I consider myself a newbie to Heathenry and am trying to learn from others as I move towards Heathen practice. One way I learn from others is from email lists where like minded people (or sometimes unlike minded people) share experiences, knowledge and personal beliefs about a topic. The topic of oaths recently emerged on an Heathen email list. Another newbie was asking for advice on how to manage oaths made in haste or in the absence of understanding the full weight of what it means to take an oath. The main question asked was, “What should someone do if the oath cannot be fulfilled?”
Let me back up a smidge. I know a little bit about oaths, thanks to Jax and our friends in the Red Oak Fellowship. Foremost, I know taking an oath as a Heathen is serious business.Oaths can be made to the gods, your ancestors, your community or another individual — but in a Heathen context, it’s not just a personal promise. An oath is more like a vow you decree publicly and in doing so bind yourself to honoring that promise. That is, you work that promise into your wyrd (aka örlög).* But it’s more than that. When you take an oath you not only bind yourself, you also bind those who bear witness to your oath to helping you honor that promise. And so an oath is woven into a larger wyrd, as well.
Here’s an example. Imagine you are not a Heathen (which many of you aren’t) and you are getting married. You take your vows and make a promise of fidelity, loyalty, respect…or whatever…to your new spouse. Symbolically, as you make that promise a thread emerges from your heart and connects to your spouse through his or her heart. Now imagine you are a Heathen (which some of you are) in the same scenario taking an oath. Instead of one thread binding you to your spouse, many threads grow from your heart and connect you to everyone in the hall. Furthermore, threads from everyone in the room come back to and connect to you — and they connect to each other. That is the power of an oath.**
And that is why oaths should not be taken lightly. It is not unusual for larger Heathen groups to forgo the “oath” segment of the “toast, boast, oath” tradition of symbel out of respect for the pervasive connections borne of oaths. Much as we appreciate and enjoy Heathen fellowship, we don’t always live in the same area, we are not always knowledgeable about each others’ histories, we don’t always know each others’ families. A lack of physical and emotional intimacy makes it a real challenge to create a communal ripple in wyrd by agreeing to help someone uphold their oath. Can you, in good conscience, create an oath bond with others when they may be in absentia for the deed(s)? No, you really can’t. Or you really shouldn’t. So the “best practice” is to just not do it.
Last Yule, Jax, TheScott and I had a full symbel. Jax made an oath to advance her writing career. I have tried to uphold my end of the agreement by leaving her alone on her “writing days.” TheScott made an oath to participate in charitable works. I have tried to uphold my end by donating to at least one of his causes. I made an oath to….an oath to….to…holy crap. I cannot remember my oath! @#$%! @#$%! @#$%! Heathen. Fail.
See, this is why you shouldn’t take it lightly! I made an oath without really understanding the weight of what I was doing. Which leads us back to the opening question, “What should someone do if the oath cannot be fulfilled?” (Which in my case is because I can’t remember it. Note to self, write your oath down this year because you are a lightweight and you will drink too much wine — aka more than two glasses).
There seem to be a few schools of thought (and a lot of UPG) on how to answer this question. The “you’re screwed” camp includes those who believe oathbreakers are the most egregious of “sinners” and warrant no forgiveness. The “wyrd is a fabric that can be mended” camp includes those who believe reparation is possible for oaths made in good faith, attempted in good faith and broken in good faith — so long as the reparation is in good faith, too. The “don’t take it too seriously” camp seems to include those who don’t really embrace the power of an oath.
I fall into the “wyrd is a fabric that can be mended” camp. And I have to figure out how to make amends since I can’t remember my oath. I can’t believe I am calling myself out like this. But better for others to learn from my mistake. I have certainly learned from it! I have to mend my wyrd and my wyrd connections to Jax and TheScott.
What about you readers? Are oaths a part of your faith? Do they carry much weight?
For more information on oaths, visit these other Heathen blogs:
- The Importance of Oaths on New England Heathen
- Oaths on Wednesbury Shire of White Marsh Theod
- The Oath: An analysis on Home of the Heathen
* For more on wyrd, read an earlier post by Jax.
** The imagery heart-to-heart of threads was inspired by Orson Scott Card’s The Memory of Earth.
+ Featured image is Charles E. Wilson taking the oath of office as Director of the Office of Defense Mobilization in 1950. Chief Justice Fred Vinson administers the oath and President Truman looks on, in the Oval Office. I use this image because it is what most Americans imagine when we hear the word “oath.” Also, the weight our citizenry assigns to an oath of office is similar to the weight Heathens assign an oath in general.