Oaths are a tremendously important matter in Heathenry. While an oath may be simple, it should never be “easy.” The worth of an oath, and the honor it brings for completion, is directly linked to the benefit fulfilling the oath has for the clan. If it is easy then it is also not particularly worthy. While I do not hold to the strict sense of communal luck held in Théodish Belief, I do understand that an oath is not made in a vacuum. Swearing an oath is like tying an anchor around wyrd, forcing it to conform to the shape of the oath. The strands of wyrd belonging to all who are present to witness the oath will be shaped by the oath. It is inevitable. It is immutable.
Take, for example, the heroic tale of Beowulf. When Beowulf swears to kill the troll Grendel, he is swearing to take an action that affects the lives of every man, woman, and child present. Simply my angering Grendel, Beowulf is risking the lives of all the Danes of Heorot. His success will mean their freedom and his failure will spell their doom. This is no small task Beowulf has taken upon himself, and convinced the Danes to permit.
Now, we all know that Beowulf not only slays Grendel, but also Grendel’s mother and frees the Danes but it is important to understand that Beowulf wasn’t risking just his life. He was potentially sentencing everyone there to death if he failed. The oath is simple but it was not easy. It bound all present to the consequences of his actions, the reason that Unferth challenges him about the words Beowulf is speaking. Unferth is upholding his obligation to his king and his people. Now, there’s a great deal of misunderstanding about Unferth, his role in the tale, and much more that can be discussed at length but this will have to be for another time as it is somewhat outside the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that we should all be lucky to have someone like Unferth around when someone starts running off at the mouth about doing great things.
Returning to the matter of oaths, and what the basics are that we must understand to prevent ourselves from making frivolous oaths, we need to examine the way in which an oath is sworn. First, an oath requires witnesses. Those witnesses are tied to the oath and, frankly, should at least be representative of those who will gain benefit from the long term impact of the oath. To swear an oath to do something with no one around is to do nothing more than make a promise to the air. It is insubstantial and meaningless. It is nothing more than empty words spoken where none can hear, none can recall, and none can hold you accountable.
The oath itself should comprise of no less than two parts regarding consequences. First, there must be a clearly stated action. Second, there must be a clearly stated cost of failure. Often, there is a third part clearly states what shild will be paid for not completing the sworn action. Sometimes the second and third parts are combined, sometimes they are explicitly enumerated. There is no room for ambiguity here. You must say what you will accomplish and what will happen if you fail. If there is no consequence of failure, the oath is worthless. It is just a non-binding promise to do something.
An oath should be achievable but challenging. It must require genuine effort on the part of the person swearing it. If we are not willing to invest time, sweat, blood, and treasure into an endeavor that aids both us and our folk, then we are not truly willing to put forth the effort to achieve a worthy deed that will increase our worth, our luck, and our reputation. An oath does not need to be a grand, heroic action but they must be a worthy boon.
The points covered so far are not the whole range of requirements for swearing a good oath. These are simply the most basic components that need to be understood. Different groups will have different additional requirements for when and how an oath is sworn, who can swear it, and so on. For example, it is common fairly common in tribal-oriented groups to make it known that not only has an oath been sworn but also that it has been completed. I have known of one group that required that regular “status updates” be made to the group. There is always going to be variation in requirements and execution but it is important to understand that these basic elements come into play in some way with pretty much everyone. If they do not, it is worth taking the time to stop and consider why these things aren’t done, what impact it has on how things are done, and what this means for you, your kin, and for the group. Oaths are important and the last thing you want is to swear an ill-informed and hasty oath without understanding that every oath sworn is a life altering action.