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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Oath of office: Henry Kissinger places his hand on a bible in the USA, 1973

An oath (from Anglo-Saxon āð, also called plight) is either a statement of fact or a promise calling upon something or someone that the oath maker considers sacred, usually God, as a witness to the binding nature of the promise or the truth of the statement of fact. To swear is to take an oath, to make a solemn vow.

The essence of a divine oath is an invocation of divine agency to be a guarantor of the oath taker's own honesty and integrity in the matter under question. By implication, this invokes divine displeasure if the oath taker fails in their sworn duties. It therefore implies greater care than usual in the act of the performance of one's duty, such as in testimony to the facts of the matter in a court of law.

A person taking an oath indicates this in a number of ways. The most usual is the explicit "I swear," but any statement or promise that includes "with * as my witness" or "so help me *," with '*' being something or someone the oath-taker holds sacred, is an oath. Many people take an oath by holding in their hand or placing over their head a book of scripture or a sacred object, thus indicating the sacred witness through their action: such an oath is called corporal. However, the chief purpose of such an act is for ceremony or solemnity, and the act does not of itself make an oath.[citation needed]

In Western countries it is customary to raise the right hand while swearing an oath, whether or not the left hand is laid on a Bible or other text. This custom originated during the Medieval period when convicted felons were often branded on the palm of the right hand with a letter or mark indicating their conviction. Since felons were disqualified from making declarations under oath, an oath-taker would display their right hand to show that they were free of convictions and therefore able take an oath.[1]

There is confusion between oaths and other statements or promises. The current Olympic Oath, for instance, is really a pledge and not properly an oath since there is only a "promise" and no appeal to a sacred witness. Oaths are also confused with vows, but really a vow is a special kind of oath.

In law, oaths are made by a witness to a court of law before giving testimony and usually by a newly-appointed government officer to the people of a state before taking office. In both of those cases, though, an affirmation can be usually substituted. A written statement, if the author swears the statement is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is called an affidavit. The oath given to support an affidavit is frequently administered by a notary public who will memorialize the giving of the oath by affixing her or his seal to the document. Breaking an oath (or affirmation) is perjury.


Greco-Roman tradition

In the Roman tradition, oaths were sworn upon Iuppiter Lapis or the Jupiter Stone located in the Temple of Jupiter, Capitoline Hill. Iuppiter Lapis was held in the Roman Tradition to be an Oath Stone, an aspect of Jupiter is his role as divine law-maker responsible for order and used principally for the investiture of the oathtaking of office. Romans would typically hold their testicles while swearing into public office or making a public promise or oath.[citation needed]

Bailey (1907) states:

We have, for instance, the sacred stone (silex) which was preserved in the temple of Iuppiter on the Capitol, and was brought out to play a prominent part in the ceremony of treaty-making. The fetial, who on that occasion represented the Roman people, at the solemn moment of the oath-taking, struck the sacrificial pig with the silex, saying as he did so, 'Do thou, Diespiter, strike the Roman people as I strike this pig here to-day, and strike them the more, as thou art greater and stronger.' Here no doubt the underlying notion is not merely symbolical, but in origin the stone is itself the god, an idea which later religion expressed in the cult-title specially used in this connection, Iuppiter Lapis.[2]

Walter Burkert has shown that since Lycurgus of Athens (d. 324 BC), who held that "it is the oath which holds democracy together", religion, morality and political organization had been linked by the oath, and the oath and its prerequisite altar had become the basis of both civil and criminal, as well as international law.[3]

Jewish tradition

The concept of oaths is deeply rooted within the Judaism. It is found in Genesis 8:21, when God swears that he will "never again curse the ground because of man and never again smite every living thing." This repetition of the term never again is explained by Rashi, the preeminent biblical commentator, as serving as an oath, citing the Talmud[4] for this ruling.[5]

The first personage in the biblical tradition to take an oath is held to be Eliezer, the chief servant of Abraham, when the latter requested of the former that he not take a wife for his son Isaac from the daughters of Canaan, but rather from among Abraham's own family. In the Judeo-Christian Tradition, this is held as the origination of the concept that it is required to hold a sacred object in one's hand when taking an oath.

Christian tradition

As late as 1880, Charles Bradlaugh was denied a seat as an MP in the Parliament of the United Kingdom as because of his professed atheism he was judged unable to swear the Oath of Allegiance in spite of his proposal to swear the oath as a "matter of form".

Various religious groups have objected to the taking of oaths, most notably the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and Mennonites. This is principally based on Matthew 5:34-37, the Antithesis of the Law. Here, Christ is written to say "I say to you: 'Swear not at all'". The Apostle James stated in James 5:12, "Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned."

Not all Christians follow this reading, because of the statements in the Old Testament. Jews also avoid taking oaths, as making a false oath, even unintentionally so, would violate a Biblical commandment in Leviticus 19:12.

Opposition to oath-taking caused many problems for these groups throughout their history. Quakers were frequently imprisoned because of their refusal to swear loyalty oaths. Testifying in court was also difficult; George Fox, Quakers' founder, famously challenged a judge who had asked him to swear, saying that he would do so once the judge could point to any Bible passage where Jesus or his apostles took oaths. (The judge could not, but this did not allow Fox to escape punishment.) Legal reforms from the 18th century onwards mean that everyone in the United Kingdom now has the right to make a solemn affirmation instead of an oath. The United States has permitted affirmations since it was founded; it is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Only two US Presidents, Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover (who was a Quaker), have chosen to affirm rather than swear at their inaugurations.

Germanic tradition

Roland swears fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript of a chanson de geste.

Germanic warrior culture was significantly based on oaths of fealty, directly continued into medieval notions of chivalry.

A prose passage inserted in the eddic poem Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar relates:

Hedin was coming home alone from the forest one Yule-eve, and found a troll-woman; she rode on a wolf, and had snakes in place of a bridle. She asked Hedin for his company. "Nay," said he. She said, "Thou shalt pay for this at the bragarfull." That evening the great vows were taken; the sacred boar was brought in, the men laid their hands thereon, and took their vows at the bragarfull. Hedin vowed that he would have Sváva, Eylimi's daughter, the beloved of his brother Helgi; then such great grief seized him that he went forth on wild paths southward over the land, and found Helgi, his brother.

Such Norse traditions are directly parallel to the "bird oaths" of late medieval France, such as the voeux du faisan (oath on the pheasant) or the (fictional) voeux du paon (oath on the peacock).[6]

Types of oaths

Famous oaths



Other meanings

The word "oath" is often used to mean any angry expression which includes religious or other strong language used as an expletive.


  1. ^
  2. ^ In Chapter Two: The 'Antecedents' of Roman Religion. Source: (accessed: August 21, 2007)
  3. ^ Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. Raffan, Harvard University Press (1985), 250ff.
  4. ^ Shavous 36a
  5. ^ Metsudah Chumash and Rashi, KTAV Publishing House, 1991. page 88
  6. ^ Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (ch. 3); Michel Margue, „Vogelgelübde“ am Hof des Fürsten. Ritterliches Integrationsritual zwischen Traditions- und Gegenwartsbezug (14. – 15. Jahrhundert)


Bailey, Cyril (1907). The Religion of Ancient Rome. London, UK: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd. Source: [1] (Accessed: August 21, 2007)

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a solemn appeal to God, permitted on fitting occasions (Deut 6:13; Jer 4:2), in various forms (Gen 16:5; 2 Sam 12:5; Ruth 1:17; Hos 4:15; Rom 1:9), and taken in different ways (Gen 14:22; 24:2; 2Chr 6:22). God is represented as taking an oath (Heb 6:16-18), so also Christ (Mt 26:64), and Paul (Rom 9:1; Gal 1:20; Phil 1:8). The precept, "Swear not at all," refers probably to ordinary conversation between man and man (Mt 5:34,37). But if the words are taken as referring to oaths, then their intention may have been to show "that the proper state of Christians is to require no oaths; that when evil is expelled from among them every yea and nay will be as decisive as an oath, every promise as binding as a vow."

This entry includes text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897.

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Simple English

An oath (from Anglo-Saxon āð) is a promise. An oath is spoken out loud in front of other people who can see and hear what is done and said. They are witnesses to the oath. A person who cannot speak can make a sign that they are "taking an oath". Another way of saying that a person is "taking an oath" is to say that they are "swearing an oath".

A person can say "I promise that I will do this..." or "I swear that I will do this..."

When a person swears an oath they often show that the oath is very important to them by calling God to see and remember the promise, and to show that the promise is true, and cannot be taken back later. When a person takes an oath they sometimes raise their right hand, or put their hand on their heart, on the Bible or on another holy book.

Oaths are used in many situations when a person needs to be true to what they say:

  • A person often swears an oath when they get married that they will love, care for and be true to their partner.
  • A person is often asked to take an "oath" that they will tell the truth in a court case.
  • A person who has an important position like a mayor or a governor swears an oath that they will serve their people and country.
  • When a person becomes a citizen of a country where they were not born, they take an "oath of allegiance" and promise that they will be a good and true citzen of their new country.

Other meanings

The word "oath" is often used to mean any angry expression which includes religious or other strong language and promises that the person will do something horrible.

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