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The Odin Oath

Of all the powers attributed to the Odin Stone, it was best-known for its role in sealing agreements and binding marriages.

Orcadians would trek out to the ancient Stenness stone to make their vows absolute by clasping hands through the hole and swearing the "Odin Oath".

This oath was an utterly unbreakable pact, the words to which are now unfortunately lost.

But although the words may be gone, the extremes people would go to before breaking their vows is well documented.

From a paper dated 1774, we learn:

"This ceremony was held so very sacred in those times that the person who dared to break the engagement made here was counted infamous, and excluded all society."

Another case, recorded in 1781, involved a young man who had seduced a girl under promise of marriage. The girl, who fell pregnant, was subsequently deserted:

"The young man was called before session; the elders were particularly severe. Being asked by the minister the cause of so much rigor, they answered: 'You do not know what a bad man this is; he has broke the promise of Odin.'

Being further asked what they meant by the promise of Odin, they put him in mind of the stone at Stenhouse, with the round hole in it; and added, that it was customary, when promises were made, for the contracting parties to join hands through this hole, and the promises so made were called the promises of Odin."

Principal Gordon, Scots College, Paris
Archaeologia Scotica Vol I - 1792

A brief mention of the Odin Oath is also found in the ancient Orkney ballad, The Play o' de Lathie Odivere:

"An swore bae him dat hang on tree' to marry her"
"He bragged near and far he won his wife bae Odin's Aith"

The reference to "him dat hang on tree" points to the Norse God Odin, who in Norse mythology hung from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, for nine nights.

A classic example of just how binding the Odin Oath once was appears in the folklore surrounding the Orkney pirate, John Gow.

While Gow was in Stromness, he supposedly fell in love with a Miss Gordon, the daughter of a local merchant. Keeping with Orcadian tradition, Miss Gordon took Gow to the Odin Stone, where they pledged their troth.

A few months later, however, Gow was captured off Eday, and subsequently executed in London.

Distraught at the death of her lover, Miss Gordon is said to have travelled to London in order to touch the hand of Gow's corpse to release herself from their binding oath.