Mægen, the thing itself is complicated. Bosworth-Toller gives the definition as “MAIN, might, strength, force, power, vigour, efficacy, virtue, faculty, ability”. The pronunciation is very close to “main” today (the “g” makes a “y” sound in this situation). But the true meaning of this concept is far more convoluted. I suppose the first thing to understand about mægen is that it is both a physical and metaphysical concept. The strength in your body is your mægen, the strength of your spirit is also mægen. To further complicate matters, people can grant some of their mægen to the gods in the form of offerings and in return the gods might grant spēd to people. So let’s break it down some.
Mægen is a physical and metaphysical idea. Physical mægen is represented not only by your strength, might, and vigour but also that which sustains your strength, might, and vigour. On the simplest level, this can be food. If you did not eat, you would die. If you eat little, your strength will wane. If you eat properly, you will be healthy and vigorous. If you overeat you will become fatter – literally storing it on your body for later. You have translated that food into your sustenance and strength or your lack thereof.
Physical Mægen can also be seen as your possessions. If you are to fell a tree, you can fell it without tools but it is supremely difficult. You will waste much of your strength and energy on the effort. Yet if you have an axe, you can easily and quickly fell the tree. Here you get into a tricky concept. You can spend the time and effort maintaining your tools and they will have a longer lifespan or you can let them rust and dull. A dull axe can take down a tree but it will be a stubborn act and will take more time and effort to fell the tree in the process. Your time and effort spent on maintenance will be translated into ease later on when using the tool. Basically, you use your mægen on maintaining the axe and are repaid later by having an axe to use in good condition. You further could say that the efforts you have done to make money to purchase the axe in the first place have been your mægen translated into the tool. It gets more complicated from there, but basically put, your physical possessions are an extension of your physical mægen.
Metaphysically mægen exists in a similar way. You offer food to the gods because it is sustenance you could have eaten but instead are giving it to them. You have literally deprived yourself of food you could have spent on yourself. You offer a tool to the gods because it is now a tool you can no longer use. You have deprived yourself of its use and given it to the gods. Your mægen in both cases is diminished by the act. If you think on the gods, pray to the gods, compose poetry to the gods, you have spent time on them. Time is a limited resource for us, we have only a certain amount. By spending time on the gods or in their service, you have deprived yourself of that time. If you create an object yourself you have translated your time and effort into that object, transferring your mægen into it. This is what makes giving a gift so meaningful. If you give a gift to gods or other people, you have deprived yourself selflessly to benefit another. That deprivation is a transference of mægen.
Think about an inheritance. When a person’s family dies, they leave them the inheritance as a form of transferring mægen. Their tools, their land, their odds and ends, they all translate into time, effort, and mægen. When you use that tool, walk that land, use the odds and ends, you are gifting your thoughts to your ancestors who gifted to you those objects. That transference of mægen in the form of thanks and thoughts goes a long way.
Think about your job. Do you ever feel it is sucking the life out of you? It is. You work at a job why? To make money to sustain yourself. Your efforts and time are being transferred into money. I often have found myself looking at something thinking how much enjoyment I will receive from it. Is the enjoyment worth the cost in my time spent procuring the money? If made for instance (and ease of calculation) $10 an hour and worked 8 hours a day 5 days a week. That would translate to (without taxes taken out) $80 a day and 400 a week. I would need to spend money on all the necessities of food and housing, but after it was all said and done I might have some money left over. I would then have to ask myself if it would be worth an hour of my time to have a meal out to eat for $10? Is it worth an hour of my life and effort to visit the movie theatre? Is a bucket of popcorn worth 30 minutes of my life? Will I receive enjoyment worth compensation for that time and effort spent? I often ask myself these questions and doing so is a basic understanding underlying mægen.
Now we often know that handmade means so much more. If I give a gift I bought for someone, that gift carries the value in mægen of time and effort at the job. But if I make a gift for someone, not only is there the transference of time and effort, but also thought and feeling. Handmade means more. Time, effort, feeling, and thought are essentially important in this. If I pour my personal effort into an act I transfer my mægen in a much more intimate way.
Why offer? It is often said that there is a gifting cycle, do ut des. You cannot begin to understand do ut des without first coming to terms with Mægen, Mægen is the reason for a gifting cycle. Say you receive a gift from someone – they have gifted you their mægen in the form of the gift. They deprived themselves of time, effort, thought, feeling, and even money to give you that gift. That carries weight in the form of a debt to them. You owe that gift to their larges. Basically by this I mean that you would not have that gift if they had not given it to you – in our language we still use the word owe for this usage. That implies debt, written in the very roots of our language. You gift those who gift you, completing the gifting cycle or beginning it again. We engage in this yearly with our own gifting cycles. Yet this also applies to the gods. To gift them with offerings, time, prayer, thought, and feeling we are transferring our mægen. They do not have to give back to you just as you do not have to give a gift in return to someone who has given to you, but they often choose to. They do this because of the formation of a relationship. If someone is constantly in your life, you will hold them in greater importance. Acquaintances hold less value to friends. Strangers less value to acquaintances.
If you are close to the gods for a long period of time, they return that closeness. They especially give back to those who give with no thought to returns. Do you like those who give in expectation of a return? Neither do they. Those people who give without thought to return receive spēd, blessings in short. But they may receive unexpected blessings in odd ways. The relationship continues as long as both sides participate. You are unlikely to offer continuously to gods who do not bless you or fill your life in some way. Gods are unlikely to randomly fill your life with blessings if you are not at least present to them. The idea is a relationship exists both ways.
So what makes a proper offering? Historically food comes to mind. If you cook a meal you have transferred the time and effort and ingredients and, yes, mægen into that meal. That is why home cooked means more. Your home cooked meal means more than any KFC ever will. If you offer food, you have deprived yourself of sustenance to give to the gods in thought and feeling. That transfers your mægen. Historically to offer drink would be to offer enjoyment. You have deprived yourself of the enjoyment of that drink and given it to the gods to share with you – you drink with friends do you? You have gifted that mægen to the gods as well. If you offer a handmade gift, you transferred your time, effort, thought, and feeling in the form of the mægen the gift represented. If you gift a tool, you have deprived yourself of its use and thereby the mægen of the tool itself, gifting it to the gods. It’s really a personal thing, but the weight of the gift is proportional to the loss of mægen.
Like I said, mægen is complicated.