Part of membership within many coven or esoteric group involves the rite whereby an oath is sworn. Sometimes, depending on the structure of the group, there are a number of oaths that are sworn as the member moves through the ranks. Regardless of the number of oaths, very rarely does one supersede any made previously - more often than not, any subsequent oaths tend to for an additional layer (or enhancement) of the initial oath.
The word oath comes from the Anglo-Saxon āð (also referred to as a "a true principle or belief, especially one of fundamental importance. An oath is also a "solemn appeal to a deity", as well as being a "formally affirmed statement or promise accepted as an equivalent of an appeal to a deity or to a revered person or thing; affirmation".
Within the Craft, we are encouraged to "strive to keep pure our highest ideals" and this means to act in accordance with the oaths that we have sworn. We should be ever mindful that when we sworn such oaths that we did so not only within the sanctity of the sacred space and before other members of the group we work with, but that that very sacred space was erected in the presence of deity.
An oath differs from a vow in that the latter is often considered to be more of a personal transaction between the declarer and deity, where the person "promises to render some service or gift" or even devotes something that of value to the deity's use. Regardless of this point, at the end of the day when you give your word, regardless of situation, you are effectively offering up your own sense of integrity, mortality and honour - none of which are things that should be dismissed lightly.
Not only therefore should we seriously consider any oaths that we are about to make as to whether we are able to uphold them, but we should also seriously consider what to do when the latter becomes apparent.
Anglo-Saxon (as well as Celtic) societies considered the undertaking of oaths extremely seriously, as did the breaking of such oaths, the latter being reflected in English law. King Alfred played a crucial role in formalising laws on oath-breaking:
When the king of Wessex turned to listing the actual laws of the domboc, he began with the commandment he considered to be “most necessary” for every Anglo-Saxon man to keep, a law that proved to be fundamental to the preservation of English society: Alfred insisted that every Anglo-Saxon man keep his oaths and pledges. Instead of a prohibition of murder, treason, or some other heinous crime, the king saw oath-breaking as the greatest threat to the endurance of his kingdom. Although this prioritization of the keeping of oaths may seem strange to the modern mind, to the Anglo-Saxon it was clear that keeping one’s word stood at the foundation of a civilized society.
In 1801, dictum meum pactum ("my word is my bond") this maritime brokers' motto became the motto of the London Stock Exchange during a time where bargain were made without any exchange of documents or written pledges given. It is still used today for it reflects to the integrity and honour of the individual. When we make an oath, or even a vow, we are declaring that our own personal integrity is reflected in how we follow through keeping the words we have made. Even more so, when the oaths were made within the sanctity of the sacred space that has been erected in the presence of deity. For should we dismiss, at some later stage, the oaths made in such circumstances, what we are effectively declaring is that our words mean nothing, merely lip-service.
Beware your oaths.
What is done cannot be undone.
Once a bell is sounded, it cannot be un-rung.