Homo donans

About discovering a life-friendly civilization of the gift

Author: MMag.a Simone Wörer
Matriarchal societies show a life-friendly way, in which not the exchange but the gift is the central element. They do this on an economical level and also in lifestyle. The basic principle of the gift sees the human being as what he is. A giving and receiving being, integrated in manifold relationships. Able to accept the gifts of life and to give them back himself.

It is no coincidence that in times of crisis, the examination of the gift as a social and cultural, and economic phenomenon, seems to be of great interest. Indeed, in the past 15 years and in the face of the escalating multiple crises, a renaissance of gift theories has been observed within scholarly discussion.  Claudia von Werlhof talks about all this crisis in her Critical Patriarchal Theory; it identifies as a planetary crisis of civilization. This has found expression in a veritable flood of new publications on the subject. Also numerous projects on exchange and gift practices emerged.


Homo donansHomo donans© Adobe Photostock


In the 1960s a lively and widespread interest in this complex subject area developed. This stands in connection with anthropological studies and with the exploration of the “foreign”. And especially with the advent of the seminal work of Marcel Mauss. Well, now it seems, after some philosophical excursions into this subject area, that the gift is to be discovered in its “own” across all disciplines. Also its logic, its mode of action, and its meaning. Thus, in many places, giving circles have emerged. “Free stores” and other initiatives came up, or discussions about volunteerism or “care” as supporting pillars of capitalist society flared up.



Very few authors who deal in depth with the gift distinguish between the quite fundamentally different logics and modes of operation of exchange and gift. These are forms of social interaction; they essentially limit themselves to the description of economic circulation movements of material and/or immaterial goods and services. This not only dilutes or even alienates the concepts that are sometimes used as synonyms in this context. In particular this also fails to recognize the community-founding function of the gift. This functions as an anthropological constant, indeed as a primordial logic of the human (and presumably also non-human) context of life. Exceptions here are some publications from the environment of modern matriarchal studies as well as around a feminist research network on gift initiated by Genevieve Vaughan*. Indeed, it was also Genevieve Vaughan who produced a seminal work on the gift.

She locates the archetype of an economy of gift in the mother-child relationship.  It finds its expression in nurturing, maternal attention to the concrete needs of the other.

It is also she who developed the human image of Homo donans. Thus she opposed Homo oeconomicus with a powerful image. An image that is able to substantially touch our thinking and understanding of civilization and culture. Finally, the findings of modern matriarchal research show that matriarchal societies as life-friendly civilizations are essentially oriented to the central element of the gift.

If we want to understand the basic principle of the gift approximately, then we cannot avoid, to contrast this with the logic of exchange.



The concept of ‘Homo donans’ was coined by Genevieve Vaughan. In her many years of theoretical and practical work,  she has dealt with the gift and the question of the possibilities of a gift economy. She establishes a model of the human being as a giving and receiving being. In doing so she succeeds first in opening up a new perspective that is oriented toward primary human experiences. It thematizes the giving of gifts to the other. In doing so, she takes into account the fact, that from the beginning of our lives we experience that we may, indeed must, receive gifts if we are to survive. Likewise, we must care for others so that they may live and grow.

Vaughan starts primarily from the mother-child relationship, which she grasps as the archetype of an economy of the gift This orients to the concrete needs of the child.

Indeed, as infants we are dependent on care for a very long time and not at all able to return the material and immaterial gifts received to meet our needs. Thus we enter into a kind of relationship of reciprocity. In the course of our lives we will repeatedly experience that this reciprocity does not or cannot exist. Especially in the view of the complex networks of relationships that we build up and maintain in different ways.

After all, we are born into a world of gift, in which we are allowed to receive and (pass on) material and immaterial gifts. Day after day.



Yes, I go one step further, or better “back”: We are born out of a world of gift, out of the womb as the first life context and place of experience. In this context we may  experience the connectedness of everything that exists and the unconditional satisfaction of our needs.

Following the original meaning of “mater arché”, Critical Patriarchal Theory translates matriarchy as “In the beginning the mother“. They refer to the concrete experience and observation that life comes from mothers. From their creative body, and not from fathers (“pater arché”). Matriarchies characterize not only through their pronounced friendliness to life, but above all by their friendliness to gift.

On the economic level, matriarchies are mostly subsistence-autonomous agrarian societies in which private property and territorial claim seem unknown, but the right of use is decisive. The circulation of goods corresponds most closely to an economy of the gift. The goal of gift economy is not the accumulation of material and immaterial goods, but balancing. It distributes to create social and economic balance in the sense of the well-being for all. The community, as well as a sustainable, respectful and friendly relationship with nature and its phenomena as a creative context of life.


Homo donansHomo donans© Adobe Photostock


This is still demonstrated today by indigenous cultures and worldviews that, although increasingly patriarchalized in the course of colonization, seem to borrow at their core from matriarchy as a model of civilization. In particular, this is visible in terms of a cooperative relationship with nature that is friendly and almost kinship-like. Nature, presented as maternal and not for nothing called “Mother Earth” or, as in South America “Pachamama”, is respected as a living being. A being wit whom a relationship can be cultivated in various ways in the light of the gift. As an autonomous and powerful subject, nature is seemingly both, the giver and the receiver. A gift relationship with her cultivates in various ritual and everyday practices. Mother Earth is the Great Giver par excellence.



Unsere Autorin MMag.a Simone WörnerAbout the author MMag.a Simone Wörer, born 1981 in Bruneck/South Tyrol, lives and works in Innsbruck. Studied political science (main focus: Women’s and gender studies. Also political theory and history of ideas) and educational science (focus: anthropology, psychoanalytic educational science) at the University of Innsbruck. She has a doctorate in political science with Univ.-Prof. Dr. Claudia von Werlhof. Besides working in the event sector as a freelance researcher and lecturer; collaborator of the “Research Institute for Patriarchy Criticism and Alternative Civilizations FIPAZ e. V.” and the “Planetary Movement for Mother Earth – PBME”. Author of publications in German, English and Italian. Main research interests are the following.

Critical patriarchy theory, theories and practices of gift, alternatives of/to economy and politics, critique of science, social movements, ecofeminism.

*(International Feminists for a Gift Economy)


This article appeared originally on the German Homepage of Tattva Viveka: Homo donans

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