HISTORY AND ORIGIN OF HANDFASTING CEREMONIES
EXPERTS DISAGREE ON the origin of handfasting. Some Neo-Pagans insist that the handfasting tradition can be proven to date back to ancient Paganism. Others say that handfasting can be traced back to pre-biblical times, but that there is no solid evidence suggesting that it was a Pagan tradition at all. One thing is certain: modern Pagans, and especially Wiccans, use the handfasting ritual for everything from declaring mutual romantic love to expressing legally recognized marriage vows.
Understanding handfasting requires that we understand the concept of marriage in Scotland starting from pre-biblical times. It was necessary then for anyone who was to marry to have the consent of their parents. More importantly, the marriage was not considered binding until it was consummated. Often young children would declare their love for one another, or be betrothed by their parents, with an agreement to marry in the future. This was considered a legal contract between the two and would prevent either of them from marrying anyone else. This vow of future commitment can be compared to that of the modern day engagement ring, which is a conditional gift. It is not legal in the United States for a woman to keep her engagement ring today unless she makes good on the promise to marry. If the marriage ends in divorce, it is acceptable that the ex-wife keeps her ring under the grounds that she fulfilled her commitment to marry.
The Christian Church, in the late Middle Ages, taught that even if two people ran off together against their parents’ wishes, this would still constitute a legal marriage. In fact, the Christian Church didn’t even require that the couple consummate the marriage for it to be legally binding. The “consented marriage” was considered a legal union from around the 1200s until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. It was common in Scotland and England to be married on the porch of the church (being married inside the church was only for the affluent). Of course, there were many couples that did not want to be married the traditional way, for many of the same reasons that couples elope today. The most important factor that bound two people in marriage was mutual consent.
Many couples would perform marriage on their own, knowing that their vows wouldn’t be recognized by both church and state. Often, they chose this option because they could avoid uncomfortable conflict if someone did not approve of the marriage, because it was a cheaper option than a church wedding, or because it could be performed on a whim. These “secretive” marriages, performed alone on a hillside in the country, were no less marriages from a civil perspective than the ones that were performed on the porch of the church. Also, unlike today, if a couple were married in the late Middle Ages they were considered married for life in Roman Catholic Europe. The only thing that could break a binding marriage was death.
It wasn’t until the 1500s in Scotland and England that divorce and remarriage even became a possibility under canon law. Although the Catholic Church and some emerging Protestant churches preferred a “proper” church wedding during medieval times, consisting of a formal ceremony with witnesses led by clergy in order for a couple to be recognized by the church, the civil laws recognizing personal, private vows remained in effect until 1939. In the late Middle Ages in Scotland and Northern England, the term handfasting was used to describe the mutual commitment ceremonies discussed above, and also commonly referred to agreements to marry in the future. These agreements bound the two people together in the eyes of the church and the state, and prevented them from handfasting or marrying another. The interesting fact here is that the handfasting was used more as a promise between two people, often minors, to declare their love for one another and a promise to marry at some point in the future. These declarations were considered completely binding by both the church and the state. If the couple consummated the marriage, then they were no longer considered “engaged.” They were married.
By the late 1700s in Europe, handfasting ceremonies were no longer practiced as a common form of engagement. Instead, in Ireland from the 1700s through the early 1900s, there are several documented cases of handfasting being used as a trial marriage. Men would choose their wives on a trial basis by engaging in handfasting rituals. The couple would live together, engage in sex, and act as a married couple for a trial period of a year and a day. When that time was finished, if the couple had no children, they could choose to part ways, free to find new partners. Or they could call for a priest to marry them permanently.
The word handfasting derives from the wedding custom of tying the bride and groom’s hands or wrists together. The hands were bound with a cloth or specially designed cord as part of the ceremony or ritual. In some ceremonies, the cord was not untied until the marriage was physically consummated. The term itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word handfaestung, which was a custom of shaking hands over a contract. This was often the contract entered into when a man made a down payment, or wed, to his future wife’s father in order to have her hand in marriage. This was the origin of the modern word wedding.
The Irish maintained an ancient tradition until the nineteenth century in which men and women would gather on opposite sides of a high wall, men on the North side and women on the South. The women would put their hands through holes in the wall and the men would pick one of the hands. The pairs thus formed would then live together for a year and a day. After that period of time they would decide whether or not they wanted to enter into permanent marriage.
Interestingly enough, this festival took place on Lughnassad, a Sabbat celebrated on August 2nd by Neo-Pagans. By the late 1900s, this concept of handfasting as an ancient Celtic practice became well established and accepted. Several Neo-Pagan faiths have adapted the concept of ancient handfasting, and added their own beliefs and practices to the ritual. Some examples of ancient and new traditions used in modern handfasting ceremonies are:
The renewal of handfasting vows several times without the permanency of marriage
Stating in the handfasting vows that the bond lasts only as long as the two shall love one another
The handfasting ribbon or cord ceremony where the couple hold hands, right hand to right hand and left hand to left hand, and then intertwine a cord or ribbon in the infinity sign, knotting it three times
Keeping the handfasting cord bound until the union is consummated
Keeping the handfasting cord bound until the ritual is over
Using a handfasting as a religiously recognized but state-unrecognized marriage
Performing a handfasting ritual
with an ordained cleric so it is a state-recognized marriage, incorporating a “legal” handfasting with an exchange of wedding rings
Thus, the history of handfasting is not entirely clear. One cannot prove that it was primarily a Pagan practice, nor trace its precise roots. Today handfasting is clearly a Pagan practice, and especially Wiccan. Like many Wiccan rituals, handfasting can be celebrated in a multitude of ways to fit the couple’s particular Wiccan tradition
Passages Handfasting: A Pagan Guide to Commitment Rituals
Kendra Vaughan Hovey