“Keeping your word is one of the most important things you can do. Once you break your word it is hard to get that trust back. Sometimes, it’s almost impossible.” -My Dad
There should be little more needing to be said for oaths and oathmaking. I make exceedingly few oaths nowadays. This is not because I am untrustworthy or I avoid commitment, but because oaths carry maegen of their own, and along with that binding power, my and the other parties’ maegen. This maegen will affect those communities I and they are attached to through hamingja.
Before we go much further, let us define some terms.
Maegen is analogous to one’s personal luck or power. Where önd is the breath and analogous to chi or one’s personal energies, maegen is the strength by which those energies are felt, how they are wielded, and so on. We all start with önd, and some work with their önd quite well in context of building it, such as by learning breath control, inner control, meditation, and similar arts. Maegen is worked with and built by keeping your word, by exercising your Will in ways that build you up.
Hamingja translates, roughly, to group luck or power. This is built in much the same way as maegen, but it also ties into the group’s recognition of you keeping your oaths, showing up when needed (i.e. if you say you are going to be there you will be there), and being a good member of your communities. Maegen and hamingja are part of the soul, as much as the liche (body), mynd (mind), and vili (Will).
The Weight of an Oath
When you make an oath or a promise you are literally putting a piece of your soul at stake. You are saying to the other party “I trust you so much I am willing to wager a part of my soul for this oath.” When you keep your oath your maegen increases, as may your standing in the community, thus increasing hamingja. The same may be true in reverse: keeping well with your community may help to increase your maegen, i.e. showing up when you say you will, doing right by the community, etc. After all, if you are keeping your oaths you are exercising the muscles of maegen, and potentially hamingja if the oaths and promises made were before or to a group.
This is why in the Northern Tradition oathbreaking is regarded as the lowest thing you can do, right down there with being a traitor. Think of most any mythology where a person breaks their oath to the Gods, or to their kin; there is backlash. Sometimes there is no ‘good’ choice and it is a tossup of breaking of one oath or another, such as the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t story of Cú Cuhulain who was given the unenviable choice of breaking one or the other of his geas. It may be you have to keep to established taboos, such as not eating this animal, wearing that piece of clothing, or not speaking certain words. Keeping to the oaths, the taboos, the expectations is more important than I can say in words. I have lost friends, and hurt those I love both emotionally and spiritually by not doing so. I was removed from a group for this. Take my example as a lesson, and don’t repeat it. The consequences reverberate through your life and Wyrd.
Oaths in America
Modern American culture no longer respects oaths, if indeed, it ever really did. Our elected officials make empty promises to their constituents, and once elected, to the Constitution. Veterans give their lives to a People that sees fit to lead them to lives of plastic bags, cardboard boxes and underpasses when they have given their all. Companies who pledged money to their employees thirty years ago bilk their workers’ retirement accounts in schemes and scams, leaving people to struggle to keep their homes, let alone food on their table, in their old age. Marriage vows are no longer held, with some celebrities not even waiting twenty-four hours before divorce. With oaths and promises, taboos and peoples’ word given such short shrift it is little wonder that we are in the straights we are in.
With as many broken oaths, half-truths and full-on thirty year lies, how much work would the U.S. government have to do to get an inkling of trust back? Look at all the broken Treaties the United States government signed with Native American Nations. No really, look at them. It’s a litter of literally hundreds of broken promises, terrible deals, backstabbing, and genocide. In the Declaration of Independence it was declared “all people were created equal” then, when the Constitution was ratified, it cast blacks a 3/5 of a person, less than human. Our nation was part of the creation and ratification of the Geneva Convention, and now We flaunt it shamelessly. Companies poison our bodies, minds, land, sea, and sky are raking in record profits while bottom-rung workers are forced to take up public assistance. Any thought to the well-being of the People, and associated promises and oaths to take care of the environment, the poor, or anything other than a bottom-line profit motive are met with scorn. America’s maegen wanes as we shore up our falling power with an ailing, ill-served military, and Its hamingja dies in our constant ‘might makes right’ pursuit of our ‘national interests’. Meanwhile we have people all over our country unable to care for themselves, half of our nation exists in or under the poverty level, and the nation’s infrastructure crumbles. Oaths are as important for the soul as they are for the foundation of any society, and when oaths erode, so does the soul. No less the soul of a nation.
The Marriage Oath
Getting down to the more personal level, let us talk about marriage oaths. The most common we are used to hearing is “Til Death do you part”. Think about that. You are investing a part of your soul, and what ought to be a significant part of your life in a relationship until one or the other of you dies. There is no ‘out’ in most of these marriage oaths, no ‘if this person turns out to be a total jackass or doesn’t take care of the kids or is abusive I can leave him’. At least from the Catholic side, you have to get your marriage annulled before you can marry again, but, from the Catholic point of view, this is not breaking an oath. It is saying the marriage oath was never valid to begin with, and so the oath cannot be binding.
The marriage oath is particularly powerful as oaths go. You are combining all your bloodlines into one home, welcoming the Ancestors and their descendants of those bloodlines into your life. You are putting your maegen into your partner(‘s/s’) hands, and through your public oath, whether to a court, a few witnesses, your families and friends, or all and sundry at a Renaissance Fair, you are tying together your hamingja to that person, their family, and to the communities you make the marriage oath before. You are swearing an oath before the Gods, the Ancestors, the spirits, and the landvaettir. You’ll be making a home with your partner(s), and you’ll be making it on the landvaettir’s home. Right relationship with all the Beings involved in making your lives, and in helping you live is crucial. Keeping the oaths is just one part of this, but a deeply important one.
There are many parts of the marriage oath you can change; heck, you can write your own. There may be some oaths the Gods, Ancestors and/or spirits want you to change or adapt. We do not, in most cases, have a singular body of liturgy that has passed down generation after generation, and our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, especially landvaettir, may have different expectations when we come together to marry than what we have in mind. So while there is a lack in foundation there, there is also a lack in the ossification of the Holy, of written word and spoken oath.
I do not expect much, if any of my living extended family to show up when I get married, yet my partner(s) and I we will be recognized as married when we visit family. Yet oaths will be made, and the threads of those oaths will tie together our Wyrd to one another, to our communities, and our families. The ties of maegen, hamingja, and the rest of our soul(s) will still be there, recognized before the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and the communities who see fit to be there.
Maegen, Hamingja, and the Pagan Communities
I have spent a good time talking about oaths, so now I am going to switch gears here a bit.
We build maegen and lose it, break it down and send it up, over the course of our lives. We can use it to exert control over ourselves and others, we can let it shine like a beacon or we can hood the lamp and keep it to ourselves. We can work with maegen to make ourselves a better person, or fight its pull and make our lives infinitely harder. Each person’s maegen is different, and is built differently. My workout regimen may not work for you. You might need to build up your arms where I may need to build up my legs. Your Gods may ask you to contribute to your maegen in a thousand ways I will never have to touch, whether it is the oaths you keep, the taboos you are not to break, or the path you are meant to walk. We may even walk side by side, but your maegen is just that: yours.
Hamingja is affected by us, but it is also, in parts, distinctly out of our control. If it belongs to anyone, it belongs with us and those we share our lives with. We help to build it up in building up our maegen, but it may also help to build maegen in its turn. It is, in part, our reputation in the communities we exist in. It is the relationships we have to those communities, and they to us. It is the building of partnerships and the burning of bridges. It is the life you touch for good that encourages a person to excel. It is the person you harmed and helped continue a downward spiral. It is who you are, and how you are known. It is your reputation, your name(s), your good word. It is what you have done for your community and what you have failed to do. It is trusting the community to have your back as much as it is doing for the community. It cannot be made alone, though each person has their own part in building it. Hamingja is like a good barn raising: best made together with those you trust not to drop it as it is raised.
Our maegen and hamingja are the chains we forge with each duty done, each oath kept, each taboo observed, each deed that helps ourselves and others, and it is broken, sometimes link by link and sometimes all at once, when we fail in these. Yet there is hope because it can be reforged. So if you do screw up, and Gods knows I have, it is not the end of the world even if, in the moment, it feels like it. Rebuilding the maegen and/or hamingja from this state is started by making the right choice: to rebuild it. It may be hard and long, and that chain may never be the same, but it is as worthy Work as any we may engage in. Good maegen and good hamingja promote frith, good peace and social order.
The Pagan communities have an opportunity to continue to reforge the broken chains that had lain at the Gods’ feet for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The only way that I know of for these chains to stay forged is for us to remain in right relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and one another. This is not a one-shot solution. This will take time and effort. It will take patience, starting with ourselves, and branching out from there. There is no end to this work, really, and no silver bullet, no scrap of lore that will unlock the secrets of this Work. It is a link forged with the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and communities one person at a time with each and every Being, human and otherwise, that they encounter. The metal of the links are shaped by our word and deeds, by how we treat one another, and the devotion we show to our Gods, the Ancestors, the spirits, our communities, and to our own journey with all of Them. So let us all dedicate or rededicate ourselves to making these links, to making them lasting long after we are gone so that when the link is tested it will stand strong as it once did, as it can, and I believe will, again.
13 thoughts on “Oaths, Maegen, and Hamingja”
I’m so glad you wrote this. Not long ago, in an interfaith community that I belong to, someone referred to the Gods as oathbreakers, and every Northern Trad person was horrified. This clarifies very well what we were trying to get across, and I’m going to share it with them.
Well done and well-thought-out!
Thank you very much!
I think your article is very interesting, especially concerning marriage oath. In France you have to contract marriage in front of the law (the only legal marriage) and religious marriage if you want. I was no comfortable with the law marriage because you have to accept some terms you couldn’t be agree with. For this reason, when we’re married my partner and me, we have made two marriage : the legal part was just for administratives reasons, and the handfasting with our family and friends. We have rewrite our ceremony because we did not want promise some things that seemed dangerous in regard of your feeling and background. I think that swear “until death do you part” is a tricky things, exactly like “fidelity” : because in a certain way, what is fidelity ? I mean you can understand this word in different way and remain vague is a bit “weird” : how you could stand your words if you’re not sure about their meanings ? (I’m not sure to be clear about this point, this would be difficult in french, so in english that’s a challenge to me !) So we have writed a ceremony based on “promise to make the best we could” rather than brut (it is the right word ?) concept. I know my point of view could seems to be unfair sometimes but my partner and I felt this way was the less harmful. In a certain way that’s could be “curious” because in spite of the fact I was not aware of this “nordic concepts” few years ago, “keeping my words” has always been primordial to me (even if some people around me say I stress on this point too much).
[sorry if my comment sounds like a soup of non-sens… that’s a bit difficult to me to explain myself in english]
I appreciate your thoughts here. So if I am reading you right, for clarification’s sake, the French marriage laws only apply in front of a judge or magistrate or some court official, and the religious marriage has absolutely no legal standing?
The words of modern marriage contracts that are common here in the U.S. contain things like ’til Death do us part’ seem like potential landmines for most people. That you took caution to remove those potential landmines before marrying says a lot, to me, about the maturity and honest you faced your situation with.
You’re right : the religious marriage has no legal standing beacause France made separation between State and Religions. The only legal marriage is contracted in front of the Mayor who represents French Law. This was disturbing to us because we couldn’t choose the words for the contract even if they include not a spiritual implication. You have to accept all things or not (It was hard and I asked some explainations before to sign legal document because I wanted understand why the marriage includes the concept of fidelity while this word comprise something religious to me. The Mayor was shocked and asked me WHY I wanted to understand this, saying to me that I was the first person to dare to ask a such thing. I’ve answered that was not because all people seem not thinking about their acts that I should do the same thing. XD)
It is so appropriate that you speak of traditional values using the words of your path. This evokes thoughts of how far we have strayed from any values to where our words have become empty, lacking value. Here, in the U.S., every agreement must be (legally) documented because a person’s word no longer holds any value. As people appear more untrustworthy, they proportionately become less trusting, and a paranoid culture has developed. We suffer for abandoning values, and not just those of northern traditions.
The mainstream religions of the United States center on a God who created by speaking words. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The only begotten Son of this God is also referred to as The Word. Despite this, many Americans seem to have little understanding of the power or consequences of their words. Thus, the American Hamingja is severely diminished, and more so to its own people than the World.
An oath is a simple element that we have personal control over: our own words. If people’s deeds do not reflect their words, then the words are empty and the speakers are false. The strength of their spirit is also diminished. When leaders act this way, they have difficulty rallying support. Look at the American Congress. You speak words of truth, Sarenth Odinsson.
Thank you very much, Mr. Tanner.
That is actually a very, very good point and one that I had not considered, r.e. Yahweh’s speech making Creation. When people say this is a nation blessed by God, and they obviously mean Him by it, I wonder “Really? Because a lot of Americans go to church and mouth words but despite being the wealthiest nation we still have a lot of people living in the streets.”
I pray that, as time goes on and people become more aware, that words will again have impact.
Words have impact whether people are aware of it or not. Those who are aware hold an advantage
I am not a Northern Tradition practitioner. That being said, I was unfamiliar with much of the terminology before reading this, but I am am exceedingly glad that I did. There are a lot of ideas I have been searching for words and ways to express in this blog. Great job and thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts out there into the world.
Thank you very much Ki Brosius. I’m glad the post could be of help. Words are so deeply important, and each one I can find and learn from this tradition adds to my understanding. I’m glad that you found some here!
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