Fifty-seven years ago, I taught an upper class undergraduate course in Harvard’s General Education program called “Value and Reality in Western Society.” Part One of the course dealt with The Problem of Loyalty in Contemporary America. Part Two was devoted to An Analysis of Historical Materialism. Doing some background reading for Part One, I found myself one day in the reading room of the Harvard Law School. I can still recall the look and feel of the long library tables, at one of which I sat reading a law review article about the origins of the modern practice of having witnesses in a trial testify under oath.
The author of the article [who was, I recall, a woman, but her name is long since lost to me] explained that the oath a witness swears in court originated as what she called a conditional self-curse. That is, the witness said, in effect, “If I should testify falsely, let God damn me to eternal hell fire.” This conditional self-curse was taken so seriously by all involved that if a witness issued uttered it, his testimony was accepted forthwith as reliable, since it was unimaginable that anyone would call down upon himself so terrible a punishment. The modern phrase “so help me God” uttered ritually by witnesses “taking the oath” is a compressed and fragmentary remnant of the original conditional self-curse.
This has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but I thought it was interesting.