Collections: Oaths! How do they Work?

By popular request, today we’re going to talk about oaths. Oaths appear a lot in fantasy fiction – and even in historical fiction – and they are frequently done wrong. I remarked on this in part II of my “How it Wasn’t: Game of Thrones and the Middle Ages” that, “characters are forever being asked to swear, without swearing by anything, which isn’t how oaths work.” To which I was posed by a few readers the understandable question, “wait, how do oaths work?” and “how are they getting it wrong?” Today, we’re going to lay that out.

(For those wondering, “Wait, weren’t we going to talk about the impact of range on arrows and armor penetration – yes, we were. I’m waiting on a few books to check a few things in my notes, so we’ll probably do that post next week. Don’t worry, it will happen.)

First, some caveats. This is really a discussion of oath-taking as it existed (and exists) around the Mediterranean and Europe. My understanding is that the basic principles are broadly cross-cultural, but I can’t claim the expertise in practices south of the Sahara or East of the Indus to make that claim with full confidence. I am mostly going to stick to what I know best: Greece, Rome and the European Middle Ages. Oath-taking in the pre-Islamic Near East seems to follow the same set of rules (note Bachvarova’s and Connolly’s articles in Horkos), but that is beyond my expertise, as is the Middle East post-Hijra.

Second, I should note that I’m drawing my definition of an oath from Alan Sommerstein’s excellent introduction in Horkos: The Oath in Greek Society (2007), edited by A. Sommerstein and J. Fletcher – one of the real ‘go-to’ works on oath-taking in the ancient Mediterranean world. As I go, I’ll also use some medieval examples to hopefully convince you that the same basic principles apply to medieval oaths, especially the all-important oaths of fealty and homage.

(Pedantry note: now you may be saying, “wait, an introduction? Why use that?” As of when I last checked, there is no monograph (single author, single topic) treatment of oaths. Rather, Alan Sommerstein has co-authored a set of edited collections – Horkos (2007, with J. Fletcher), Oath and State (2013, with A. Bayliss) and Oaths and Swearing (2014, with I. Torrance). This can make Greek oaths a difficult topic to get a basic overview of, as opposed to a laundry list of the 101 ancient works you must read for examples. Discussions of Roman oaths are, if anything, even less welcoming to the beginner, because they intersect with the study of Roman law. I think the expectation has always been that the serious student of the classics would have read so many oaths in the process of learning Latin and Greek to develop a sort of instinct for the cultural institution. Nevertheless, Sommerstein’s introduction in Horkos presents my preferred definition of the structure of an oath.)

Alright – all of the quibbling out of the way: onward!

So what is an Oath? Is it the same as a Vow?

Ok, let’s start with definitions. In modern English, we often use oath and vow interchangeably, but they are not (usually) the same thing. Divine beings figure in both kinds of promises, but in different ways. In a vow, the god or gods in question are the recipients of the promise: you vow something to God (or a god). By contrast, an oath is made typically to a person and the role of the divine being in the whole affair is a bit more complex.

(Etymology digression: the word ‘oath’ comes to us by way of Old English āþ (pronounced ‘ath’ with a long ‘a’) and has close cousins in Dutch ‘Eed’ and German ‘Eid.’ The word vow comes from Latin (via Middle English, via French), from the word votum. A votum is specifically a gift to a god in exchange for some favor – the gift can be in the present tense or something promised in the future. By contrast, the Latin word for oath is ius (it has a few meanings) and to swear an oath is the verb iuro (thus the legal phrase ‘ius iurandum” – literally ‘the oath to be sworn’). This Latin distinction is preserved into the English usage, where ‘vow’ retains its Latin meaning, and the word ‘oath’ usurps the place of Latin ius (along with other words for specific kinds of oaths in Latin, e.g. sacramentum)).

In a vow, the participant promises something – either in the present or the future – to a god, typically in exchange for something. This is why we talk of an oath of fealty or homage (promises made to a human), but a monk’s vows. When a monk promises obedience, chastity and poverty, he is offering these things to God in exchange for grace, rather than to any mortal person. Those vows are not to the community (though it may be present), but to God (e.g. Benedict in his Rule notes that the vow “is done int he presence of God and his saints to impress on the novice that if he ever acts otherwise, he will surely be condemned by the one he mocks.” (RB 58.18)). Note that a physical thing given in a vow is called a votive (from that Latin root).

(More digressions: Why do we say ‘marriage vows‘ in English? Isn’t this a promise to another human being? I suspect this usage – functionally a ‘frozen’ phrase – derives from the assumption that the vows are, in fact, not a promise to your better half, but to God to maintain. After all, the Latin Church held – and the Catholic Church still holds – that a marriage cannot be dissolved by the consent of both parties (unlike oaths, from which a person may be released with the consent of the recipient). The act of divine ratification makes God a party to the marriage, and thus the promise is to him. Thus a vow, and not an oath.)

So again, a vow is a promise to a divinity or other higher power (you can make vows to heroes and saints, for instance), whereas an oath is a promise to another human, which is somehow enforced, witnessed or guaranteed by that higher power.

An example of this important distinction being handled in a very awkward manner is the ‘oath’ of the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones (delivered in S1E7, but taken, short a few words, verbatim from the books). The recruits call out to…someone… (they never name who, which as we’ll see, is a problem) to “hear my words and bear witness to my vow.” Except it’s not clear to me that this is a vow, so much as an oath. The supernatural being you are vowing something to does not bear witness because they are the primary participant – they don’t witness the gift, they receive it.

Is this is a vow, it implies the higher powers in the question (the Old Gods?) has some sort of interest in the thing given (military service). Do they?

I strongly suspect that Martin is riffing off of here are the religious military orders of the Middle Ages (who did frequently take vows), but if this is a vow, it raises serious questions. It is absolutely possible to vow a certain future behavior – to essentially make yourself the gift – but who are they vowing to? The tree? It may well be ‘the Old Gods’ who are supposed to be both nameless and numerous (this is, forgive me, not how ancient paganism worked – am I going to have to write that post too?) and who witness things (such as the Pact, itself definitely an oath, through the trees), but if so, surely you would want to specify that. Societies that do votives – especially when there are many gods – are often quite concerned that gifts might go awry. You want to be very specific as to who, exactly, you are vowing something to.

This is all the more important given that (as in the books) the Night’s Watch oath may be sworn in a sept as well as to a Weirwood tree. It wouldn’t do to vow yourself to the wrong gods! More importantly, the interchangeability of the gods in question points very strongly to this being an oath. Gods tend to be very particular about the votives they will receive; one can imagine saying ‘swear by whatever gods you have here’ but not ‘vow yourself to whatever gods you have here.’ Who is to say the local gods take such gifts?

Moreover, while they pledge their lives, they aren’t receiving anything in return. Here I think the problem may be that we are so used to the theologically obvious request of Christian vows (salvation and the life after death) that it doesn’t occur to us that you would need to specify what you get for a vow. But the Old Gods don’t seem to be in a position to offer salvation. Votives to gods in polytheistic systems almost always follow the do ut des system (lit. “I give, that you might give”). Things are not offered just for the heck of it – something is sought in return. And if you want that thing, you need to say it. Jupiter is not going to try to figure it out on his own. If you are asking the Old Gods to protect you, or the wall, or mankind, you need to ask.

HBO’s Rome gets it much closer to right. Pullo’s full vow is: “Forculus, if you be the right god for the business here, I call on you to help me. If you will open this door, then I will kill for you a fine white lamb, or failing that, if I couldn’t get a good one at a decent price, six pigeons. This, Forculus, I vow to you.”
Note that the gift is clear, the requested favor is clear, and the recipient is clear. The one thing missing from a typical ancient vow formula would be for Pullo to clearly name himself as the vow-taker. It wouldn’t do for Forculus to rescue the wrong prisoner!

(Pliny the Elder puts it neatly declaring, “of course, either to sacrifice without prayer or to consult the gods without sacrifice is useless” (Nat. Hist 28.3). Prayer here (Latin: precatio) really means ‘asking for something’ – as in the sense of “I pray thee (or ‘prithee’) tell me what happened?” And to be clear, the connection of Christian religious practice to the do ut des formula of pre-Christian paganism is a complex theological question better addressed to a theologian or church historian.)

The scene makes more sense as an oath – the oath-takers are swearing to the rest of the Night’s Watch to keep these promises, with the Weirwood Trees (and through them, the Old Gods – although again, they should specify) acting as witnesses. As a vow, too much is up in the air and the idea that a military order would permit its members to vow themselves to this or that god at random is nonsense. For a vow, the recipient – the god – is paramount.

The Components of an Oath

Which brings us to the question how does an oath work? In most of modern life, we have drained much of the meaning out of the few oaths that we still take, in part because we tend to be very secular and so don’t regularly consider the religious aspects of the oaths – even for people who are themselves religious. Consider it this way: when someone lies in court on a TV show, we think, “ooh, he’s going to get in trouble with the law for perjury.” We do not generally think, “Ah yes, this man’s soul will burn in hell for all eternity, for he has (literally!) damned himself.” But that is the theological implication of a broken oath!

So when thinking about oaths, we want to think about them the way people in the past did: as things that work – that is they do something. In particular, we should understand these oaths as effective – by which I mean that the oath itself actually does something more than just the words alone. They trigger some actual, functional supernatural mechanisms. In essence, we want to treat these oaths as real in order to understand them.

So what is an oath? To borrow Richard Janko’s (The Iliad: A Commentary (1992), in turn quoted by Sommerstein) formulation, “to take an oath is in effect to invoke powers greater than oneself to uphold the truth of a declaration, by putting a curse upon oneself if it is false.” Following Sommerstein, an oath has three key components:

First: A declaration, which may be either something about the present or past or a promise for the future.

Second: The specific powers greater than oneself who are invoked as witnesses and who will enforce the penalty if the oath is false. In Christian oaths, this is typically God, although it can also include saints. For the Greeks, Zeus Horkios (Zeus the Oath-Keeper) is the most common witness for oaths. This is almost never omitted, even when it is obvious.

Third: A curse, by the swearers, called down on themselves, should they be false. This third part is often omitted or left implied, where the cultural context makes it clear what the curse ought to be. Particularly, in Christian contexts, the curse is theologically obvious (damnation, delivered at judgment) and so is often omitted.

While some of these components (especially the last) may be implied in the form of an oath, all three are necessary for the oath to be effective – that is, for the oath to work.

A fantastic example of the basic formula comes from Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (656 – that’s a section, not a date), where the promise in question is the construction of a new monastery, which runs thusly (Anne Savage’s translation):

These are the witnesses that were there, who signed on Christ’s cross with their fingers and agreed with their tongues…”I, king Wulfhere, with these king’s eorls, war-leaders and thanes, witness of my gift, before archbishop Deusdedit, confirm with Christ’s cross”…they laid God’s curse, and the curse of all the saints and all God’s people on anyone who undid anything of what was done, so be it, say we all. Amen.” [Emphasis mine]

So we have the promise (building a monastery and respecting the donation of land to it), the specific power invoked as witness, both by name and through the connection to a specific object (the cross – I’ve omitted the oaths of all of Wulfhere’s subordinates, but each and every one of them assented ‘with Christ’s cross,’ which they are touching) and then the curse to be laid on anyone who should break the oath.

Of the Medieval oaths I’ve seen, this one is somewhat odd in that the penalty is spelled out. That’s much more common in ancient oaths where the range of possible penalties and curses was much wider. The Dikask’s oath (the oath sworn by Athenian jurors), as reconstructed by Max Frankel, also provides an example of the whole formula from the ancient world:

I will vote according to the laws and the votes of the Demos of the Athenians and the Council of the Five Hundred…I swear these things by Zeus, Apollo and Demeter, and may I have many good things if I swear well, but destruction for me and my family if I forswear.

Again, each of the three working components are clear: the promise being made (to judge fairly – I have shortened this part, it goes on a bit), the enforcing entity (Zeus, Apollo and Demeter) and the penalty for forswearing (in this case, a curse of destruction). The penalty here is appropriately ruinous, given that the jurors have themselves the power to ruin others (they might be judging cases with very serious crimes, after all).

How an Oath Works

With those components laid out, it may be fairly easy to see how the oath works, but let’s spell it out nonetheless. You swear an oath because your own word isn’t good enough, either because no one trusts you, or because the matter is so serious that the extra assurance is required.

That assurance comes from the presumption that the oath will be enforced by the divine third party. The god is called – literally – to witness the oath and to lay down the appropriate curses if the oath is violated. Knowing that horrible divine punishment awaits forswearing, the oath-taker, it is assumed, is less likely to make the oath. Interestingly, in the literature of classical antiquity, it was also fairly common for the gods to prevent the swearing of false oaths – characters would find themselves incapable of pronouncing the words or swearing the oath properly.

And that brings us to a second, crucial point – these are legalistic proceedings, in the sense that getting the details right matters a great detail. The god is going to enforce the oath based on its exact wording (what you said, not what you meant to say!), so the exact wording must be correct. It was very, very common to add that oaths were sworn ‘without guile or deceit’ or some such formulation, precisely to head off this potential trick (this is also, interestingly, true of ancient votives – a Roman or a Greek really could try to bargain with a god, “I’ll give X if you give Y, but only if I get by Z date, in ABC form.” – but that’s vows, and we’re talking oaths).

Thus for instance, runs an oath of homage from the Chronicle of the Death of Charles the Good from 1127:

“I promise on my faith that I will in future be faithful to count William, and will observe my homage to him completely against all persons in good faith and without deceit.”

Not all oaths are made in full, with the entire formal structure, of course. Short forms are made. In Greek, it was common to transform a statement into an oath by adding something like τὸν Δία (by Zeus!). Those sorts of phrases could serve to make a compact oath – e.g. μὰ τὸν Δία! (yes, [I swear] by Zeus!) as an answer to the question is essentially swearing to the answer – grammatically speaking, the verb of swearing is necessary, but left implied. We do the same thing, (“I’ll get up this hill, by God!”). And, I should note, exactly like in English, these forms became standard exclamations, as in Latin comedy, this is often hercule! (by Hercules!), edepol! (by Pollux!) or ecastor! (By Castor! – oddly only used by women). One wonders in these cases if Plautus chooses semi-divine heroes rather than full on gods to lessen the intensity of the exclamation (‘shoot!’ rather than ‘shit!’ as it were). Aristophanes, writing in Greek, has no such compunction, and uses ‘by Zeus!’ quite a bit, often quite frivolously.

Nevertheless, serious oaths are generally made in full, often in quite specific and formal language. Remember that an oath is essentially a contract, cosigned by a god – when you are dealing with that kind of power, you absolutely want to be sure you have dotted all of the ‘i’s and crossed all of the ‘t’s. Most pre-modern religions are very concerned with what we sometimes call ‘orthopraxy’ (‘right practice’ – compare orthodoxy, ‘right doctrine’). Intent doesn’t matter nearly as much as getting the exact form or the ritual precisely correct (for comparison, ancient paganisms tend to care almost exclusively about orthopraxy, whereas medieval Christianity balances concern between orthodoxy and orthopraxy (but with orthodoxy being the more important)).

Naming Names

So what goes wrong in pop-cultural depictions? Errors in the first part of the oath formula – the declaration (the thing you are swearing to) are fairly rare. It’s hard to accidentally write an oath-taking scene in which no one at least promises something.

So of course Benioff and Weiss manage to do it in Game of Thrones, in the knighting scene, S8E2. Jamie charges Brienne – in the name of various aspects of the Seven – to be brave and just and so on, but Brienne never actually speaks. She doesn’t actually promise anything, and no penalty is specified (although perhaps with the Faith of the Seven, like the Christian Church, the penalty is sufficiently obvious as to be left implied).

This is a truly baffling omission. I should note that Martin’s full oath of knighthood from the books resolves this problem, because the oath continues, with a demand that the knight-to-be swear “before the eyes of gods and men” (invoking a set of higher powers to enforce the oath) to do a various knightly thing, and the knight-to-be then has to assent to this. But that Benioff and Weiss saw the full text of that oath and decided to cut the part where Brienne actually swears something, suggests that while Martin may understand how an oath works, Benioff and Weiss most certainly do not.

The examples of oath-by-assent (where one person gives the formula and then the oath-taker merely agrees to it) that I’ve seen tend to deal with group oaths (the example from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles above includes this later in the passage), but we do it very often with modern oaths (witness oaths come to mind) and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. However, it seems strange given that only one person is taking the oath and that it is a very serious oath indeed. In such high-stakes situations, you generally make the person taking the oath repeat the formula. As an aside, the Roman’s soldier’s oath (the sacramentum) had to be administered individually, one by one, no matter how large the army, although soldiers after the first were allowed, essentially, to swear ‘ditto’ (Polybius 6.21.3). Still, one has to imagine it took all day (Polybius seems to imply that it did) – but, in matters of religion, if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes!

Still, other than this, oaths where no one actually manages to promise something fairly rare. Far more common is where characters fail to swear by any greater power, especially in contexts where specifying some such power would be really important.

Perhaps the ultimate bad example of this is the ‘swearing’ that Sarumon has the Wild Men perform in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Two Towers. The Dunlending declares “we will fight for you” to which Sarumon replies, “swear it!” Then the Dunelending man cuts his hand and declares “we will die, for Sarumon!” It looks cool, but as yourself: why is this Wild Man’s promise any more binding or trustworthy after he has lacerated his hand than before? What new force holds him to his promise?

This is actually a very important question, given that the religious situation here is questionable. Swearing by Eru Iluvatar or the Valar would be an odd choice, to say the least; swearing by Sauron would make more sense. In any case, for an oath to be effective – and remember, this is a situation where Sarumon needs the oath to be effective (or else why demand they ‘swear it’ at all?) – there needs to be a higher power enforcing the oath. Perhaps Sarumon, in his cynicism (or knowledge) knows that no higher power would enforce this oath, but surely the Wild Men do not know that and so Sarumon needs them to believe such a power exists.

Oath-taking formulas, especially formal oaths (and any diplomatic oath is a formal one) almost never drop the specification of the higher authority enforcing the oath, even in contexts where you would think it would be obvious. By way of example, consider these oaths in Old English (from the Textus Roffensis, translated by Chris Monk at the Rochester Cathedral Research Guild – a friendly reminder to medieval history aficionados that quite a lot of medieval texts still do not have critical editions or English translations), dating to the 10th century – the text is a series of boilerplate oaths for common situations (fealty, livestock disputes, theft, etc), each and every one of which begins with an invocation of the relevant deity (in this case, the Christian God):

In the Lord: the oath which [name of defendant or plaintiff] swore is pure and without falsehood.

In the name of Almighty God: you promised me that you sold it to me whole and clean, and in full awareness against an after-claim, for which [name of witness of transaction] was the witness for us both.

In the name of Almighty God: as I here stand for [names of parties to transaction] in true witness, unbidden and unbought, that I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears that which I declare on their behalf.

And so on. Perhaps the most interesting for our discussion is the oath of fealty which is the first listed in the text:

In the Lord, whose holiness is foremost: to [name of lord] I wish to be loyal and true, and to love all that he loves, and to shun all that he shuns according to God’s law and secular customs, and neither willingly nor intentionally to carry out either a word or deed which to him is hateful; I wish to live up to the regard with which he may hold me; and everything agreed between us I will carry out when I submit to him; and his will I have chosen.

You can see the same specificity in the standard American witness oath, which still includes ‘so help me God’ in most versions. Interestingly, it also typically includes the witness placing a hand on a holy book or object, which leads us to:

Objects in Oaths

We’re going to start with a bad example – y’all know I love Peter Jackson’s films, but he messed this scene up. Here’s the dialogue (transcribed by me):

Gollum: We swears to do what you wants. We swears.

Frodo: There’s no promise you can make that I can trust.

Gollum: We swears to serve the master of the precious. We will swear on…on…the precious! GOLLUM! GOLLUM!

Frodo: The Ring is treacherous, it will hold you to your word.

It’s not clear to me if Gollum, moving forward at this point, expects Frodo to let him touch the Ring to swear his oath – it doesn’t seem like it though. Sam interrupts him in any case. I should note that Gollum’s oath is differently worded here – Frodo would be a fool to accept an oath to ‘serve the master of the precious’ since there is more than one way to understand who is the master of the Ring.

Frodo has confused swearing on something with swearing by something. Tolkien is more careful and the scene in the book is actually fantastic at demonstrating the distinction between swearing on something and swearing by something:

‘Smeagol,’ said Gollum suddenly and clearly, opening his eyes wide and starting at Frodo with a strange light. ‘Smeagol will swear on the Precious.’

Frodo drew himself up, and again Sam was startled by his words and his stern voice. ‘On the Precious? How dare you?’ he said. ‘Think! One Ring to rule them all and in the Darkness bind them. Would you commit your promise to that Smeagol? It will hold you. But it is more treacherous than you are. It may twist your words. Beware!’

Gollum cowered. ‘On the Precious, on the Precious!’ he repeated…’Smeagol will swear never, never to let Him have it. Never! Smeagol will save it. But he must swear on the Precious.’

‘No! not on it,’ said Frodo, looking down at him with stern pity. ‘All you wish is to see it and touch it, if you can, though you know it would drive you mad. Not on it. Swear by it, if you will.’ (TT, 265-6).

Ok, so what is going on? To swear by the Precious is to invoke the Ring itself as the higher power to maintain the oath (an oath, one might note, Gollum keeps – he does, in fact, die, trying to ‘save’ the ring in his own twisted way). This we may recognize from the previous section.

But evidently that is quite different from swearing on the Precious, which would require seeing and touching it. Peter Jackson has, unfortunately, missed this nuance (or it got cut for time – movies are a compressed medium). Gollum asks to swear on the precious and feels he has done so, but the thing he is swearing on never actually appears. Tolkien understands better – for Gollum to swear on the precious, Frodo must produce the Ring so that Gollum may see it, and Gollum must touch it while swearing his oath. This Frodo will not do, and so Gollum only swears by the Ring.

Tolkien is, in fact, tapping into historical practice here. An oath may be intensified by proximity to – or more often – physical contact with an object containing some measure of spiritual power, typically a symbol of representation of the supernatural beings who will enforce the oath. Through that object, those beings are made more immediately present. We can see an example of this from the Bayeux Tapestry:

The Latin above the scene reads, “Where Harold made the oath (sacramentum) to Duke William.” The two boxes Harold (right figure) is touching are reliquaries, that is containers with holy relics (pieces of saints) within them.

Harold (Godwinson) makes his oath to William (of Normandy, i.e. William the Conqueror) while holding his hands to a pair of relics. We aren’t privy to the text of the oath, but one assumes that not only God but also the relevant saints were invoked as the keepers of Harold’s oath. You can see parallels to this in the oath from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle given above, where ‘all of the Saints’ are invoked to punish a perjurer. The Chronicle also takes care to record that the swearers did so in direct physical contact with a cross.

(Sidenote: Perjury does not mean simply ‘to lie in a court’ but very specifically – from the Latin – means to break an oath, Latin ius, you will recall. Thus to be periurus (someone who has gone ‘through’ their oath) is to be an oath-breaker.)

The Greeks did this as well. The Syracusans, for instance, had a ritual whereby powerful or politically dangerous men would go to the temple of Demeter and Persephone and – while holding the sacred torch of the goddesses and wearing the purple vestment that would normally adorn the statue – swear an oath not to harm the community (Plut. Dio 56.5 – on this, see Wareh, “Hierophantic Performances” in Horkos). It’s possible that the selection of these two goddesses is connected to the Eleusinian mysteries, but it seems equally probable that the focus is really on Persephone, who (as Queen of the Underworld) frequently figures in Greek curses. As with the relics, note that physical contact is important: they have to carry the torch and wear the vestment for the oath to ‘work’ as intended.

Of course we do this as well – in America, oaths tend to be sworn on holy texts. I want to stress that physical contact to an item of spiritual power is not necessary for an oath (it seems much more common in Christian oaths than in Greek or Roman ones, for what it is worth). But the holy object or place is understood to lend some of its own ‘power’ to the oath, intensifying it.

(Language digression: I should note that in modern usage, this distinction is sometimes complicated by oaths which offer specific collateral, a form of naming the curse. For instance the phrase, “I swear by my soul” is explicitly offering the latter as the collateral of the oath – this is effectively naming the curse (the loss of the soul, i.e. eternal damnation). The same is true for someone to swear ‘on their honor’ – their honor is the collateral, which is a fairly weak-sauce oath, all told, unless the person sets great store by it. In contrast, someone might swear “on my mother’s grave” which does not generally involve touching the grave (but almost always does involve a hand-to-heart gesture, in my experience). Oaths like this seem to me to be rare in societies where the oath is still viewed as effective, because if the oath is effective, it is important to be specific and careful with the formula.)

The Game of Thrones Night’s Watch oath we discussed above is odd in this respect. They’ve gone to a holy place (a Weirwood), but it is quite strange that they do not touch the tree. It may seem strange to us, but ancient and medieval religions alike placed a lot of importance on physical contact in these sorts of things (to the point that, for instance, the protection afforded by holding on to an altar could be maintained at distance by a rope tied around the altar, and voided if that rope broke, e.g. Plut. Solon 12.1). It wasn’t enough for the relic to be mentioned or simply be present, it had to be in contact with the oath-taker as they swore their oath to have its intensifying effect. This could just be a ritual difference for the religion of the Old Gods, but it does strike me as quite odd.


Alright, so I’ve explained how oaths work and why pop culture often gets them wrong. Why does that matter?

It goes to a statement I have made before: people in the past generally believed their own religion. One of the most common – and most dangerous – pitfalls I find myself helping my students to navigate around is this one: assuming that because we don’t believe a given religion, no one of any sense at the time could have either. This is of course, when you think about it, obviously untrue. Moreover, it reduces people in the past from complex intelligent humans with agency to dummies who just didn’t know their stupid religion was stupid (it wasn’t, they weren’t).

What many of these examples of bungled oaths show is a kid’s understanding of how swearing and vowing works – they are little more than ‘pinky-swears.’ But societies in the past where these rituals were common believed they were effective – meaning that the ritual of oath-taking made the promise so given more trustworthy, more binding, more dangerous to break. These were serious things that required serious, careful understanding. Serious oaths and vows – like taking monastic vows – would often be proceeded by days of religious fasting and contemplation, because this was serious stuff you were about to do (e.g. Rule of St. Benedict 58.6-16).

Draining all of that spiritual power away from serious, formal oaths treats that religious faith unseriously. Again, that’s not to say people in the past didn’t swear frivolous oaths – they did. They also broke oaths, although rarely so openly as we see in fiction. Much oath-breaking in the Middle Ages was justified by arguing that the other side of the oath (typically the liege-lord) had not kept up their end of the bargain (thus, for instance, the insistence of First Crusade accounts of the perfidy of the Byzantines – nearly all of the crusade leaders had sworn oaths to uphold Byzantine territory, which they had violated at Antioch. Making Alexios Komnenos out to be treacherous was necessary to release them of the duty to hand Antioch to him). In the ancient world, you might try to mend fences by consulting an oracle as to how to expiate the guilt of a broken oath (to be clear, you are mending fences with the offended god, not the mortal you made the agreement with).

But a formal oath, properly uttered and secured with appropriate sacredness, was a powerful, binding thing. These are people, after all, who thought the divine retribution on the other end of breaking that oath was very real. Even if we don’t believe that, we should take their faith seriously – if for no other reason than failing to do so often renders their behavior into nonsense.

Next week – hopefully the impact of range on arrows and armor penetration, library permitting. I won’t swear to it though.

23 thoughts on “Collections: Oaths! How do they Work?

  1. Great post, and great blog. I’m thinking of of The oath of Feanor which drives the plot in Quenta Silmarillion

    “Be he foe or friend, be he foul or clean,
    brood of Morgoth or bright Vala,
    Elda or Maia or Aftercomer,
    Man yet unborn upon Middle-earth,
    neither law, nor love, nor league of swords,
    dread nor danger, not Doom itself,
    shall defend him from Fëanor, and Fëanor’s kin,
    whoso hideth or hoardeth, or in hand taketh,
    finding keepeth or afar casteth
    a Silmaril. This swear we all:
    death we will deal him ere Day’s ending,
    woe unto world’s end! Our word hear thou,
    Eru Allfather! To the everlasting
    Darkness doom us if our deed faileth.
    On the holy mountain hear in witness
    and our vow remember, Manwë and Varda!”


    1. Yes! This one was on my pile-o-examples, but didn’t make it into the post (I had a LOT of examples). I love it – it gets the formula precisely right. They swear *by* Eru, on the holy mountain (used much like a relic), with both promise and curse made very clear. I didn’t include any oaths from Anglo-Saxon epic (like Beowulf) or the Norse Sagas, but they do swear quite a lot of them, and they follow the same rules as Greek oaths, in as far as I’ve seen.

      Thanks for adding this – I hope everyone reading the post looks at it too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it’s that Manwe and Varda live on the holy mountain, Taniquetil, not that Feanor and sons (in some disgrace) were anywhere near it. It’d be like an oath invoking “Zeus, who lives on Olympus”.


  2. This line caught my attention: “It may well be ‘the Old Gods’ who are supposed to be both nameless and numerous (this is, forgive me, not how ancient paganism worked – am I going to have to write that post too?)” – Because the animistic tradition in Japan *did* have “numerous, nameless” gods; the standard epithet is 八百万の神 (yaoyorozu no kami), literally “eight million gods” but just generally signifying “a lot.” While a tradition of Buddhist vows is well-known, I started wondering if there was an equivalent to oaths as you describe them and whether it might in fact invoke the gods collectively.

    What I found was that it looks like there was a formal, legalistic system of oath-swearing that went almost exactly as you’ve described here. It involved a written and signed document, sometimes stamped with blood using the signer’s thumb-print, and listing punishments from named Shinto divinities in case the oath was broken. (There was even supposedly a regional difference over whether the goddess Amaterasu was invoked.) In some cases there seems to have been special woodblock-printed “letterhead,” produced and kept at a local Shinto shrine, for these documents.

    In modern pop culture, a lot of people seem to assume that the feudal structure in Japan was bound together by “honor” all on its own, but I feel like we see echoes of those oaths in e.g. this “summoning contract” from the Naruto manga:


  3. I would argue on the point of the 八百万の神 being “nameless” that it is more akin to them being “unnameable”. They are presumed to have names, but their names are not necessarily known to humans. It would be like trying to name every grain of sand. To cite an anime that touches on this aspect, there’s Kamichuu, in which a middle school student becomes a Shinto goddess, and among other things has to figure out her own divine name and domain.

    But as you point out, the Japanese traditionally didn’t swear by the infinite array of gods, but rather invoked specific ones. I think a lot of Western pop culture in particular fails to understand the concept of Japanese honor, that it too was bound by oaths and liege lords and was not at all nebulous (unlike face (mentsu), which is a much more fluid concept).

    So even IF the Old Gods are supposed to be infinite, it’s unlikely all of their names would be unknown. And even if they were, they do have a collective name that they can be invoked by, so why wouldn’t that be used?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society discusses in some detail how the oath of homage and the oaths of fealty created the hierarchy of feudal society in Middle Ages France. Interestingly, homage (like marriage) was done only once between two theoretically equal free persons where the subordinate made an oath recognizing the other as his superior. Fealty, however, was often repeated as a reminder of the duties the subordinate owed the suzerain and especially when the duties changed as a person’s role in court changed..

    It may have been Bloch who commented that the penalty for perjury was usually death so that the Lord could judge the oath breaker immediately. Thus many offenses we judge to be mere misdemeanors attracted the penalty of death if the offender foreswore themselves.


  5. In regards to the oath scene with Saruman, perhaps the higher power involved was saruman himself. given that as one of the Istari he was a Maiar, or lesser ‘angelic’ being of the same sort as Sauron, and unlike Sauron Saruman had been, until two thousand years prior, one of the Ainur, the “gods” of middle earth. (though they were actually just agents of Eru Illuvitar, divine middlemen so to speak.)

    alternately, perhaps it was meant to be sworn by Morgoth/Melkor, a Valar (greater angelic being) who had tried to set itself up in Eru’s place in the earliest ages of the world, and which was the being that most of Sauron’s minions actually worshiped. Morgoth was cast out into the void (a realm beyond both the physical universe and whatever plane that Eru illuvitar occupies) but the orcs, trolls, and men which he had swayed to his side, and which his follower sauron would later corrupt, still believed him to have power over the world. (and given that early in the world’s creation morgoth was said to have literally infused part of his evil and divine power into the very earth, might not be entirely unfounded.) Worship of Morgoth apparently involved a lot of blood sacrifice (up to and including human sacrifice, going by the Fall of Numenor) so the slicing of the hand might well have been meant as an offering of sorts as part of the oath.

    that said, in the novel the Dunlendings fought for him because he’d spent a long time befriending them as a neighor and using his ability to use his words to sway people to make the dunlendings want to go to war and retake lands they had lost to Gondor and then to Rohan in generations past. oaths were not mentioned or implied, rather the relationship was presented as one of a more mundane nature, the result of a long interaction and bonds of trust forged over generations, with perhaps just a touch of the mercenary in that Saruman’s armories helped arm the Dunlendings to better fight the Rohirrim.


  6. Oaths seems to be a way to call upon a god to do something, without first giving them anything. Did oaths usually come with sacrifices and with ways to check if they were accepted? I’m imagining Zeus saying “I don’t care if you do that or not; why should I bother checking and punishing you if you fail?”.


    1. In my experience – and this is interesting – no! Oaths are usually assumed to be effective without any kind of sacrifice. I think this has to do with assumptions about how a god is likely to react to the insult of someone forswearing on them.


    2. There are lead “curse tablets” which invoke the authority of some gods. And we have curse tablets in which the victim of a theft — a poor victim, often, because the items cited as often paltry — donates the stolen items to one goddess and then tells her to arise and reclaim them lest she be shamed for inability to do so.


  7. This made me go back and check a web serial I follow (A Practical Guide to Evil) to see how it handled this, as it has a rather cool oath-giving scene.

    Sure enough, when Catherine appoints Juniper her Marshal, they both invoke a god as part of the oath: Juniper, an orc, starts with “Under the gaze of That Which Lurks Below, I make these oaths,” while Catherine, a human from a good-aligned country, starts with “Gods be my witness, and strike me down should I break this solemn oath.”

    (Catherine is on Team Evil, and not particularly pious or god-fearing, but she uses that formula because it’s the historical one her country used before it was conquered. So she’s not really invoking her personal belief that the Gods will strike her down, she’s declaring that she intends to make her country independent again.)


  8. This is very interesting!

    Your point about how people in historic times believed their own religion reminds me of one of Ludwig Thomas’ stories- he grew up at the end of 19th century in rural Bavaria, and wrote Lausbubengeschichten (similar to Tom Sawyer stories). The culture was very Roman Catholic, so one story is about him throwing a stone through the chapel’s window, damaging a religious figure the pastor had just newly bought. So the pastor has the whole school class assembled, brings the crucifix, and each boy must take an oath that they don’t know who threw the stone.
    Ludwig crosses his finger behind his back (folk superstition to thwart the bolt from heaven/ divine retribution for a false oath) and lies, but is very afraid about it.


  9. You’ve mentioned the series Rome: have you done/ will you do a look at what Rome got right and what it did wrong? I’ve read that while all historical events were wrong (dates, people being dead or alive at wrong time) the historical feeling of different morals was captured well (Honor, Love in marriage, slavery, family ties…). Do you agree?


  10. Where do non-externally-bound promises, as used in modern America, fit into this paradigm? I’ve always assumed them to be descendants of oaths, but considering the emphasis you place here on an external force serving as the enforcer, I’m no longer so confident in that assumption.

    (Generally, when I make a promise, the curse (either explicit or implied, depending on the context) is that, if I promise falsely, I lose some fraction of my ability to make credible promises. It’s a useful enough ability that it’s worth going far out of my way to keep a hold of; but there’s no third party directly invoked for enforcement. There’s just me and the person to whom I made the promise, with the latter having the option (but no obligation) to spread word of my promise-breaking should I in fact break it.)

    Do you have a good sense of what historical relation, if any, those sorts of non-externally-enforced promises bear to the externally-enforced oaths discussed here?


    1. If I understood correctly, then an oath is made because a mere personal promise is not enough. Like, if you are not known to just keep your promises, you are to invite supernatural retribution for all to see if you lie.


  11. And again with the belated proofreading corrections:
    “is done int he presence of God -> “is done in the presence of God
    photo caption: Is this is a vow, it implies -> If this is a vow, it implies
    I strongly suspect that Martin is riffing off of -> I strongly suspect what Martin is riffing off of
    matters a great detail -> matters a great deal
    only if I get by Z date -> only if I get it by Z date
    something fairly rare -> something are fairly rare
    that Sarumon* has the Wild Men perform -> that Saruman has the Wild Men perform
    to which Sarumon replies -> to which Saruman replies
    “we will die, for Sarumon!” -> “we will die, for Saruman!”
    where Sarumon needs the oath -> where Saruman needs the oath
    Perhaps Sarumon, in his cynicism -> Perhaps Saruman, in his cynicism
    and so Sarumon needs them -> and so Saruman needs them
    eyes wide and starting at Frodo -> eyes wide and staring at Frodo
    never, never to let Him have it -> never, never, to let Him have it (missing comma inserted)
    would often be proceeded by days -> would often be preceded by days

    *(I guess I could have just said “do a search-and-replace for this spelling”)


  12. My single favourite medieval movie scene is the Santa Gadea oath from “El Cid”, with Charlton Heston. It perfectly nails the medieval attitude and the seriousness of oaths, which precious few modern films do. (You might be able to view it at at 3:37, or in Spanish at The excommunication scene from “Beckett” is also a great window into an older mindset, too, though I don’t know how accurate the ritual elements may be.


  13. In the United States, many oaths say “I swear (or affirm)…” because of religious proscriptions against some (perhaps all?) oaths. I always thought the distinction was silly, but now with all this context it makes more sense.


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