In the moral structure of Asatru there is really very little that is prescriptive. We have no commandments written in stone, and even works such as the Havamal (The Words of the High One) are read generally as advice and guidelines.
Certainly modern Asatru can be viewed as a religion for those who do not like being told what to do, even by the Gods! However, there is one general exception to the above. It is the notion of Honourable behaviour, and however defined there lies at its heart the Ideal of keeping ones word - The Oath.
To clarify further, an Oath is a formal declaration of Truth or a Promise made by an individual - a declaration of what was, is, or will be. The most common examples of the formal Oath are to be found in the Wedding Vows, Oaths given in a Court of Law and Oaths of Allegiance and Service when embarking upon a career in the Police or Military.
Within Asatru, as within legal frameworks, it is important to note that it is the detail of the wording, and the specified actions and obligations that matter. One is held to account by deeds, rather than unspecified intentions.
There are only a few legitimate ways to be free from the obligations of an Oath. They are: To be released from it by whomever or whatever it was made to or before;
To be released from it by circumstances that have
rendered it meaningless;
I believe that the reason it is so central to our faith is that of all moral positions it is the one that is not susceptible to a relativist interpretation. It is a core of morality that every people, every civilisation past, present and future must acknowledge as Absolute because it is measured and judged ultimately not by people or even Gods, but by Consensus Reality - the reality that lies within the domain of experimental proof - Science.
Simply stated, by taking an Oath we are aligning our innermost self with the Reality of the words we speak. In spiritual terms we are 'putting our Soul where our mouth is'. Or, in more prosaic terms, we are putting our psychological integrity on the line.
If the Oath is in the form of a promise, it has 'magickal' properties - it creates Reality in accordance with Will.
So, why should we take an Oath seriously? What are the penalties for breaking one?
From a social contract point of view the penalties range from nothing, through loss of trustworthiness, loss of 'face' and up to execution depending upon the specific Oath. In the Odinic Rite, one of the Nine Charges is: " Never to make wrongsome oath: for great and grim is the reward for the breaking of plighted troth." Language rather too flowery for my taste, yet it a concise statement of both the spiritual and material consequences and an injunction against making rash or ill specified Oaths. However, it is the spiritual implications that we will now examine.
To return to the beginning, why do we take an Oath in the first place? It is to define our exact position in the spiritual and material realm, either to ourselves, to society, or to our Gods. It is a declaration of who we are, defined by where we stand, or where we will be.
A major consequence of this is that an Oath localises us in the Web of Wyrd, almost as if it were a mapping co-ordinate laid upon an apparently chaotic realm. As a result, no matter what follows, the Oath changes our access to, and view of, that landscape. It is a permanent mark. So, what happens when it is broken is that we are no longer aligned by the Reality we define for ourselves - there arises a dissonance and we become lost as the map we have drawn becomes worthless.
To shift from metaphysical terminology to something rather better defined we need to examine the nature of Mind. To do so we can either call upon modern psychology, or step back two and a half thousand years to the original analysis presented by the Buddha. This was before it accumulated the cultural baggage of the East with which many today associate it.
Either view illuminates not 'the' Mind, or even 'the' Self, but many Minds and Selves that as a dynamic composite comprise the thing that is labelled as 'me' (or you, for that matter). 'I' change moment to moment as attention shifts, emotions come into play, the bodily cycles ebb and flow and all manner of thought and sensation, conscious and unconscious, flit about the brain. Latterly Marvin Minsky has termed it the 'Society of Mind'.
The Buddha summed it up in the year 250BRE (Before Runic Era) in the Diamond Sutra, something I regard as one of the greatest religious and philosophical writings of all time: -
"...if there are beings who listening to this sutra are able to believe, to understand, and to hold it, they will indeed be most wonderful beings. Why? Because they will have no idea of an ego, of a person, of a being, or of a soul. For what reason? The idea of an ego is no-idea (of ego), the idea of a person, a being, or a soul is no-idea (of a person, a being, or a soul). For what reason? They are Buddhas who are free from all kinds of ideas... All composite things (samskrita) are like a dream, a phantasm, a bubble, and a shadow; are like a dew-drop and a flash of lightning; They are thus to be regarded."
It is now generally accepted that the thing that calls itself 'Me' or 'I', the Ego is not something that is 'in control' - it just thinks it is. It is more akin to a self-referencing label attached to the Mind/Body composite. Experiments have shown that even when a person believes that 'they' make a particular decision, even so simple a one as to raise a hand, the brainwaves (evoked potentials) show that the decision is actually executed up to a second before the Ego claims it decided.
As to where that leaves 'Soul'... another article; meanwhile... If anyone doubts this, it can be verified in many ways. Two of the simplest are presented below. So, a quick outline of the methods of checking the modern/ancient model of Mind, one purely mental, and one physical.
The first is introspective meditation. For example, in Zazen meditation the aim is to still the Mind and it's incessant chatter. Simply sit, and think no thoughts; keep your mind blank for one minute. If you fail (which almost everyone but an experienced meditator does) ask yourself who is doing the talking and who wants it to stop? Clearly someone inside is not obeying orders, yet, the 'chatterer' is superficially the one who keeps insisting it stop! It is 'you'.
The second method illustrates the physical effects of Mind as a composite. I call it the 'pushups test', for a reason that will become obvious, but the underlying principle is true of the Mind/Body interaction in general. If pushups are practised daily there is an approximate maximum that can be done. It is not a 'hard' limit because the body only gradually gets tired. As athletes have discovered the best way to 'psyche up' to do a maximum number is to say to yourself 'this is going to be easy'...'I'm feeling fit and strong today' and so on - to visualise success. Under such circumstances you are quite likely to exceed your previous record. The converse is particularly true. If you express pessimism over your expected performance, say to yourself how weak and ill you feel - to visualise failure, it is very difficult to do even the number you know you can. Something inside you, something that has access to your body as well as 'you', is listening and performing as told or expected. As some of you may have noted, even someone talking to you negatively can have a detrimental effect - 'psyching out the opposition' in sports terms.
The reality is that we are Legion. The question then becomes what happens when 'we' do not march in step, or even in the same direction? The last example of the above offers the clue. The mind divided against itself is weak. One part is obstructing the other, which at best results in a certain degree of indecision. After all, how often are people 'in two minds' about something? At worst, the division is manifested in the body as opposing facets compete. The results are stress and dis-ease of mind and body, because the reality is that they are a physical unity. The person feels ill at ease, there is suffering that no simple quick course of action will alleviate. To paraphrase an old saying, you cannot please all of the facets all of the time if they are in competition. It is the modern neurological picture partially underlying the Buddhist notion of Suffering.
The truth of the matter is encoded into English and other Germanic languages in our everyday speech, yet passes generally unrecognised by most people. If our Mind is not integrated, we lack Integrity. If it is not whole, we are not Holy. The latter word is derived from the Indo-European root hailo- or kailo- "free from injury, whole", whence comes also English hale as in "hale and hearty". There are cognates in the Germanic languages, for example German heilig, Swedish helig "holy". Then of course, there is the common greeting we use in Asatru - 'Hailsa' or 'Heilsa' meaning 'Be Whole'.
The divided mind is weakness incarnate. It can be pushed and pulled in many different and conflicting directions with ease, and because this is so, it cannot be predicted or trusted. It is one of the major sources of unease that people experience around some types of the mentally ill and around those people who are fickle, 'shallow', 'self' centred or totally untrustworthy. There is no placid depth to the ocean of mind, only churning foam with tides running in all directions. It is why the pre-eminent Christian prayer requests of God '...lead us not into temptation...' Real temptation is a 'regret if you do, regret if you don't' situation. It is a situation that forces a division of the Mind. That's why it is temptation, after all, and why it should be avoided.
How someone arrives in such a state is a matter for debate along the usual lines of Nature/Nurture, but the Mind can be trained. Again, the methods for disciplining the mind are millennia old. Pavlov, the Behaviourists, Conditioned Reflex etc are all old discoveries. The key to any kind of training is repetition and reinforcement. Tendencies, which are themselves mind fragments, get stronger and more deeply entrenched through practice and use, and fade away with disuse. It is, in fact, why one of the Nine Virtues is 'Discipline', and also lies at the heart of the Eightfold Way. If there is no self-discipline the Mind simply becomes a jungle. The Discipline is exerted in a particular direction with some tendencies being exercised, and some excised by being allowed to wither and die, almost as if one were pruning a tree. The overall framework that we use for setting a direction for the Society of Mind must be consistent. It is called 'Morality'.
The methods used fall go under many names, meditation and prayer being the two most commonly associated with religious practice, although such practices do not have to be formal or even recognised for what they are. They can even take the form of Oaths and Blots.
Breaking an Oath is a major step onto the downward path by creating an instant major division that is effectively permanent as long as the memory and Reality clash. Of course, if an Oath Breaker starts in that state and the Oath means nothing to begin with, then they are not going to be worse off. They may, in fact, profit in the short term from such a deception.
It is a strategy for the weak - those who lack a Morality. It also means that they are chronically unable to define themselves in the world as anything but a grab bag of uncontrolled desires and cravings responding in an expedient short-term manner. They have no focus in the spiritual realm, but are diffuse objects lost in what seems like a hostile environment (Niflhel?). Once again, a description of them in everyday speech would be that they 'have no presence of mind'. They are not capable of acting in a coherent, effective way in the world, and are certainly incapable of any 'magickal' practices. [Sounds rather like a description of government, doesn't it?!] Like most generalisations, there are interesting exceptions.
Many religions have specialised in saving one from such a predicament, that is, in offering 'Salvation'. There are two methods that I am aware of that could be effective after the fact. They both amount to essentially the same thing, and are exceptionally difficult (and hence unlikely, despite what practitioners may claim). It is 'Being Reborn', which means changing to such an extent that there is no direct causal (i.e. 'Karmic') link between the old and new. Christianity allegedly does so by replacing the old Mind with a new, God centred, one. Buddhism does it by quieting the Mind to such an extent that the Ocean stops churning, and there is so little remaining in the way of turbulence that any divisions that once existed have negligible effects. The extinguishing of desire - the putting out of the fire - the cooling after a fever - Nirvana.
In essence, these methods reflect a difference in spirituality between East and West. Somewhere in between, possibly due to our common Indo European heritage, lies Asatru.
The notion of 'attachment' also arises, not only in terms of the Oath, but also in terms of general mental health. It is one of the superficial discrepancies between Asatru and Buddhism. In the former, we strive to be attached, or attach ourselves, to codes of conduct defined as 'Honourable'. The latter being a commitment to what is Right. With Buddhism, the aim is non-attachment. It means that we do not invest anything of 'ourself' in the world of Illusion or Ideas or Concepts etc. The rationale is that all composite things are transitory, hence impermanent. By attaching to things that will cease to exist (or maybe existed only as projected figments of the imagination) we are chaining ourselves to a sinking ship. When that ship sinks, it tears part of the Mind. I have experienced that feeling upon the death of a friend - the part of me that was attached to her felt like it had been torn away and had left a gaping hole, and I was incomplete. Perhaps one of the reasons for a naïve belief in the afterlife is to prevent such wounds and sense of loss from causing a permanent disfigurement of the mental landscape. Anyway, to return to the notion of attachment in Asatru I would maintain that we are not a religion that withdraws from the world, as Buddhism has a tendency to do. We take a more pragmatic approach. Namely, we should attach as far as possible only to the atemporal - to Principles. Buddhism at its ultimate does not even attach to the idea of non-attachment, or to Being or Non Being! The point being, if one were totally non attached to the Oath, or its requirements, or benefits or consequences one might take it and/or break it at 'will' without Karmic consequence, although one does wonder what 'motivations' might be for doing so, or how such may arise at all. Non attachment allows one to move through the Web of Wryd without causing much in the way of ripples. It is the essence of invisibility.
Finally, the analysis of the Oath also applies to a lesser extent to the notions of telling truth and lies, and while the effects are generally lesser, chronic dishonesty makes up for in quantity what it lacks in quality.