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Handfasting: Binding Love and Tradition

This article was written by Anna Franklin
posted under Pagan

Common terms for getting married are “Tying the knot,” “getting hitched,” or “joining hands.” They originate in the old handfasting custom of tying a couple’s hands together to indicate that they are bound in wedlock. As a Wiccan high priestess, I have conducted many handfastings, or Pagan marriages, and in recent years an increasing number of couples have written to me for advice, asking how they can go about conducting their own ceremonies, asking for rituals, spells, and themes, or just ideas on how to include non-Pagan relatives in the celebrations. I have written this book for all those lovers out there who want to make their handfasting a very special occasion.

The handfasting vows are believed, literally, to be taken before the gods, and are therefore very solemn and binding. The coven or druidic grove act as witnesses, sometimes with friends and family present, with the ritual presided over by a priest or priestess, druid, clan chieftain, or shaman. The couple exchange vows, and may give each other rings, have their hands loosely tied with colored cords or ribbons, jump over the cauldron or broomstick, and share wine together. Afterward there are the usual congratulations — the throwing of confetti or rice, posing for photographs, and a picnic or party.

During a handfasting, a Pagan couple declare their love and commitment to each other, and promise that they will live together for a year and a day or “for as long as love shall last,” in the words of one ritual. At the end of that time, they may renew their vows, make a more permanent commitment and a legal marriage, or go their separate ways. It might seem to be a very modern concept, but the idea of a trial marriage — usually for a year and a day — is very old. In the south of England, in Dorset, there is a cliff called Handfast Point, where many such unions were made and where I once attended a very beautiful wedding one Midsummer dawn. The ancient and medieval Irish also undertook trial marriages, clasping hands through a holed stone. If the couple got along well together, they would make more permanent vows; if not, they would go back to the stone, and each walk off in a different direction.

I have always been fascinated by the surviving influence of old Pagan lore on our modern lives, and nowhere is this more apparent than those traditions surrounding the wedding ceremony. In my own home town of Hinckley, in the English Midlands, the factory girls still enact an old custom that that may date back to ancient fertility rites. During the lunch break on her last day as a single woman, the prospective bride is taken out and dressed in an elaborate hat made from paper flowers, and tied to a lamppost until released by a friendly passer-by.

Because marriage is one of life’s great rites of passage, both bride and groom stand on a threshold during the ceremony, neither married nor unmarried. This is a moment and state of great potential magical power, which the guests were always keen to tap into. Hence, all the customs of taking pieces of the bride’s dress, her flowers, and so on. The character of the wedding creates an act of sympathetic magic which sets the tone of the rest of the couple’s lives. If it is surrounded by symbols of prosperity and plenty, then this is thought to attract these things later on.

A surprising number of modern Western marriage protocols come from our ancient Pagan heritage. The idea of the honeymoon, for example, comes from the ancient Teutonic people whose newly married couples kept their own company and drank honey wine for a full month, or moon, after the wedding. So this became known as the honeymoon period. Honey was widely believed to be an aphrodisiac in ancient and medieval times, and was an indispensable ingredient of love potions and spells or was taken with food and wine. The wedding cake probably originated with the ancient Romans, who baked small wheat or barley cakes and broke them over the bride’s head as an act of fertility magic.

Though I have included plenty of historical background material and folklore, this is essentially a very practical book, with advice on what to consider when you and your partner (or two members of your coven) decide to become handfasted. From organizing and budgeting for the day to deciding on the ritual format, choosing an auspicious time and date, what you need to consider when inviting non-Pagan guests, and even the legalities of the ceremony, this book includes it all, as well as recipes, spells and suggested themes. I have written a variety of rituals to suit most tastes, but couples should remember that this is their special day, and that they should tailor everything to their own needs. And to those lovers I say, in the words of an Irish blessing: “May your hearts be as warm as your hearthstone.”

Anna FranklinAnna Franklin
Anna Franklin [England] has been a witch for 30 years, and a Pagan in her heart for all her life. She has conducted many rituals, handfastings and sabbat rites. She is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, a coven of the Coranieid Clan, a group...  Read more

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