The 374-Word Oath

by Seth Jarndyl, Improbable Research staff

What is the lengthiest spoken oath regularly required of witnesses in a formal legal trial? I believe the answer is: 374 words, in the legal courts of Burma (now Myanmar), until at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

That, anyway, is the longest I have found in examining legal documents and historical reports from the nations of the world over the past five hundred years. If anyone knows of, and can document, a longer oath, I would of course be pleased to hear of it.

The Burmese Oath

A English translation of the oath appears in Kenneth R.H. Mackenzie’s 1853 book Burmah and the Burmese, published in London. Mackenzie writes:

Witnesses, both in the civil and criminal causes, are sometimes examined upon oath, though not always. The oath is written in a small book of pa1m-leaves, and is held over the head of the witness. Foreigners, however, take their own oaths.

Mackenzie calls the small book The Book of Imprecations, but says that “the Burmese call it, the Book of the Oath.” It includes some sentiments for any witness who would testify untruthfully:

May all those who, in consequence of bribery from either party, do not speak the truth, incur the eight dangers and the ten punishments. May they be infected with all sorts of diseases.

Moreover, may they be destroyed by elephants, bitten and slain by serpents, killed and devoured by the devils and giants, the tigers, and other ferocious animals of the forest. May whoever asserts a falsehood be swallowed by the earth, may he perish by sudden death, may a thunderbolt from heaven slay him—the thunderbolt which is one of the arms of the Nat Deva.

May false witnesses die of bad diseases, be bitten by crocodiles, be drowned. May they become poor, hated of the king. May they have calumniating enemies, may they be driven away, may they become utterly wretched, may every one ill-treat them, and raise lawsuits against them. May they be killed with swords, lances, and every sort of weapon. May they be precipitated into the eight great hells and the 120 smaller ones. May they be tormented. May they be changed into dogs. And, if finally they become men, may they be slaves a thousand and ten thousand times. May all their undertakings, thoughts, and desires, ever remain as worthless as a heap of cotton burnt by the fire.

When it comes time for the witness to speak, says Mackenzie, “The book of the oath is held over the deponent’s head, and he says:”

I will speak the truth. If I speak not the truth, may it be through the influence of the laws of demerit, viz., passion, anger, folly, pride, false opinion, immodesty, hard heartedness, and scepticism, so that when I and my relations are on land, land animals, as tigers, elephants, buffaloes, poisonous serpents, scorpions, &c., shall seize, crush, and bite us, so that we shall certainly die. Let the calamities occasioned by fire, water, rulers, thieves, and enemies oppress and destroy us, till we perish and come to utter destruction. Let us be subject to all the calamities that are within the body, and all that axe without the body. May we be seized with madness, dumbness, blindness, deafness, leprosy, and hydrophobia. May we be struck with thunderbolts and lightning, and come to sudden death. In the midst of not speaking truth may I be taken with vomiting clotted black blood, and suddenly die before the assembled people. When I am going by water, may the water Nats assault me, the boat be upset, and the property lost; and may alligators, porpoises, sharks, or other sea monsters, seize and crush me to death; and when I change worlds, may I not arrive among men or Nats, but suffer unmixed punishment and regret, in the utmost wretchedness, among the four states of punishment, Hell, Prita, Beasts, and Athurakai.

If I speak the truth, may I and my relations, through the influence of the ten laws of merit, and on account of the efficacy of truth, be freed from all calamities within and without the body; and may evils which have not yet come, be warded far away. May the ten calamities and five enemies also be kept faraway. May the thunderbolts and lightning, the Nat of the waters, and all sea anima1s, love me, that I may be safe from them. May my prosperity increase like the rising sun and the waxing moon; and may the seven possessions, the seven laws, and the seven [merits of the virtuous, be permanent in my person; and when I change worlds, may I not go to the four states of punishment, but attain the happiness of men and Nats, and realize merit, reward, and perfect calm.1

After the concluding thoughts of hope and cheer, the witness, if he is still alive and not seized with madness, dumbness, blindness, deafness, leprosy, and hydrophobia, testifies.


1. Mackenzie goes on to say: “The last term requires explanation. It is the Buddhistic state of extreme delight, called nib’han, or nieban.”


Burmah and the Burmese, Kenneth R.H. Mackenzie, Geo. Routledge & Co., London, 1853.

(Images from I Can Has Cheezburger)


This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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