Pride and Perjury: Time and the Oath in the Mountain Villages of Crete

By Michael Herzfeld

Strategic manipulations of notions of trust and eternal value invoke a timeless model of perfect reciprocity. This ‘structural nostalgia’ legitimises present actions. The principle is illustrated by the uses of oaths among Cretan animal-thieves. Once an oath has been taken, accusers may not voice their suspicions of others’ perjury in the absence of irrefutable evidence. The word of honour is a refraction of the divine Word, so that unfounded challenges offend at both the social and the cosmological levels. The oath is used to establish parity amongst rivals, by restoring social relations to an approximate version of the ideal. Its adoption by courts of law decreases its reliability and moral power by further undermining the principles of direct social reciprocity.

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