I Swear By That …

The festival of Lughnasadh is one of those festivals, like Imbolc, that easily blends into the background, but there is a profundity to it that is indelible.

What I mean is that while the festival itself does not seem to bear an enormous weight to it in our current culture anymore — we no longer hold the major markets, horse-races, sacrifices at the sea-side or harvest celebrations that used to mark Lughnasadh — there is a latent importance that permeates our ideas about how the world works, and they all come down to the swearing of oaths.

All cultures have oaths in one form or another. Understood today as a kind of promise to perform a certain action, an oath is essentially a particular form of performative speech. If you can read this post you will be familiar with marriages and legal oaths taken before bearing witness or assuming an office (like the president’s inauguration). Even the importance of the promise as a statement binding us to a certain action echoes the gravity of the oath.

It goes deeper than this, however, because the weight of keeping a promise goes beyond keeping your promises to doing simply what you’ve said you would do. This is usually phrased as ‘keeping one’s word.’ In this sense to ‘keep your word’ is to make your deed match what you say. In Anglo-Saxon England this finds direct record in the Beowulf poet’s mention of wordum ond weorcum — literally “words and deeds” as the stuff that shows what kind of person you are.

Who knew Disney was so pagan? Actually, that’s a whole other subject …

This connection between what you do and what you say then produces faith first in what you say and by transference in yourself as a person: do what you say and people will trust you. In Rome this trust was what was meant by fides, the word that gives us ‘faith,’ and to swear an oath produced faith in a person through the very fact that the person would certainly do what he or she said. Of course, sometimes they didn’t, but this would place upon them the stigma of oathbreaker. In such a case, it was legal to kill the oathbreaker because they had deliberately exposed themselves to the judgment of the gods.

This is where we come back to Lughnasadh, i.e. the festival of Lugh. Now one of the possible meanings of Lugh’s name is connected with oath-taking, luighe meaning ‘swearing’ (an oath) and connected with the verb tongaid in the same way that ‘swearing’ is connected with ‘to swear.’ (Trust me; you don’t want me to get into Celtic linguistics.) If you have read much of early Irish literature you will have come across some version of the phrase tongu na-dtongad mo thuatha …  “I swear by that by which my peoples swear …” The more specific tongu na dea thungus mo thuath “I swear by the gods by which my people swear” shows the original idea: a person takes an oath by referencing a specific deity, and the deity that is basically the god of oaths is Lugh.

There are a great many ramifications to this, but they are not what I want to call out here. I want to get right down to the tap-root of this: the idea that we as pagans may call to a specific inner reality of something and ask that it bear witness to whether or not we will fulfill our word. This is in a way a kind of hostage-taking.

See, if you wanted to enter into an agreement with a potential enemy in early societies you would make a promise and exchange hostages. If one of you broke the agreement then the other had free reign to kill the hostages given to them. This did not mean the hostages lived in chains, and there are many stories of hostages who lived as members of an unrelated family — think Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, though the sons of Maelcolm Ceannmór who were sent off to live as Normans under William the Conqueror are a better example. So long as the agreement was honoured the hostages lived long and well as members of a noble house.

Now in cases where no hostages may be sent, you can effectively take yourself hostage by invoking a god or goddess, and since pagan deities are the realities behind physical phenomena this often comes across as swearing by things like the sun and the moon. If you break your word, though, it means that anyone — man or god — may kill you, so the oath was by far the extremity of promises.

Of course these days “swearing” can also mean using “bad language,” but this is a reflex of a modern line of thinking that takes all meaning out of everything and I swear by that by which my people swear that I will say no more about that in this post.

So after the first day of Lughnasadh it’s easy to go on with the year like it’s the day after Lughnasadh, but there’s more to it. Oaths and promises are always there in our lives one way or another. We are always building who we will be in the future, so be deliberate in that. If you want to be more than you are now or even just plain different, then find the things you want to change and be that change. Invoke the gods for their help, but know that in doing so you are tapping into the root of What Is, and there will be consequences one way or another. Do what you say. Say what you do. Keep faith with yourself, the gods and the rest of us here with you, and celebrate this time of year when all things come round.


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