One thing I’ve come across talking to other Heathen (partially because of events of the last month or so) is the debate we Heathens have of if it is okay to ever break one’s oath. Considering that the Oath is one of the most sacred things in Heathenism, and breaking it could accurately be considered the equivalent of a cardinal sin amongst Christians, it is a question worthy of much consideration.
Firstly, we have to understand what an Oath is. Oaths, essentially, are promises. I promise to do this thing for you, or not do this thing for you. A perfect example of an oath is a treaty between two nations to be allies. Like America and England, for example. If one finds itself attacked, the other promises to bring it’s military to help fight off the invader. The promise has value because there is a trust between the two parties. Trust that in time of need, one will show up for the other and help them out. It was this way with the the brother-bond which was the basis of the shield wall and raiding party.
Trust, that the person who promised to stand next to you, would stand next to you and protect your life.
Now, the reward for keeping your word was honor. Honor meant you were recognized as someone who kept their Oaths, and thus was trustworthy. Indeed, a person with great honor could capitalize that honor, using it to gain many things in life, including greater and greater promises from others, because it was known that they were good for it if their end of their promise came due. Much like the credit scores of today, if you will.
The reason for this was because the consequences of breaking an oath could be devastating.
Say England was invaded, and the USA did not come to its aid. Well, the British people could quickly find themselves subjugated and their country ceasing to exist, to be replaced with some other country. Failure by America to keep its word has now caused the cessation of an entire nation. Failure to show up as promised to a battle means that people could die or worse.
It would also mean that anyone else America had promised to help defend would now forever doubt that the USA would show up to help them in the face of violence.
This in turn, could lead to the USA being attacked by those it formerly called friends, or being expected to pay reparations to the survivors. It would lose its reputation, its honor, for its failure to fulfill its oath. It is the same way with individuals. Failure to uphold your oath means you lose people’s trust, you become known as someone who does not keep their word, and you would potentially have to pay a heavy price beyond for your failure. Much like how failing to pay one’s loan causes the property that loan is against to be reclaimed.
So with this understanding, are there then situations when it is acceptable to break one’s oath?
As with all things morality based, this really is a personal matter. “Is it okay to take this food I promised to give to charity to my children instead?” “Is it okay to not go help my friend who is getting his ass kicked, because I might be hurt and that would be inconvenient to miss work.” “I promised I wouldn’t steal anything, but this bag just looks so pretty and I could never afford it.”
“I know I promised to be at my son’s baseball game, but I wanna beat this dead line.”
“I promised to love and honor my husband, but I just can’t find him attractive or respectable when he breaks down crying from depression.”
One one can generally find a justification to do whatever they please. So really, to me, the issue is not “is it okay to break an oath.” Because, no doubt, people will find acceptable reasons to break their oaths. Well, reasons acceptable to them, maybe not others.
So the true point for me is that you have to accept the consequences of breaking the oath if you do. However justified it is, even if others recognize and accept the reason as justified, everyone is still going to know that there are now conditions under which you will not keep your word. Your honor, your oath, now has conditions placed upon it. And that means that it has much, much less value.
I will leave with a final example. Odin once swore an oath that he will not accept any drink offered to him unless an offering of the same is made to Loki. Till Ragnarok, he keeps this oath, even as Loki ends up being responsible for the death of Odin’s son Baldr, and even for causing Ragnarok. Odin does not compromise even this small oath, even though it is to his apparent enemy. This should tell you the value of an oath…and what it means to break it.