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,
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,
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.