Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Institution of Oathing and Oath-Taking in Modern Heathenry

Today, I thought I'd write some ponderings on the modern Pagan notion of Oathing and Oath-taking. This might be of particular interest to my Heathen friends, or anyone who religiously follows an Ancestral Path native to Germania or Celtia- though the institution of Oathing was Pan-European, and certainly found among the Slavs, Greeks, and Romans as well. As with anything truly universal, this topic may have something to say to those of you who practice sorcerous paths of any sort, considering when we deal with oaths, we deal with the deeper implications of using language to bind oneself (or others) to certain actions or destinies.

I'll start by speaking to my Heathen friends who accept the institution of Oathing as a central aspect of their lives, religiously and otherwise. I hate to say "religiously and otherwise" because truly, Heathenry, or real traditional Paganism generally, does not expect you or teach you to have a life on the one hand, and a religion on the other. Life and religion seamlessly blend together. As a modern traditional pagan- not a neopagan, mind you- as a practitioner of a native ethnic European faith, there is no sense that religion is held apart from everyday activities. All things have what we now call a "religious" dimension. It's easier to say that everything has a sacred dimension, and it must be called forth in everything you do. As Marcus Aurelius said, "No human action is well taken without reference to the divine."

If you accept this- and indeed, you can hardly call yourself a Pagan of any Ancestral tradition if you do not- then immediately, your words and deeds become more weighty. It's one thing for the degenerates of our world who think that the divine or sacred is transcendent to the world to abuse their words and deeds. It's another thing for those of us who think that the sacred is intimately involved, here and now, always, to abuse words and deeds. You are indeed "abusing" words and deeds if you consider them to be "throw away" things, or even "mundane" things, and you place no real attention or weight on them.

Your every word or deed is a fresh, new expression of your personal power, and by extension, your Ancestral power, passed down to you from a very long line that reaches back to Gods. A mortal these days may play games with words and deeds, not understanding this. Those of you who do must give more attention to all you say and do.

This leads us to the before-mentioned universal concept of Oathing. In a strange sense, we shouldn't need oaths; the Ancestors shouldn't have needed them, and indeed, I doubt they thought of them as we do now. What you say, should always mean something, and what you do should be 100% in alignment with your will, wisely measured, and everything you say and do should be something you fully own, that you fully claim as your own- yours and your Ancestors, for they share in everything you say and do, as well.

If this is the case, why Oath anything? It would appear on the surface that Oathing is a way to add special weight or gravity to what should be already weighty and serious words. To tell someone you'll do something appears to be one thing; to make an Oath that you will seems more intense, more pointed, more assured.

When we understand that Oaths in the past were seen as aspects of Wyrd or Fate, it begins to make more sense. Naturally, nothing can be said to be "outside" of Wyrd or Fate, so again, it starts to look strange- but to take an Oath is to accept a burden of types, to involve more powers than just yourself and your Ancestors. To "Oath" to a power (like a God or a community or another person) is to call that power to witness your personal integrity and the integrity of your power broadly speaking- even your Ancestors.

To Oath to a God or Goddess, for instance, is to make a verbal event-connection- itself a tangible power- with an immensely powerful being, asking that divine person to witness your deed, and to add its power to your own. This is a very "instant" form of a very old and very hidden sorcery- most people who witness this can tell that this "power adding" effect occurs- when people hear the oath being so made, it immediately carries a sense of higher intensity which affects them. The witnesses almost always immediately feel more assured that the oath will be carried out, that it has become more in-depth, more intense, more trustworthy. This is a profoundly mystical effect, from a very deep level, though most of us today have little means of sensing these deep wheels turning.

Many who experience this may try to explain it in purely "social" terms. They may think "Hey, he believes in that power, so there's a much higher likelihood now that he'll make good on that oath" or "He wouldn't dare lose face in front of everyone now, having made an oath." But it still goes deeper. Real power "moves" in accordance with these words and living powers being called upon.

If the oath is broken, this diminishes the power of the oath-taker and that upon which it was taken or sworn. This will very likely evoke the displeasure or harmful tidings of the powers upon which the broken oath was taken, as they, too, "lose" force in the situation. Those who hear of the broken oath or see it broken, immediately feel the reduction of trust, of faith, of face, and of respect. The oath-breaker from that point on is a "Wolf of his word"- someone that uses words, but instead of increasing the vital force of the words, instead of preserving the integrity of power, diminishes them, eats the power like a greedy wolf.

So, this extends a touch further, on the subtle level, than just incurring the wrath of a God to whom one swore an oath. This comes down to the loss or gain of personal and Ancestral power. And the loss of this power in this situation opens a person to more than just divine retribution, or subtle retribution- it destroys their standing in a human group, a group that the person is likely quite involved with. That human group is another webwork of power that shares force with those involved, and is increased and diminished on the backs of words and deeds of those associated.

The oath-breaker is not trusted, and without trust, the members of a group are not willing to share power freely with another. They assume a defensive posture around them, withholding something very subtle and vital. In a sense, to lose trust with a community, even if one is allowed to remain in the community, is to suffer a subtle form of banishment.

Sometimes I consider the entire oathing system to be "everyman's sorcery"- though many may not like the term "sorcery." But as I have pointed out, it is very much power-manipulation, a game and even sometimes a gamble of power loss or power gain. It involves complex matters like community and personal trust, and integrity.

To lose too much power to broken Oaths, in the past, would and could (and did) spell the deaths or downfall of those involved. The broken oath is an injury to power, both personal, Ancestral, and community. No community which is in touch with these realities at a conscious level will tolerate it too much- a person who declines so far in trust can no longer remain; they may even eventually inspire violence or coercive rejection. But on the personal level, the loss of too much power means (eventually) the loss of vital force for living, and that can spell doom, too. We see this happen today, though we ordinarily don't see it deeply enough- people who "fall onto hard times" through their own disastrous misdeeds, and ruined relationships, often sink into depression and listlessness, and may either die at their own hands, or simply fall into ill health that shortens their lives greatly.

Needless to say, at the level of power-interaction, we are all dealing with real force, real power, whether we experience it that way or not; our oaths are a form of magic that all can (and once did) engage in. Sure, your words should have had the weight of your integrity even when you weren't oathing, but to oath was to gather power to your proclamation, to gather extra force to yourself for the fulfillment of the oath, or the fulfillment of your will. And that is why they were there. Socially speaking, Oaths were the only things the Ancestors had to guarantee or at least maximize the predictability of human behavior. It was social glue, a social binding, a customizable bond that could be used where it was needed.

For those of you who are distant from the Pagan faiths, but deeply involved in Sorcerous pursuits, don't imagine that your words spoken to powers in the Unseen world behave all that differently from this. Even if no other human is there to witness some oath of your own to a spiritual force or helper, many Unseen eyes witness it, and power moves. Like anyone who makes Oaths for any reason, you need to bear in mind how serious this is. Words have a sacred dimension, they naturally have weight, just like actions. Whether we realize that or not makes no difference; the weight, the power is there. Be cautious what you say and what you do. There is no sorcery, just like there is no wisdom, without a higher degree of awareness, even of so-called "simple" things.

And now, one more related topic, I think, needs to be mused upon. Modern Heathens and Pagans make a great deal out of Oaths. This reflects Ancient custom, but I've noticed something troubling about the Oath institution in the modern day. I've seen a lot of oaths made, and I've seen a lot of oaths broken. People wonder at this- are we just weaker in the modern day, at the level of integrity and power, than the Ancestors? The short answer to that question is "yes, absolutely"- for too long, idealism has taken our attention off this world and put our attention on abstractions and delusions up in the sky. We have a strong sense that this world and "worldly things" are not of "ultimate importance"- we have a strong distinction between "mundane" and "sacred", which I do not think reflects the Ancestral thinking on life.

But it runs deeper than that. We've just lost the high value that Pagan culture had on oaths generally. We are out of touch with the subtle but very real spiritual dangers of breaking oaths- we consider "consequences" to be very tangible things, like people hating you or hurting you, or the loss of property. We don't have a sense for interior consequences, for the Unseen consequences of breaking our word. We should be afraid, truly, of breaking our words we gave in the name of Unseen powers, as well as the words we gave in the name of others who might be right here in this sacred world- like a community, or our children, or our family. We should be afraid because even if we don't see it immediately, we are profoundly affected by it, in the short and long terms.

We lack the grasp of the subtle that the Ancestors had, in other words. This would be my belief on the matter. But this goes one more layer deep- how can we really trust anyone today, even ourselves, to make "Oaths" on Gods, when we seldom meet the Gods anymore, in any conscious way?

This is the real reason I wanted to write this today. It is not enough to say one believes in Gods. Gods are not abstract notions to be believed in, just as the Unseen world is not an abstract notion to believe in. These powers are realities to be experienced. Until you have experienced them, or until anyone has, there is no real possibility of a true "Oath" being taken, in the binding sense that I mean. Until your soul has touched the soul of what you are Oathing on, I see no real possibility of the gravity, the intensity, moving and changing you and it.

Wear hammers or triskeles all day long; talk about the Gods a lot, quote me their myths and sacred stories, but it means little to me if you have not left the lot of us humans and walked into the wilderness and, in the quiet of your mind and soul, let the divine forces that you claim to worship come to you in a new way. Call it an initiatory introduction if you like; the Ancestors got this easily; we have to work a bit harder at this. We are surrounded by many walls that they didn't have, which prevent us from meeting the Gods at the soul level.

I saw a blog today written by a well-meaning (and highly talented) Heathen man, and while I loved his work, he wrote constantly about the struggle he underwent to hold on to his "faith"- how he fell away from Heathenry for long periods of time, felt pulled to other expressions of Paganism, like Druidry or even Wicca- and he suffered a great deal from this. He would not suffer if he had walked near the Gods, or met them directly. The Gods don't "come to us" because we talk like ancient Pagans, nor because we feel a draw to them and to the Old Ways. We have to go to physically go to them, and that completes the circle.

Our Ancestors walked away from them, some for very bad reasons, others because they had no choice. That power- that greatest oath-breaking of all, which happened at a cultural level, affects us to this day. Until we realize that, and understand the difficulty you will face "up front" when you finally try to walk back into the Forest of Paganism, you might just find yourself losing interest and not feeling any real connection, after a point.

This Pagan "religious" life is not easy to get into; the price of admission, real admission, is some sweat, some blood, some uncertainty, some inconvenience, and facing the deep, dark silence inside your soul. You have to step away from the madness that has no Gods (which anyone can experience just by getting stuck in traffic) and step back to the lonely places of the world and the soul where the Gods went to take shelter when the world was broken so long ago by the seeds of madness.

Do I look down on those I know who made Oaths and broke them, or forgot about them? No, not really. I am not lacking at my own failures on that level- when I was much younger, I threw the word "Oath" around with the same shallow lack of understanding of it that nearly everyone does. But that was then; this is now. Now, I am "Oathable"- oath-able- because I understand what I did not then. But the power is still unforgiving; it doesn't matter what I understood or didn't understand. I can't undo what was done. But I am certainly capable of a greater degree of awareness and honor now, and that's worth a lot, too.