Friday, April 29, 2005


Ancient Oaths

Here is a translation of the Hippocratic Oath by Heinrich Von Staden, from "In a Pure and Holy Way: Personal and Professional Conduct in the Hippocratic Oath," Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 51 (1996) 406-408:
1. i. I swear
ii. by Apollo the Physician and by Health and Panacea and by all the gods as well as goddesses, making them judges [witnesses],
iii. to bring the following oath and written covenant to fulfillment, in accordance with my power and my judgment;
2. i. to regard him who has taught me this techne as equal to my parents, and
ii. to share, in partnership, my livelihood with him and to give him a share when he is in need of necessities, and
iii. to judge the offspring [coming] from him equal to [my] male siblings, and
iv. to teach them this techne, should they desire to learn [it], without fee and written covenant, and to give a share both of rules and of lectures, and of all the rest of learning, to my sons and to the [sons] of him who has taught me and to the pupils who have both made a written contract and sworn by a medical convention but by no other.
3. i. And I will use regimens for the benefit of the ill in accordance with my ability and my judgment, but from [what is] to their harm or injustice I will keep [them].
4. i. And I will not give a drug that is deadly to anyone if asked [for it],
ii. nor will I suggest the way to such a counsel. And likewise I will not give a woman a destructive pessary [a stone to induce abortion].
5. i. And in a pure and holy way
ii. I will guard my life and my techne.
6. i. I will not cut, and certainly not those suffering from stone, but I will cede [this] to men [who are] practitioners of this activity.
7. i. Into as many houses as I may enter, I will go for the benefit of the ill,
ii. while being far from all voluntary and destructive injustice, especially from sexual acts both upon women's bodies and upon men's, both of the free and of the slaves.
8. i. And about whatever I may see or hear in treatment, or even without treatment, in the life of human beings -- things that should not ever be blurted out outside --I will remain silent, holding such things to be unutterable [sacred, not to be divulged],
i. a. If I render this oath fulfilled, and if I do not blur and confound it [making it to no effect]
b. may it be [granted] to me to enjoy the benefits both of life and of techne.
c. being held in good repute among all human beings for time eternal.
ii. a. If, however, I transgress and perjure myself,
b. the opposite of these.
Let's consider not the content, but the form of this oath. It consists of three parts. First the physician calls upon certain gods to witness the oath (1), next he promises to do or refrain from doing certain acts (2-8), and finally he call down blessings (8.i) or curses (8.ii) upon himself, as a consequence of observing or violating the oath.

We see exactly the same form in an interesting passage from Euripides' Medea. Jason has jilted Medea in favor of the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, and Creon has pronounced a sentence of exile upon Medea. When Aegeus, king of Athens, appears on the scene, Medea begs sanctuary from him, and Aegeus promises that she will find refuge in Athens. But Medea is not content with Aegeus' promise, and seeks to bind him by an oath (731-755, tr. E.P. Coleridge):
MEDEA It shall be even so; but wouldst thou pledge thy word to this, I should in all be well content with thee.

AEGEUS Surely thou dost trust me? or is there aught that troubles thee?

MEDEA Thee I trust; but Pelias' house and Creon are my foes. Wherefore, if thou art bound by an oath, thou wilt not give me up to them when they come to drag me from the land, but, having entered into a compact and sworn by heaven as well, thou wilt become my friend and disregard their overtures. Weak is any aid of mine, whilst they have wealth and a princely house.

AEGEUS Lady, thy words show much foresight, so if this is thy will, I do not refuse. For I shall feel secure and safe if I have some pretext to offer to thy foes, and thy case too the firmer stands. Now name thy gods.

MEDEA Swear by the plain of Earth, by Helios my father's sire, and, in one comprehensive oath, by all the race of gods.

AEGEUS What shall I swear to do, from what refrain? tell me that.

MEDEA Swear that thou wilt never of thyself expel me from thy land, nor, whilst life is thine, permit any other, one of my foes maybe, to hale me thence if so he will.

AEGEUS By Earth I swear, by the Sun-god's holy beam and by all the host of heaven that I will stand fast to the terms I hear thee make.

MEDEA 'Tis enough. If thou shouldst break this oath, what curse dost thou invoke upon thyself?

AEGEUS Whate'er betides the impious.
The form of the oath sworn by Aegeus, at Medea's prompting, parallels the form of the Hippocratic Oath. Aegeus swears by Earth, Sun, and all the other gods that he will grant sanctuary to Medea, and invokes a curse upon himself if does not keep his promise.

There is a scene in Sophocles' Women of Trachis that is very similar to the scene in Euripides' Medea. Heracles, near death and suffering horribly, wants his son Hyllus to build a pyre on Mount Oeta and place his body on it. Just as Medea prompted Aegeus to swear an oath in Euripides' play, so Heracles prompts his son to swear an oath in Sophocles' play (1179-1205, tr. R.C. Jebb):
HYLLUS Yea, father, -- though I fear the issue to which our talk hath brought me, -- I will do thy good pleasure.

HERACLES First of all, lay thy right hand in mine.

HYLLUS For what purpose dost thou insist upon his pledge?

HERACLES Give thy hand at once -- disobey me not!

HYLLUS Lo, there it is: thou shalt not be gainsaid.

HERACLES Now, swear by the head of Zeus my sire!

HYLLUS To do what deed? May this also be told?

HERACLES To perform for me the task that I shall enjoin.

HYLLUS I swear it, with Zeus for witness of the oath.

HERACLES And pray that, if thou break this oath, thou mayest suffer.

HYLLUS I shall not suffer, for I shall keep it: -- yet so I pray.

HERACLES Well, thou knowest the summit of Oeta, sacred to Zeus?

HYLLUS Ay; I have often stood at his altar on that height.

HERACLES Thither, then, thou must carry me up with thine own hands, aided by what friends thou wilt; thou shalt lop many a branch from the deep-rooted oak, and hew many a faggot also from the sturdy stock of the wild-olive; thou shalt lay my body thereupon, and kindle it with flaming pine-torch.

And let no tear of mourning be seen there; no, do this without lament and without weeping, if thou art indeed my son. But if thou do it not, even from the world below my curse and my wrath shall wait on thee for ever.

HYLLUS Alas, my father, what hast thou spoken? How hast thou dealt with me!

HERACLES I have spoken that which thou must perform; if thou wilt not, then get thee some other sire, and be called my son no more!
Here, too, we see the tripartite structure of the oath. The god in this case is Zeus, the action is to build a pyre and place Heracles on it, and the sanction is suffering.

The gods take seriously the violation of an oath. In Xenophon's Anabasis (2.5.5-7, tr. Carleton L. Brownson), Clearchus says:
For, first and chiefly, our oaths, sworn by the gods, stand in the way of our being enemies of one another; and the man who is conscious that he has disregarded such oaths, I for my part shall never account happy. For in war with the gods I know not either by what swiftness of foot or in what place of refuge he could make his escape, or into what darkness he could steal away, or how he could withdraw himself to a safe fortress. For all things in all places are subject to the gods, and all alike the gods hold in their control.
Similarly Lycurgus, Against Leocrates 79 (tr. J.O. Burtt), says:
For human beings have often been deceived. Many criminals evade them, escaping the dangers of the moment, yes, and even remaining unpunished for these crimes for the remainder of their lives. But the gods no one who broke his oath could deceive. No one would escape their vengeance. If the perjured man does not suffer himself, at least his children and all his family are overtaken by dire misfortune.
This passage from Lycurgus makes an important point. As Jon D. Mikalson, Athenian Popular Religion (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), p. 31, points out:
There is no evidence that lying, cheating, accepting bribes, giving false testimony, intentionally voting unjustly in a law case, and similar "wrongs" were thought in themselves to be of concern to the gods. But the Athenians loaded these wrongs, together with a host of others, with religious content when they made them the object of promissory oaths. When the individual had previously sworn not to do something, such as the taking of a bribe, if he then committed that act, he made himself liable not only to prosecution for the illegal act but also to divine punishment for breaking the oath. Divine punishment would befall him not because of the illegal act per se, but only because he had violated his promissory oath when he committed that act.

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