I got married recently and heard many lovely things from attendees after the celebration. The most consistent feedback was about the ceremony – how it was the most beautiful, authentic, and moving ceremony many friends had witnessed. My spouse and I are ritualists – we both love ceremony and the weaving of the sacred in shared space. The day after we got engaged, we didn’t plan the party or talk about what to wear. We began working on the ceremony.
We had some advantages when it came to our vows. My spouse is the Gothar (spiritual leader) of a Heathen Kindred (bonded spiritual group – think ‘coven’ but for Heathens*). I am Heathen by spirituality and carry influences of my Heathenry into my practice of witchcraft.
One of the funny things about standing between the worlds of Heathenry and witchcraft is the way the light from one can illuminate a shadowy spot in the other. The territory of oaths – vows sworn in ritual space – is one such area. Witches and Pagans do swear oaths in ritual, but in my experience they are rarely as well considered or constructed as oaths that practiced Heathens swear. This is one sphere where we Pagans can stand to learn a thing or two.
Heathenry as a whole is a community-oriented belief system and oaths are no exception. Oaths have consequences, and more than to the individual swearing them. You see, in Heathen culture, a sworn oath impacts the luck of all who witness it. This means that if an oath is fulfilled, your community becomes stronger. The opposite is also true. A broken oath damages the luck of all who witnessed it. Your ability to fulfill a promise not only affects you – it materially helps or harms your loved ones.
The understanding that sworn vows have a potent ripple effect changes how we write them.
So, what makes a good oath?
Challenge. I could swear that I will have coffee every morning this week and easily fulfill that oath, but keeping my promise will not help build my luck here at all. I was going to have coffee every morning anyway.
A good oath challenges you. It pushes you a little (or sometimes a lot) outside your comfort zone. Oaths are made to codify and ritualize a change in behavior. When we take on a project, establish a new relationship, or design a plan for going forward, we are changing how we interact with the world and the people in it. Your oath should be the guideline for that change. Your oath, and the understanding of its impact, is the fire beneath you that gets you moving and keeps you going. It’s easy to let ourselves down. It is much harder to let down the people we love. And, overcoming challenges builds your sense of empowerment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought to myself ‘I survived Marine Corps boot camp. I will survive this.’ I know I am strong because I proved it to myself. Fulfilling oaths inspires a similar kind of self esteem. So, choose a worthy challenge. It’s good for you.
Realism. This balances against Challenge. I have had the great pleasure of officiating many weddings over the years – well over 70 at this point. When we are in the throes of a powerful emotion like love, we tend to swear things that are…oh, let’s call it hyperbolic. So I have been present for lovers swearing to never become frustrated with each other, to kiss each other passionately every day (what, y’all never travel?), to always think of their lover before themselves, etc, etc. These are beautiful sentiments, and they are truly meant when spoken. However, they are not realistic. We all get frustrated with our partners from time to time. Whether we wish to or not, we will spend days away from each other due to travel, family obligations, and, of course, death. And, we are humans – we are ultimately self referential creatures.
The boundaries of realism apply to spirituality as well as relationships. Oathing a half an hour of daily spiritual practice every day for the rest of your life is a beautiful concept, but is simply not realistic. Understand your own capability when you’re considering the level of challenge in an oath. If you’re an exhausted single parent working two jobs to get by, squeezing in a half hour or two of something new every week is a serious commitment. Squeezing a half hour or two of something new every day is unreasonable and will most likely result in breaking the oath. Know thyself.
Specificity. I’ve witnessed some wimpy vows in my time. ‘I promise to try…’ is soft language. Where oaths are concerned, Yoda was right: “Do or do not. There is no try.” We love gray areas in magick, but your oath is not the time for diffused concepts. Let’s use study as an example: “I vow to study witchcraft for a year and a day” is vague. “I vow to read 20 books on witchcraft and attend 6 Pagan conferences or festivals between now and next December” is specific. Consider making your oath measurable in some way. Your commitment is designed to produce a result – what components make up that result? How will you get there? These thoughts are where we get the specifics from.
Time Limits. This does not apply to all vows (the bonds of marriage spring to mind), but time limits should be included in most oaths. For some oaths, the time limit keeps us moving forward: “20 books by next December” keeps us reading. For others, the time limit protects us if our situation changes. For example, if an individual swears an oath to hold office within their pagan organization, a time limit and option to renew at that point protects them if their life suddenly changes. Time limits can also protect an organization. Whether we like it or not, interpersonal dynamics shift and change. The last thing the members of a bonded spiritual group want is for someone to remain connected to them when that person’s heart is just not in it anymore.
A Backup. Sometimes, no matter how well intentioned we were at the time, we must break an oath. Having an alternative to fulfillment of the oath helps mitigate the damage done to everyone’s luck. This alternative should have ‘teeth’ – it should also be challenging or cause some strain. In many cases, a large donation to a charity whose work in the world complements the oath we were unable to hold is a good choice. Using the example above, the backup could be: “I vow to read 20 books on witchcraft and attend 6 Pagan conferences or festivals between now and next December. If I am unable to fulfill this commitment, I will donate $_______ to The Troth/Cherry Hill Seminary/Sacred Space Foundation etc.”
Considered Language. Lastly, of course, a good oath takes time to create. It should be written out ahead of time. Ask practitioners you trust to help you develop it, or to quality check it for word choice when it’s getting close to finished. My own Kindred does not allow impromptu oaths at all – all oaths go through an approval process. When you know your own luck is impacted by the sworn oaths of others, having some guardrails around what can be sworn and when is important. Take time with your oaths. The specific oaths in my wedding ceremony were crafted over the course of a month, and were revisited many times to ensure they were challenging, realistic, and specific.
We stand at the edge of darkness, mere moments before the light begins to grow once more. Yule, and the calendar new year that follows it, is often a time for oaths – for promising to bring something new into the year before us. If you choose to set a light through the power of an oath, may these words serve you well. Blessed Yule, y’all.
As always, feedback is welcome. Did I miss something? What else do you include when you design an oath? Hit me up in the comments. ‘The World According to Irene’ has its limitations, and our collective wisdom can create better and stronger magick for all of us.
* yes, I can feel all the Heathens cringing. Covens are the closest similar structure we have in Paganism, so you’re just going to have to cope with the allegory.
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