthropological studies, gift giving helps to bind the two parties to such a transaction together. In particular it serves to create a sense of future obligation and indebtedness between the giver and the taker. The most famous gift in the Vatnsdaela story is Ingimund’s discovery of two polar bear cubs on the sea ice, along with their mother. He decides to take all three to the king of Norway to thank him for his support and as gesture of goodwill. You can image the king’s surprise!

Although not nearly as grandiose, a gift equivalent to Ingimund’s in the Ponnivala epic is given when Kunnutaiya, takes the Chola king a pot of fine curds made from the milk of his family cow. Humble though this sounds, it expresses his respect. The Chola king had earlier sponsored his and his brothers’ settlement along the South bank of the river Kaveri. Kunnutaiya returns to the king’s palace to report on his fine harvest of a first maize from the lands the Chola assigned to him. He had measured the impressive yield generated on this piece of land (with a little help from Lord Vishnu) just days earlier. Kunnutaiya wanted to express his gratitude to the king for s protection and help in establishing a pioneer agricultural settlement in the area.

According to these parallel stories, both the Norwegian and the Chola kings are pleased with their gifts. Both kings, in return, recognize the importance of maintaining a positive political alliance with a regional leader (the story hero) who has taken the trouble to visit him and report on local economic progress. In the Vatnsdaela case the king returns the favor by giving Ingimund a marvelous ship, one of the finest of its day. He also puts “wind” in its sails. Furthermore, he gives his visitor gold and some fine building wood to take back to Iceland aboard his new vessel. Ingimund brings all this back to his new homeland. He quickly builds a fine shelter for his new boat on shore of the inlet near his home, hoping the boat will weather the hardships of many winters there. Of course he has received an ostentatious gift, a fitting exchange for the king’s receipt of that magnificent mother polar bear and her cubs! 

Kunnutaiya receives something equally important from the Chola king, though in size it is much smaller. His reciprocal gift is a small crown that he can wear proudly, symbolizing the Chola monarch’s respect for his success. The crown acknowledges his proven power as a manager of the local economy. Neither king makes mention of his expectation: that future tribute will flow from the respective outlying region where his ally lives, into his central coffers. However, we can suspect that both have a future exchange of this sort in mind!

~ Brenda E.F. Beck

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