This is another topic that has arisen for me of late. Mostly because I have been reading Ciaran Carson's rendition of "The Tain". What niggled me the night before last was the part wherein Cú Chulainn takes up command of a chariot and goes on a bit of a rampage, taking on all comers and issuing challenges.
He goes on to do some hunting and then returns to Emain Macha and shows his disrespect to Conchobar and a desire to engage in warfare with those he has sworn to protect. In response to this, Conchobar sends out the women to shock him out of his battle rage and he is then dunked in barrels of water until he is calm, whereupon he is placed on Conchobar's knee.
What strikes me as odd is that as Sentanta, he swore an oath to protect Conchobar and his province from all comers in retribution for killing the prize hound of Conchobar, hence the name change to Cú Chulainn. So, why then, when he breaks this oath is Cú Chulainn not punished? It seems very odd to me, considering the role that oaths and honour play in pre-Christian society.
Some have conjectured that it is a case of "diminished capacity" whilst in the throes of blood lust, and so Cú Chulainn cannot be responsible for his actions, or the breaking of any oaths or promises. It is also conjectured that, though he may seem uncontrollable, he is invincible, nonetheless, and this is an asset to Conor people. So, they are unlikely to punish him for his actions.
I find both are unsatisfactory answers. To my mind, an oath is very serious indeed. I would consider an oath more serious than a marriage vow and infinitely more binding than a mere promise.
I tend to view promises as something you will endeavour to do, but they can be broken should adverse circumstances prevail, inhibiting your ability to fulfill such promises. For instance, if you promise your neighbour can have every male calf born to you this year and no male calves materialise, then its a promise which you cannot fulfill and, understandably so. Or, if you promise to take your elderly neighbour shopping on Saturday and your sister is in a serious accident and you have to attend her to bedside in a foreign country, then you should not be obliged to keep the promise you made to your neighbour. Though, I would think it dishonourable to not attempt to find someone else to assist in your absence. The consequences are breaking a promise are such that only your honour and reputation should be wounded.
I believe vows are far more serious undertakings than promises. A marriage vow should not be broken, bar extreme circumstances. The only premise I could find for the breaking of such a vow would be if you found your partner was already married and continuing the relationship without your prior knowledge. Then the vows would be made null and void. If anyone can think of any other circumstances do let me know. If one breaks a vow, I feel there should be some serious retribution and recompense owing to any injured parties.
When I was sworn in as a Justice of the Peace, I took the words of that oath very seriously and I would never knowingly break it. I have never been in any situation (other than a professional one) where I felt an oath was required. I feel the undertaking of an oath is very serious.
There was an occasion where I was witness to an assault. I was called as a witness to the court and, as such I would have sworn an oath to tell the truth. As it happens, the accused was not the person I had seen and it was fortunate indeed that he had jumped bail, because I was being urged to say I wasn't sure about his identity rather than categorically deny it was him. How do I know it wasn't the accused? I was shown his photograph just before going into court. If I had seen that picture before that day, I would have advised the prosecutor and I would not have spent a troublesome hour pondering my fate were I to give false witness. My conscience told me I could not lie under any circumstances, because of the oath I would have sworn in court and the one I undertook as a Justice of the Peace.
It was a horrible position to find myself in, but I knew if they asked I would have to say I was sure the accused was not the attacker I had seen. My conscience would not let me do otherwise and I felt that I could not live with sending someone down for a crime he did not commit, regardless of any other, more serious crimes he may have committed.
I know they are talking about having children in the UK swear an oath to Queen, country and government every morning, but I would protest at any child of mine undertaking such an oath for many reasons. I have little faith in some of the government's actions and I reserve the right to protest against anything done in my name by the government that I feel is wrong. I am certainly not going to swear an oath to the next in line to the throne, as I have little faith in him, either. The country, this land on which I tread - yes, I can swear an oath to that, but can a child of primary school age really comprehend the importance of that oath?
Perhaps that's where my answer lies in relation to Cú Chulainn's actions; he was only a boy when he took his oath, so he may be owed some leeway when it comes to keeping it? It is my understanding, however, that promises, vows and oaths were far more important in pagan times then they are today and that a child would be more aware of the importance of allegiance, honour, respect and paying the price for the loss of same.
For my part, I won't be taking any oaths lightly, though I do endeavour to keep my promises and my word. I still hold to the belief that "my word in my bond" - a phrase which has always spoken to me of honour, fealty and the nobility (exalted moral excellence) of mankind.