Oaths as Rites of Passage

Oaths as Rites of Passage May 13, 2015

photo by Amber Doty

If I had to take a guess, I would say that one of the most common Pagan rites of passage is the dedication ritual.  Of course there’s plenty of marriages, handfastings, baby blessings and funerals; but visit any Pagan forum that attracts a substantial number of people new to the religion, and the overwhelming majority of questions on these kinds of rituals focus on self-dedication.  I’d argue this is because a large number of us are both solitary and converts, which creates a need for a ritual like this: for the most part, there’s no governing group to say “you’re in now!”, to give that sense of validation and belonging that a person new to a religion or spiritual path really craves.

In Heathenry, we also place a great deal of emphasis on the power of words; especially words spoken to the Gods and spirits in a sacred ritual.  Any oaths made to deities, ancestors, family and friends – even yourself – in this space you are held accountable for.  This attitude further weighs down the concept of self-dedication, sometimes making it seem at once both terrifying and absolutely necessary.

In my studies with ADF, I completed a year’s worth of ritual, practiced meditation (almost) daily for half a year, and several other bits of coursework that helped to deepen my spiritual path before the path of study I was following asked me to make an oath.  It is called the Dedicant’s Oath, required of anyone who would like to complete the Dedicant’s Path; it is not an oath to ADF, but rather to the Gods, ancestors, and land wights each individual honors.  But even after all that time and preparation, I still didn’t feel ready.  Oaths are serious things, not to be taken lightly.

And yet somehow, I found myself writing one.  Crafting it was almost as intense as the day I was called on to recite it; I probably deleted and re-started at least fifty drafts.  I’ll admit that I poured an entire bottle of mead out to Bragi in a fit of frustrated writer’s block one stormy autumn afternoon.  I did eventually finish it, not that I was ever happy with it.  At the very least, I was fairly sure I wasn’t accidentally promising anything I wasn’t ready for.  A word to the wise: that’s never a safe assumption.

photo by Amber Doty

On a rather warm and pleasant Samhain (or Winternights) day, my Grove held a ritual to honor our ancestors and beloved dead, and it was there that I made my oath.  Standing before my dearest friends and my wonderful family, I fumbled miserably and was probably almost entirely inaudible; but somehow the words eventually came out.

For my ancestors, I promised to seek the knowledge of the past, and bring what I found of value into my own life.
For the land wights, I promised to cherish the Earth and the spirits of the earth, to do what I could to heal the damage caused by my people.
For my Gods, I promised to continue my honor of them, and to maintain our relationship of mutual giving; and also to continue in my service to Nerthus.

The experience was transformational.  I had never before felt the presence of the Gods and spirits as I did that day, or as supported by my spiritual family – both those who immediately surrounded me and all of the people I was now connected with through my commitment.  This rite of passage was not an acknowledgement of a status I had already attained, but instead it conferred a new awareness, a new sense of connection that shocked me.  It was terrifying and elating at the same time; perhaps more so because it wasn’t something anyone had given me or an experience I was led through.  Words that I wrote in a sacred space I helped to create, spoken from my heart without hesitation, they rang through the Worlds.

So was it daunting, maybe even frightening?  Yes.  Was it necessary?  Probably not.  But did this rite of passage create a powerful experience that measurably improved my spiritual life? Absolutely.

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