Last Thursday’s post Their Ways Are Not Our Ways was intended to be a warning on several levels. One of those levels involves oaths. Namely, if you swear an oath to a deity you will be held to it, even if you later decide you’d rather do something else.
That raises a question: why take an oath to a God in the first place? If it isn’t required and you can’t change your mind down the road, why take the risk?
That’s a fair question, and it’s a question many (though not all) of us who worship and work with one or more of the Many Gods will eventually have to answer for ourselves.
I can’t tell you what to do here. This is among the most personal of personal religious decisions you’ll ever have to make. But I can tell you what I’ve done and why I did it. I have oathed relationships with three deities. Here’s why.
From dating to marriage
I still remember when I first met my wife Cathy. We were introduced, we talked for a while, and we made arrangements for a first date. The first date led to a second, and a third, and before long we stopped counting. The relationship grew more intimate in every sense of the term, and eventually we started talking about getting married. And then we did.
There was no pressure to advance the relationship (except from our mothers, who were both trying to marry off their unmarriable children) but at each stage, taking the next step seemed like the right thing to do.
Why get married, especially when there were no powerful families to unite or kingdoms that needed an heir, and neither the budget nor the desire for a fairytale wedding? To be sure, part of it was societal expectations. But mainly, marriage provides a firm foundation for building a future together. And it has.
My oaths to Cernunnos and to Danu are very similar – though not identical – to my marriage vows. The relationships began on a rather low-key basis. Gradually they became deeper and more serious until I got to the point that a formal oath seemed like the proper thing to do. I wanted the relationships to continue and to grow in power and depth.
I admit I was rather naïve at the time – I could have walked into something not-so-nice. But I oathed myself to a Forest God who has been watching over me for most of my life, and to a Mother Goddess who has been incredibly supporting, even though She’s not a helicopter parent and occasionally is demanding. I had enough experience to trust Them, and They’ve never given me cause to think I misread Them.
So you may want to take an oath to a God to strengthen a relationship, and to form a foundation for deeper devotion and practice.
Signing up for Team Morrigan
Last year I wrote a whole post on my Oath to the Morrigan. The relationship began with ordinary devotion. Then it became one of reciprocal transactions: She did things for me, I did things for Her. I tried to follow the same pattern I followed with Cernunnos and Danu, but it didn’t work out. She wanted something for that “next step” that I couldn’t give. We returned to a relationship of reciprocal transactions.
But the work She asked me to do followed a pattern – the pattern of Her work in this world. Restoring sovereignty that has been stolen or swindled from ordinary people. Getting ready for the battles She warned us are coming and that are now here. Cleaning up the aftermath of war and conflict.
This work is hard, unpleasant, and unglamorous. It is also necessary. When the Morrigan asked me for an oath that would make the relationship permanent, I knew two things. One, She has always been honorable with me. And two, I liked being part of this work. This is work that is beneficial, tangible, and above all, necessary. Serving the Morrigan is some of the most meaningful and fulfilling work I’ve ever done.
So I gladly said yes and signed up for Team Morrigan.
You may want to take an oath to a God because you believe in Their virtues and values and you want to do all you can to help manifest them in this world.
The happiness of individual humans is not the greatest goodOne of the reasons we encourage kids to play sports is to teach the value of teamwork: of working together and of sacrificing for the greater good.
Sometimes this is the beautiful teamwork on display when a shortstop and a second baseman work together to turn a double play. But other times it’s the teamwork of a guard in football, who battles defensive linemen in hand to hand combat all afternoon. The guard will never score a touchdown and will probably never even touch the ball. The only time his name is called is when the quarterback gets sacked because he missed a block. But without strong, effective, and dedicated guards, a football team can’t hope to win.
The initial draft of The Path of Paganism had so many references to “our comfort and safety aren’t very high on Their priority list” that my editor said “yes, John we know this – you’ve already told us multiple times.” I said it so many times because it’s true.
This is anathema to most people in the contemporary West. Everything we do is supposed to make our lives better, easier, and richer. Is a God who makes your life harder worth worshipping? If the Gods are virtuous, why would They make our lives harder?
The answer is obvious even though it’s unpopular. Our comfort and safety and even our happiness aren’t the most important things in the world. The greater good – the well-being of human society and the flourishing of all species – requires sacrifices and teamwork. Sometimes They make our lives harder because They need us to do something that’s hard and dangerous.
You may want to take an oath to a God because you value the greater good more than your own comfort.
Alliances can come in handy
An oath is a contract. And like all contracts, a good oath creates obligations for both parties, not just one.
I am happy to serve Cernunnos, Danu, and the Morrigan. I am happy to work with some other deities on a regular basis. But there are some Gods I don’t want to have to deal with. You can tell Them no, but some of Them don’t want to take no for an answer.
It can be good to have a patron deity who can tell Someone else “this one is ours, and we’re keeping him plenty busy – you can’t have him.”
Beyond that, our world is getting more chaotic, more magical, and more strange. Walking through it alone is a dangerous thing. It’s good to be part of a strong religious and magical tradition. It’s also good to have friends among the mightiest of spirits.
You may want to take an oath to a God because you need Their protection.
Sometimes you can’t say no
Most people can say no. When they do, the God in question simply moves on to the next candidate. They prefer willing co-workers, servants, and priests, and there are always other people who are willing.
But sometimes They won’t take no for an answer.
I know people who were violently claimed by the Morrigan. Their service was not requested, it was compelled. I don’t know why. The people involved don’t know why.
It may involve obligations from past lives – why would death erase obligations made to immortal beings? Or perhaps the person in question has a unique skill set – there’s something they can do that no one else can do. I don’t know. I just know sometimes this happens.
If it happens to you, you can try to negotiate better terms. Sometimes that’s successful. Sometimes it’s not.
It doesn’t happen often. But it does happen. And when it does, you may want to take an oath to a God because it’s your only choice.
Oaths should never be taken lightly
Between this post, Their Ways Are Not Our Ways, and Why We Make Oaths from back in July, I hope it’s clear how serious oaths are. Once made they cannot be unmade. If they contain vague language, they will be interpreted as They see fit. If they are not explicitly bound to time periods (“a year and a day”) or certain events (“until death”), they will continue indefinitely… and “indefinitely” may be longer than you think possible. Negotiate, write, and review your oaths carefully before you take them.
If you choose to make no oaths, I certainly understand. The Gods you work with may understand – or They may not.
But there are good reasons to take oaths to Gods. I’ve done it three times, and I’m glad I did.