View Full Version : Oaths: What They Mean and Why They Matter

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005, 06:02 PM
What is an oath? In ancient and modern Heathen belief, a true oath is a statement whose implications and essence have actually been laid in the Well of Wyrd, becoming an integral part of orlay or orlog. The true oath becomes part of the pattern of That-Which-Is, thus gaining the power to shape That-Which-Is-Becoming, and That-Which-Should-Be, the respective domains of the three Wyrdae or Norns: Wyrd, Werthende and Scyld. (For more extensive discussions of this concept, refer to Bauschatz, Thorsson, writings by Swain Wodening, Eric Wodening, and Wodening & Hodge, as listed in the Bookhoard). By laying the oath in the Well, the deed or deeds done in fulfillment of one's oath should also "fall into" the Well and become a part of orlay. In this way, one ensures that one's life has meaning and significance, that one's deeds--even if later forgotten by the folk--nevertheless form a permanent part of the fabric of reality.

Our forebears placed the highest possible value on the survival of their reputations beyond their own deaths, which spurred them to perform mighty deeds heedless of fear or the cost to themselves. They trusted to their scops and skalds to ensure that their reputation survived through the ages. In our day, modern Heathens may well feel somewhat doubtful about how many generations the telling of many of our own deeds will survive, which may discourage some from valuing mighty deeds and great reputations as much as our forebears did. But a deep understanding of the nature of oaths, and the connections between oaths, deeds, and orlay, provides great reassurance for today's Heathens that we can indeed make our deeds and our lives count for something worthwhile, regardless of whether they are consciously remembered by folk for countless ages or not.

How does one "lay" one's oaths and deeds in the Well? There is no way to guarantee that this will happen; orlay is not under our ultimate control. But the swearing of oaths in sumble, over holy drink and/or on an oath ring, and sealed by asking the witness of our own Holy Ones and folk, makes it very likely that the oath will indeed be laid in the Well. As time progresses, it is often possible to see, both by obvious evidence as well as more hidden signs discerned through runecasting, Thyle's work, and spaecraft, whether the oath is a true one, laid in the Well, or not.

Then when one's deed is accomplished, or one wishes to boast the living of one's life in accordance with one's oaths, boasts describing one's deeds should again be given in sumble to enhance the likelihood of the deeds falling into the Well, in truth. As I believe, this process involves not only the Well of Wyrd, but Mimir's Well also--the repository of collective memory. Often these Wells are seen as different levels of one single Well. This is one reason for the taking of oaths and boasting of them in public, in the assembly of the folk at holy sumble: so that the memory of what one swears and what one does can be laid in the collective memory of the folk, the gateway to Mimir's Well.

Kinds of Oaths and Boasts

There are several different categories of oaths, all of them powerful and meaningful. One category is the boast, a statement made and sworn to, usually in sumble, that generally applies to the achievement of a specific deed. The boast also refers to reporting the accomplishment of that deed, so that there is a "boast to do" something and a "boast that you have done" that thing. Both steps of the process are important: they are the initiation and the closure of the deed, and neither the deed nor the boast are complete unless both are steps are "reported." Again, it is important that these are done at sumble, rather than in a less formal and holy setting, if at all possible. (For more extensive discussion of boasting at sumble, see Swain Wodening, "Wyrd and the Retroheathen.")

Another type of oath involves swearing to adhere to certain standards of behavior. This kind of oath may be required for certain offices or positions of responsibility, including leaders of national Heathen organizations, members of certain Guilds, or members of maethels, kindreds, hearths and other groups. Rather than involving a specific deed that has a beginning and an end, the oath of behavior continues indefinitely, for as long as one holds the position that requires that kind of behavior. So, it is less clear how and when one would boast this kind of oath at sumble. I believe it is important that one do so, however, and suggest that it is very appropriate for a person's friends or those who have benefited from that person's performance of his or her office to stand up in sumble and boast this person's deeds from time to time. The person can certainly also do this for him or herself, as well, for example by saying "I swore this oath a year ago, and have kept to the terms faithfully, even in the face of difficulties"--and proceed to boast the overcoming of those difficulties. Though in our "host culture," boasting one's own behavior in such a way is considered somewhat inappropriate, according to our own folkways it is an essential part of building one's Heathen soul, strengthening the ties between Heathens as a community, and increasing the power of Heathen main and workings in the world by laying more Heathen orlay in the Well.

A third kind of oath is what I call an oath of relationship, and in this category there are two kinds of relationship. One is the relationship of an individual to a group, the obvious example being a kindred member's loyalty to the whole kindred. Most Asatru kindreds, I believe, have some such oath required as a condition of membership. Such an oath is often taken in a special ceremony for that specific purpose, and may involve sumble as well as perhaps other rituals.

The second oath of relationship is an oath between two individuals, and again here there are several different sub-categories: oaths of kinship such as blood-siblinghood, adoption, and fostering; marriage oaths; hold-oaths of fealty; and a large category of less rigidly-defined oaths that one might lump together as friendship oaths. As in the case of oaths of behavior, it is very important to make opportunities to boast one's oaths of relationship in sumble from time to time, for the same reasons. The anniversaries of the oath are especially suitable times for boasting it. In ancient times, folk made a great point of rewarding hold-oaths in this way, by boasting the deeds and the loyalty of sworn warriors toward their lord or lady, and rewarding them with gifts. This was indeed one of the primary ways of payment for the warrior's services, and praise counted as much as gold did! It is very appropriate for folk who have sworn an oath of relationship to boast one another at sumble, and perhaps exchange gifts at the same time. This action strengthens and celebrates the relationship, as well as helping to lay the deeds (perhaps simply the quiet, everyday deeds of love, help, and loyalty) into the Well as they deserve to be laid.

Oaths, Wyrd and Luck

Making and fulfilling oaths and boasts is a powerful and quintessentially Heathen way to align oneself actively with the flow of wyrd. Though there is no power in any world that can wrest control of wyrd out of the hands of the Wyrdae, nevertheless one can have a significant effect on the shape and direction of one's wyrd through the action of oathing and living the oath. To use a few analogies, think of a warrior, a horse rider, and a sailor. The power of a battle, of a horse, and of the sea are each greater than any individual man or woman is, and no human can hope to overcome or direct these powers by brute force alone. But by the application of wisdom, insight, skill, courage and steadfastness, one can sense the flows and patterns, the natural movements of these forces, and use that knowledge to align oneself with them. And by that alignment, one is able to ride the wave, the horse, the tide of battle, through all obstacles to reach one's desired goal.

This ability to align oneself with wyrd and with natural forces is closely akin to luck, and one's success in doing so, or lack thereof, will result in an oath that all can recognize as being "lucky" or "unlucky." The willingness to discern and align oneself with the patterns of wyrd through one's oaths is a living expression of Heathen belief in the action of Wyrd--an affirmation of our faith in the strongest way possible, by the way we choose to live our lives.

Oaths and the Heathen Soul

On the personal level, the ability to take and keep oaths of all kinds is an expression of one's personal soul-power, one's main. Oaths arise from the vitality of the Heathen soul, from a sense of overflowing vigor, confidence, eagerness. As the athlete or warrior delights in strength and skill, as the craftsperson exults in the abundance of his or her gift to create, so the Heathen heart and soul, rich in main, yearns to challenge and channel that main along the stringent, shining pathway that is laid out by the taking of an oath.

Certain soul-qualities are necessary for oath-taking. Wisdom is the most essential. Oaths are absolutely nothing to play with or play at; the consequences of foolish oath-taking are too severe both for the individual and for the community. One must have an understanding of the interactions between oaths, Wyrd, and one's own orlay, an understanding of the effects of the oath on one's community, and of the personal implications of an oath, before committing to it. Wisdom requires a deep level of self-knowledge, and good knowledge of the other person or persons involved in the oath, if it is an oath of relationship.

Consider what impact the new oath might have on any existing oaths you are bound to. Will the new oath interfere with the accomplishment of older oaths? Will it create new relationships that could conflict with existing relationships, oathed or not? Are you clearly free to take the new oath, or do bonds of an existing oath prevent you from doing so? Think ahead before oathing, and find solutions for any such problems before committing yourself to the oath.

Though the final decision is yours alone, do not hesitate to seek the counsel of wise Heathens whom you trust, as you prepare to take your oath. Keep in mind that you may very well be challenged on your oath by a Thyle. Anticipate what the challenge may entail, and prepare yourself in advance to respond to it wisely and well.

Steadfastness and self-confidence are also necessary. Steadfastness and self-confidence may need to be built up slowly in one's character, much as an athlete builds muscle and flexibility. If you have a history of failing at or abandoning your life's tasks and responsibilities, if your self-confidence is low, or if you are a young person still developing your character, it is wise to begin challenging yourself with small, short-term, easy-to-accomplish (but nevertheless meaningful) oaths and boasts. Each successful accomplishment will build your main and lay more of your deeds in the orlay of the Well, enabling you to increase the challenge you set yourself in the next oath or boast you make. Build up your main, your steadfastness and self-confidence, in this way until your heart and soul are full to abundance with these qualities, eager for the challenge of truly mighty oaths.

Oaths and the Community of Folk and Holy Ones

A community is a fabric woven of many threads of relationship and commonality, forming a recognizable whole with a distinctive pattern. The whole fabric may be strong or weak, its patterns may be strikingly beautiful, or dull and nondescript, or jaggedly clashing, depending on the qualities of the threads and how they are woven. If the fabric is well-woven and strong, this fabric can be seen as frith itself: a distinctively patterned kind of relationship evolved by our Heathen forebears which is still of great value to us today. (See my article "On the Meaning of Frith" for more discussion of this idea.)

Oaths play a very important role in the weaving and maintenance of the fabric of community and of frith. By the same token, destructive oaths, foolish or unlucky oaths, or the failure of constructive oaths can cause severe or fatal damage to the fabric of relationships and hence of community. This is most especially true of Heathen communities, because of the central importance to us of the interweavings of oaths, wyrd, and the orlays of individuals, families, clans and communities. Any Heathen who is familiar with the famous sagas and tales of our folk can come up with many examples of this truth. As only one example, think of the fatal tangles woven around the oaths taken by Sieglinde, Sigmund, Brunnhilde/Sigrdrifa the Valkyrie, Siegfried, Gudrun, Gundahari, Hagan and others in the Volsunga Saga/ Niebelungenlied. The tangled oaths led to the loss and destruction of individuals, families, and entire tribes and folkdoms, as well as the loss and destruction of love and loyalties among them. Oaths, their wisdom or unwisdom, luck or unluck, played a pivotal role in these dramatic developments. Today's Heathens who seek wisdom in oath-taking will do well to study carefully the role played by oaths in the sagas and other tales of all the Germanic folk.

It may be that such study will daunt many of us, and make us hesitant to take oaths for fear of dreadful consequences. To my way of thinking, however, the alternative is no more attractive or inspiring. A Heathen who is fearful or hesitant to make a boast or take an oath, after careful thought and preparation, is living only a shadow of true Heathen life. The soul-power and mains that are developed by the taking and fulfilling of mighty oaths will die still-born or grow to be spindly and weak, in such an individual. Under such circumstances, a person's self-development along the distinctive pathways of our faith is handicapped. Great deeds can indeed be done without recourse to boasts and oaths. But, boasting and oathing are mechanisms to help ensure these deeds are laid in the Wells, and woven into the Wyrd of the world. How much main might be lost when a great deed is done, but is truncated at the beginning and the end of what should be its complete cycle, the cycle of (1) boast/oath made "to do", (2) deed done, and (3) boast made again of "have done," made in song and sumble, and planted in the memories and inspiration of the folk?

In the same way that the wyrd of an individual can be affected by either the making of, or the failure to make oaths and boasts, so also the wyrd of our community is affected. The bonds of community are in large part made up of oaths, or of oath-like commitments, including marriage oaths, commitments to one's children, parents and other kin that are as strong as oaths even if they are not spoken, partnerships for community-enhancing purposes, oaths of citizenship, of loyalty and troth to other folk and to Holy Ones, and many other such commitments. Making oaths, boasts and commitments foolishly or unluckily, or failing to keep one's oaths, can badly tangle the wyrd of one's community, as we can see in the sagas and in history.

But on the other side, failing to make oaths, boasts of great deeds, and other commitments, leaves us with nothing at all, no roots or foundations, no strong walls to build on, just an empty void. We can see obvious examples of all of these problems in the everyday society of our own times, in noting what happens to the community, small or large, when marriage oaths are broken, commitments to children, parents and kin are scorned, friendships and partnerships betrayed, when people break their words or have no "word" left to break, when boasts are empty air, and there is nothing in which to trust, nothing which inspires one to greatness, when the only "inspiration" one finds is the inspiration to revulsion and disgust.

Between the Fire and the Ice

So, it is easy to think, with respect to oaths and boasts, that we are caught between a rock and a hard place: "damned if we do, and damned if we don't." Let me point out, however, that this is the kind of environment in which the true Heathen thrives and comes into full power! This is our "niche" in the ecology of the world, the place we are adapted to fill and to excel in. There is a sword's edge, a thread's span, between the fire and the ice: between the destruction and chaos caused by wrong oath-taking or failed oaths on one side, and the gray nothingness of a life without oaths and boasts on the other. That sword's edge, that thread's span, is our own path: the Heathen way. To walk this path we must apply our thews of deep wisdom, courage, high-heartedness, vision, and faith. We must have strong mains, soul-power, as individuals and as a folk, a whole. We cannot walk this path alone: what meaning has an oath, if the one making it is the only one in the world? An oath, and the deeds that follow from it, have no context, no meaning or significance, if they are not ultimately made to and for one's community, one's folk and Holy Ones. By wisely making and holding to our oaths and boasts, one of the great things we accomplish is the stronger weaving of our bonds of community and our trust in one another: gods and folk, together.

Source (http://www.ealdriht.org/oathsmat.html)