I recently came across a question about swearing an oath to a god. Before we get into that, let’s take a look at what an oath is. If you go with the dictionary definition of an oath, it is a solemn promise or a guarantee of future behavior. “Oath” is Germanic in origin, and goes back to the Old Norse “eiðr”.
One might be more familiar with the concept of a vow, simply because we see it used more. In weddings, vows are exchanged. Someone might take a vow of silence. You may even see the word “vow” in a headline, regarding politicians making a vow to act on something like crime rates, pollution, etc. Today, we are more likely to see the word “oath” or hear it when in a court setting. You swear an oath to speak the truth. They took an oath of office. You swear an oath of loyalty…
Loyalty is where I want to start drawing this back towards Heathenry. The Viking Answer Lady provides a great overview of swearing oaths to leaders, that you can read here. The question of oaths is posed by a member of the Society of Creative Anachronism with a Viking persona who has been asked to swear an oath of fealty. In her response, the Viking Answer Lady lays out the roles of kings and leaders in regards to “war bands” — what would be called drótt in Old Norse. Towards the middle of the piece, she discusses the reciprocal nature of the oaths, and at the end she has an example of an oath that may have been sworn between a warrior and a Lord. Her writing here is worth the read, especially if you are interested in the historical context. She provides, as always, a lot of resources and citations that can lead you further and further into your reading or that you may already be familiar with from your own studies.
The Viking Answer Lady mentions (in the article linked above) that oaths were often sworn on weapons. In her article “Performing Oaths in Eddic Poetry: Viking Age Fact of Fiction?” published in the Journal of the North Atlantic, Anne Irene Riisoy mentions that, prior to the influence of Christianity, there seemed to be a belief that the weapons that were used to swear oaths upon would turn against the individual if that oath was broken. Beyond that, the gods that were called upon for these oaths could also be angered if the oath was broken — which will be important later. Riisoy’s work is an interesting read, as she bases her argument on the concept that eddic oaths were employed in the real world. She provides an in-depth analysis of oath rings, what has shaped our modern understanding of oaths, and how oaths may have really been used. After reading her work, you will also be able to peruse her sources, as should be expected from an academic paper. I always recommend looking at sources so that you can find where an academic has drawn their ideas from, and so you can get further down your own perpetual rabbit hole of reading.
The concept that the sword or other weapon you have sworn an oath upon is alive is an interesting one, and something that would be familiar to anyone who believes in animism. The life of the object being sworn upon is also important, because it lends it a level of sentience and awareness. This allows for it to take action, should you break your oath. I feel that this ties in well with you Wyrd — since it will become your fate to fall upon your own sword should you break the oath sworn upon it. To me, it feels like a logical conclusion that those concepts would go hand in hand.
On a more human side, being known as someone who has broken an oath or who has lied about an oath taken would be really damaging to your reputation. We do not need to go back to the social contexts of the Viking age to know that one generally wants to have a good reputation. In today’s world, having a reputation as someone who lies isn’t going to do you any good. Having a reputation for making very, very serious promises but constantly breaking them — well, soon no one is going to want to have to rely on you in any way. Instead of falling on your own sword in a literal way, you may find yourself eating your own words or facing a message full of “receipt” screenshots showing when you said what. Social consequences are social consequences, regardless of what time period we are discussing.
Calling upon the gods while swearing an oath was a solemn thing. Riiyos provides examples within her work of how this may have been done, and how the gods were typically asked to enact some kind of vengeance should the oath be broken. This vengeance could come in the form of a curse, which may or may not have been elaborated on. With the sway that deities can hold over the life of mortals, pairing the threat of the vengeance of a god with the swearing of oaths helped lend it gravity. I know that I would be very hesitant to break an oath that I had sworn if I was certain that my sword would jump from my hand and stab me, or if I knew that Thor would ensure that my family had no peace or food for generations to come.
Today, it is not uncommon to find questions from people about swearing oaths to the gods. These oaths are not usually formulated around a particular action; instead, they are more of a promise of devotion. It is easy to compare the construction of these oaths to dedication rituals found in other pagan faiths, or even marriage vows. For those who are interested in the concept of godspousing, the correlation with a marriage vow is more accurate. From reading and interacting with individuals interested in doing this, I can say that there is a distinct difference between what they are wanting between themselves and their chosen deity, and what was expected of a warrior swearing themselves to the service of a dróttin. I am certain there are some that expect that they will go out and fight for their god, but for many there probably won’t be swords involved. Cara Freyasdaughter wrote a great piece on some of the positives and negatives of being dedicated to a deity here.
The purpose behind providing the historical context of what an oath is and the possible consequences of breaking them with the lore is so that we can have a better understanding of the potentials within our modern context. Even if you do not call yourself a Heathen or a Norse Pagan, if you’re working with gods from that pantheon it is imperative that you understand the contexts that they are coming from. Not taking the time to understand something within the context of the culture and history that these deities originate from could land you in some trouble — I would not approach Greek deities without reading up on the concept of miasma, for example. If you are interested in specifically swearing an oath to a Norse deity, and using those words, it behooves you to read and learn about oaths and the consequences to breaking those oaths.
The last bit of this will be drifting more towards UPG and personal experience. If you are uncomfortable with that, or it is not your cup of tea, thank you for reading this far!
Swearing an oath to a deity sounds simple. You’re probably promising to love and worship them and promising to give offerings or what have you. In the moment, especially while you’re still in the “honeymoon” stage of worshiping a deity, it probably feels easy. Of course you will make a daily offering, and pray, and always have some thought of that deity in your mind! Of course.
Except when, you know, you can’t. There will inevitably be a time in your life where you’re not going to be able to make an offering or a prayer, or you get so busy you actually forget. It happens. You’re human. It could even be that the circumstances of your life change, and you’re suddenly unable to do daily devotional work (I know this from experience). If you didn’t swear an oath, you’re fine — you move on, and keeping doing what you are capable of. If you swore an oath that you were going to pray daily, or whatever it was, you are now an oathbreaker. Or, at the very least, you’re incapable of keeping your word. With everything that we learned from the lore and historical context this is a Not Good. This is something that you want to avoid. An oath is a binding contract between you and that deity, and you better uphold your end. I know someone will probably say something like “I swore an oath to Thor to exercise 5 days a week, but I’m only doing 3 and he seems ok! Nothing bad has happened!” Maybe He is. I don’t know the exact wording of your oath, your relationship with Him, but I do know that you sound unreliable to me. You sound like someone who isn’t going to be able to do what they say they will. You might not like reading that, but… that is what doing 3/5ths of what you said you would says to me.
Now, promising that you will do what you’re able to and work to improve… that’s different than promising something specific. Do not swear an oath if you know or suspect that you may not be able to keep it. Do not add specifics to your oath with variables and factors that could change due to things outside of your control — time, frequency, etc.
An alternative to swearing an oath would be to perform a dedication ritual. Those of you who have gone through a Neo-Wiccan phase or have Neo-Wiccan practices worked into your current beliefs would probably recognize a dedication lasting for a “year and a day”. Short term dedications are more advisable than long term oaths, especially for people who are new to pagan religions. This allows you to make that dedication, but to have the ability to get out of it when the specified time frame is up, in the event that you have changed your mind about the deity you have dedicated yourself to, your relationship with them changes, or some other factor outside of your control impacts your life in such a way that the dedication has to change. If you are not prepared to go for the “year and a day” thing, you can specify some other time frame that has significance to you. Full moon to full moon, Wednesday to Wednesday, 9 AM to 9 AM, whatever works for you. Be specific about your time frame, be specific about the deity that you are dedicating yourself to, but avoid specifics about what you will do and when you will do it. Again, I say that because there might be things that come up in your life that make you break your promises. Avoiding specifics about what you are going to do also gives you the opportunity to experiment and have variety. You may swear that you’re going to pour a glass of wine for a deity every night, for example, then find that the wine gets too expensive or that the ritual does not actually connect with you. Having some flexibility allows for you to find something that you actually connect with.
If you’ve gone through all of this, have an established practice and routine with a deity, and still find that you want to swear an oath… That is between you and that deity. Be prepared to face the consequences should you break that oath, whether that be of your own choice or because of life circumstances that are outside of your control.