Our oaths, our promises, our punishments

It is said that the Hittite Generals swore oaths of allegiance to their kings before women’s clothing, a spindle and arrow which was broken before them. They were told if they broke their oath their weapons like the arrow would break, they would be made women and given women’s tasks. A blind and deaf woman was lead before them; likewise they were told that if they broke their word they too would be made blind and deaf. Finally a statuette with a gut bloated by dropsy was brought before them and they were told should they break their word, their bellies too would swell with fluid and that the gods who guard their oath would devour their children (CTH 427).

The Hittites were a people who lived (and ruled) much of what is modern day Turkey-Anatolia for some 400-500 years and were famous for their use of chariots and manufacture of Iron; they also didn’t have budget emergencies.

Suffice it to say the Hittites took their oaths and their promises seriously. Suffice it also to say there are many who take theirs less so. Most people live their lives by a series of rules and obligations, spoken or not, which define what we say and do.  Maybe those codes and ethics aren’t for you, theÜbermensch, but remember that you don’t rob, kill or garrotte your friends and family, that most of the time you keep those ‘big’ promises you make. Sure, maybe you’re actually not busy this weekend, but sometimes you really mean it.

If you don’t keep those promises then you risk being labelled something else. Oath breaker might be a strong choice of words but it’s telling that past societies had such strident ways of understanding promises and oaths. To break ones oath was to risk everything, to risk death and damnation.

“No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”
-Tony ‘Big Tony’ Abbott

Great and venerable leader T. Abbott the Rhodes Scholar once said such a thing; he even stood in front of a camera and said it. So does that qualify as an oath? If one says something enough, to enough people, does it make it so? Some say yes, others (he himself included) choose to think otherwise, saying  it was subordinate to bigger promises of repeal the boats, build the carbon tax of the 21st century, stop the roads and get the budget…something…something. You get the picture.

The Romans took their oaths pretty seriously, they even had a god of oaths—they had gods of just about anything (they even had a god of doors)—Orcus. Sometimes portrayed as a hairy, bearded giant or the punishing alter-ego of Hades, the god of the dead, Orcus was purported to punish oath-breakers and evildoers in the afterlife

If you wanted to take a little more modern look at some famous oaths maybe look at pre-revolutionary France and the Tennis Court oath—where they swore to uphold the time-honoured tradition of “same time next week guys?”—this is the place to look for politicians who tried keeping their promises right up until it meant their head was next. The idiom “heads roll” has a literal root to it.

Maybe we should run the government with a boy-scouts style of promise making, three fingers up, repeat after me:

On my honour I promise to do my best –
To do my duty to the Country
To help other people at all times…

While much is made of the fallibility of our politicians promises it’s the very act of demanding black-and-white declarations, of yes and no, that makes us so distrustful. There’s a famous, paraphrased, misquote-quote attributed to boy-genius and all-round-rascal John Maynard Keynes:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

So yes, people change their minds –even politicians (yes they’re people too), they lie, they cheat, and they say things that will get them elected.

But that’s not the point; the point is that when we’re so demanding of finalities we’re destined to be let down. We hate being let down, so we force our politicians to ‘mean what they say’, but in doing that we force them to say things they don’t mean, and in turn reinforce our distrust. Distrust creates contempt, contempt forces promises we know they won’t keep, in turn causing us to distrust them further. We’re doing ourselves no favours here folks, and neither are they.

While it seems increasingly unlikely that a hairy, bearded giant will punish Joe ‘oath-breaker’ Hockey or Tony ‘did he really break an oath? Abbott we might want to be aware of deterrents ancient societies had in store to stop conflating government expenditure with critical financial catastrophe.

I’m not suggesting we let off the politicians for making yes-or-no declarations so easy but we should be mindful of why they make them. In our quest for politicians to stick to their guns we force them to let us down.  Broken arrows for broken promises, make them deaf and blind, make them women. Torment them with great beared giants. But woe betide us who force them to make promises we know that cannot/will not keep, we too should know to expect such things.

By David Ross

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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