I’m choosing to use the word, “Oaths” for this post because, upon looking at given definitions it won out over vow or promise. One of the definitions I found (on Google, sorry!) of Oath contained the wording, “A solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior.” and decided that that was the most appropriate.
Oaths are vital to myself and my practice because how they intersect with a few different principles that are important to me: integrity, sovereignty, and relationship-building.
Integrity is a person’s “wholeness”. We all start with a clean slate regarding this, but when we discover the ability for duplicity we discover a way that we can manipulate outcomes at the price of damage to the egos of ourselves and others. My experience has been that lying is damaging to a person’s sense of self, as well as to that of those who are being lied to (or in some cases, about).
When we use words to define an experience and send it out to other humans (or other beings) we are making a statement about ourselves (“This happened to me.”) and often about others (“This happened/is happening/will happen to you/someone else”). These words and definitions imprint themselves on human psyches constantly. They build our identities both personally and collectively.
When someone lies or breaks an oath, they are using inferior materials for ego construction. This effects the liar on a daily basis, as they know and absorb that much of how they define themselves or their lives is false. This affects those that they lie to by breaking down their sense of reality when they discover the truth. I can’t imagine that there is a person out there that hasn’t felt the world spinning or the ground dropping out from under their feet when a concealed truth was revealed or a lifelong promise shattered. That sensation is made up of parts of your world, created by yourself and others in concert, being torn away. Lies tear at the integrity of our being and identity.
Some say that personal integrity is a requirement for magickal power. I only disagree with that because there are many well-known magicians in both lore and the modern day who are known for both their wisdom and their lies. So much of what happens to us with magickal work is personal and subjective that it’s hard to check every thaumaturges’ claims. Besides, the last thing we need are occult paparazzi!
Despite that I feel that while it may not be necessary, personal integrity is important and helpful to magickal practice (as well as to being a good human being). Building a reality out of solid (or at least flexible) material helps to give you protections against the ego-storms that are sure to come, and helps to provide a quality of authority and personal sovereignty, both of which are invaluable in magickal work.
When I was young I was a liar. Children learn to lie at a young age, and teenagers turn it into an art, and some people never grow out of it. I lied artfully, creating palaces out of clouds and obtaining much of what I thought I needed through deceit. As I matured, though, I realized that I had more and more trouble with self-control and self image and began to suspect that that was tied to my habits. I eventually reached a breaking point where I I had no foundation on which to build my world. I lost respect, friends, and community. I lost confidence in my magick and my relationships with the Gods. It took me a while to connect the dots and own the fact that I had done this to myself. Once you’ve fallen so far, though, it’s hard to imagine a way to get out.
I had a friend who had successfully quit smoking, and when I asked him what he had done, and he told me, “Never break a promise to a God with a spear.” This provoked me to consider the benefits and importance of oaths and promises. Doing them simply out of fear of the one with whom the bargain is made seemed unattractive. Nevertheless, I needed to find ways to control my behavior and improve my situation.
I started by making small promises to myself (working on my to-do list, refraining from talking about a situation, washing dishes after use). The effect that making and keeping those promises had on my sense of self and my identity was subtle but built up over time.
Then I decided to make some oaths sacred and involve the Gods in them. Following my friend’s example I chose things that needed to be done in my life that I had great difficulty gathering the willpower to do, and made oaths to complete them as devotional acts. I could practically feel the bonds between myself and the Powers tighten as I completed fulfilled these oaths.
With each oath kept, whether made to myself, another human, or a spirit or God, I felt my sense of self and wholeness return. The changes that these oaths made in me and my relationships (and if you know me at this point you know how important the web of relationships is to me) became obvious. People started to trust me again, and I acquired a reputation for being reliable after years of being considered a flake. Devotional relationships deepened and acquired nuance that they had previously lacked. I was more confident, happier, and carried myself better than before.
I must emphasize that this process took years. Like with physical exercise or meditation practice the day-to-day benefits came so slowly and built so gradually that I only noticed them once I had been doing it for a while. It took a little faith and determination to keep with my integrity building practice, but it has become one of the cornerstones of the work that I do in life.
In my personal practice, I call upon Var to witness all of my oaths. As it says in Gylfaginning:
“…she listens to people’s oaths and private agreements that women and men make between each other. Thus these contracts are called varar. She also punishes those who break them”
As I have great affection for Frigga’s handmaidens (among whom Var is numbered), because she is a warden and keeper of oaths, and because the utterance of her name with any oath renders it sacred I reach out to her when I make promises. In my experience she is neutral and very firm but understanding – she won’t let you slide on a technicality but doesn’t seem to hold failure to maintain an oath personally. She has also provided assistance when I’ve had trouble maintaining an oath. It seems that she far prefers an oath to be honored and kept than to have to punish those who fail.
So while I may not jive with many aspects of modern Heathenry, I very much appreciate the emphasis on oaths and their importance. I feel that the creation and maintenance of oaths, vows, and promises is a powerful magick for self-improvement and strengthening of the Great Web and our own selves and identities. They serve as a cure for and inoculation against much of the ego sickness that pervades the modern world.
(This post was a draft that sat there for many months. I decided to complete it and release it as a devotional act to Thor on his day. Thor has often been called upon to witness oaths and sanctify oaths as well, and in many ways he embodies the concepts of integrity and sovereignty that I value and that oaths help to create and maintain. Hail Thor, Thunderer, Friend of Man and Guardian of Midgard!)