As you read and learn more, you’ll probably come across the mention of oathbound material. In short, this is material that people in a particular path, tradition, or group have agreed not to share outside that community. (And as you can guess from the name, that commitment is a very serious one, taken as a religious oath – often as part of initiation or dedication rituals and made before the Gods.)
Some people feel that this is unfair (that all information ought to be available to anyone who asks.) Others think that all the private material’s already been shared anyway. Other people have other disagreements, or frustrations with the idea. This page is me talking about what it means for me, working in an oathbound tradition, and some of the ways I talk about that with students and with others who are curious.
One way I think about the oaths in my tradition is that it gives us a really good point to stop and talk about a number of community interactions clearly and directly, without making assumptions about how other people view the issues of personal privacy, sharing experiences, or giving people space to have their own experience of an event. Over time, I’ve come to the decision that there are some basic principles behind the oaths that I agree with – and then some practical things I also keep in mind.
The oath is a communal agreement with everyone in the tradition about what we do and don’t share.
It covers not only people currently in the tradition, but people who’ve been part of the tradition in the past, and those who make that commitment in the future. Not everyone sees the world in the same way. People from different backgrounds often have very different ideas about what it’s okay to share, and with whom. As our cultures mix and mingle, however, we have to have some way to be clear about our particular communities practices are, and why they’re there. The oaths give us that tool.
If our agreement changed over time, we’d be constantly having to renegotiate around those changes. That’s tedious and time-consuming, even if it were practical (and it often isn’t, as people move out of contact for many and varied reasons.) Thus, we have a persistent oath, and people can choose to take it or not take it.
Oath as reminder
The oath reminds me that there’s a difference between sharing my own stuff, and other people’s stuff.
I’m working in a tradition that was built by many people. I don’t have exclusive rights to determine how that’s shared. It is larger than me, larger than my own preferences, larger than my own inclinations. Again, I get to decide if I buy into the general agreement (and make the oath) or don’t. Obviously, in my case, I did.
Besides that, there’s the question of personal experiences. I should not generally be sharing someone else’s experiences for them. For one thing, it’s rather rude, and for another, I might well get it wrong, since I do not live inside their heads. (There are a very few exceptions in teaching circumstances I’ll get to in a minute.)
Oath as a gift to others
The oath reminds me to let other people have their own experiences.
Our initiation rituals and a couple of other rituals in our ritual cycle gather weight and ability to change the participant because the participant does not entirely know what to expect. That’s a powerful tool, used well. And while, like all powerful tools, it can be abused, I firmly believe it’s possible to handle it in an ethical and caring manner without spoiling the experience for others (just like a good reviewer can talk about a play or novel without spoiling the plot). More on that below.
(I should note: it’s not that I believe that most of the stuff in these rituals isn’t available in other forms: most of it, except for the very specific trad stuff is. But I believe that context informs our experiences, and that my Craft is based around emotional response, not just intellectual understanding, so how we get to through that experience is as much or even more important than what we learn from it in a pure knowledge sense.)
My oaths do allow me to share my personal experiences (even of otherwise oathbound rituals), but only if I do so in ways that don’t touch on the oathbound bits. So, for example, I might say “Part of my initation made me think about those things in my life that really aren’t serving me: one of the things that came up was whether I need to do things for people in order to have them like me.” This happens to be a totally true statement, and it’s one I continue to think about (7+ years later).
And I have, indeed, talked about it at length in various contexts with that beginning. But saying this is also not revealing any oathbound material about how I got to that realisation. Likewise, I can say “Someone in ritual had an experience that made me start thinking about my relationship with X, and ….” without sharing what they said.
Oath as a guide to better conversations
The oath reminds me that not everyone is interested.
Big shiny new things to us are not of automatically interest to the rest of the world. One thing I found during parts of my training was that the oath helped remind me that not everyone is a good audience for the details and specifics. If they wanted to learn my tradition in detail, they could do that. If they weren’t choosing to, we could find something else to talk about. If I really wanted to talk very precise specifics, I went off and found someone in the tradition I could talk to.
Oath as space to learn, grow, and consider.
The oath creates space to work through things.
Much of work we do in initiatory practice is anything but easy. A lot of it asks us to take a good hard look at ourselves, to shape ourselves, our skills, our identities into something that becomes of greater service to the tradition, to the groups we work in, to the Gods (and we hope, to ourselves as well!)
Having something be oathbound can help create space that encourages us to build skills that will serve us well: sitting with a difficult experience for a while or working through something ourselves rather than running to get someone else’s advice or falling into gossiping and venting that don’t lead to productive change. (I can be a champion venter given the chance, but I’d rather have that energy go somewhere more useful in the long run.)
Part of the oath commitment for elders is often being available to people who need to talk (within reason, and with respect to their other commitments): this is what helps prevent abuse in this area. I’ve done taken advantage of it in my time, and these days, I try to pay it forward by being there for others in the tradition (not just my group) who need an ear without stepping on the leadership of that other group.
Oath as container.
The oath creates known boundaries within which self-transformation can occur.
In many ways, the oath is like a ritual circle: it creates a controlled space with known limits, and allows the people within that space to make different choices within it than they might outside it that will then echo into other parts of their lives. Sometimes this has to do with trying on different skills or talents. Sometimes it has to do with practical security: whether one is out as Pagan (or witchy, or whatever) or not at work, with extended family, or in other settings.
And within a group context (with people at different degree levels) it’s a reminder to give people space to grow at their own speed.
People need time to think through, process, and make things their own. Sometimes, if you tell them something they’re not ready to take in, they won’t even hear it or remember hearing it (or reading it, or whatever.) But that’s not always true: sometimes sharing a particular piece of information shifts the ground underneath their feet, and changes all of their subsequent experiences with that experience or piece of information.
One of the greatest gifts I can give students in the tradition, or those below me in degree, is to let them have their own experience, without biasing them about mine. (I can, and do talk about mine, of course, but I’m very careful about how and in what context.)
The other part of this is that until they’ve made the commitments to leadership, they should get to spend as much of their time gleefully unaware of those bits of occasional drama and complication as they can. They can’t do that if I keep dragging it into their world. There’s time enough for their participating if/when they make those same commitments to leadership and support of the group and tradition. (Except for the most major cases, of course, that truly do need input from everyone.)
Why an oath?
Why not a working agreement, or a set of guidelines, or something that doesn’t have the weight and power of an oath before the Gods? Certainly, many groups out there have guidelines about privacy, confidentiality, and common practice that don’t take on the complexity and binding of an oath.
I think, however, in this case, an oath is totally appropriate.
First, because it is about things core to people’s identities and well-being. What we do touches on all of people’s lives, potentially – work, identity, family, commitments, priorities, not because we force those changes, but because people grow towards some of them through their work in the tradition. That’s Big Important Stuff, and we should treat it that way.
The second is that the oath goes multiple ways. When someone Dedicates, or Initiates in my tradition, there are commitments they make (to the group, to the Gods.) But there are also commitments others make to them. When I take on a student, and take part in their Dedication oath, I’m making certain fairly significant ties to them, for the duration of their Dedication. Should they initiate, some of those change and pass, and become different, but still deeply meaningful.
And third, that some of what we do has the potential to do real damage if we get it wrong. Honestly, this is like a lot of life – getting in a car can go horribly wrong, getting in a relationship can lead to tremendous pain, all sorts of other complex choices we make can go wrong. But because of the very personal nature of initiatory growth and training, I think we’ve got extra incentives to make sure that we take every possible precaution that still allows for the desired change without causing any unnecessary damage. Making sure that everyone is taking that as seriously as possible therefore strikes me as a good idea.
What I do:
My tradition requires formal oaths at four points: Dedication, First Degree, Second Degree, and Third Degree. Dedication is training leading to the First Degree. People may stop at any point along the way, though some stopping points are generally more stable than others. We require at least a year of working regularly with the group prior to First Degree initiation, as well as demonstrating a general level of skill and knowledge. (Second and Third are a bit more open-ended in some ways, but also have their own requirements.)
The group I trained with (the founding group in the tradition) does a serious focused class before the First Degree initiation (and before anyone can actually request to be considered for initiation) which basically says “Here’s why we’re an initiatory tradition. Here’s different ways initiatory traditions can work. Here’s a whole bunch of stuff that turns up in various initiatory experiences. We’re not telling you which of these we do, but if you have any specific concerns, now would be the time to tell us if you’re considering initiating.”
I like this approach a lot, because it gives people information that they might not otherwise have (particularly around practical concerns) without spoiling the experience for them. It’s the functional equivalent of saying “This stage performance involves strobe lights and smoke machines”, so that people who can’t deal with that can avoid that show, without spoiling the plot.
Based on an essay on my main blog in May of 2010. Last edited December 26, 2016.