Ceremony photos by Ashley Middleton. All rights reserved.
A modern wedding ceremony can include many different types of rituals. From the Christian tradition, there’s the Unity Candle, from the Jewish tradition there’s Breaking the Glass, and from the African-American tradition there’s Jumping the Broom but long before our popular wedding traditions of today, there was Handfasting. Perhaps the most iconic imagery we have of handfasting is from Mel Gibson’s directorial debut Braveheart, the story of William Wallace and the Scottish revolt he lead against English occupation.
In the movie, William secretly meets his first love, Marron. Together, in the presence of a priest, they pronounced their undying love to each other. The priest wraps the couple’s hands in a strip of tartan from the clan Wallace, thus making “fast their hands” as the couple declares themselves united and seals their promise with a kiss. This is the essence of Handfasting. Think of it, back then, as a blended equivalent of our modern-day common-law marriage marked by a Civil or Humanist Ceremony absent of organized religion.
The exact origins of the handfasting ceremony has been lost to antiquity, however we can be certain that this custom originated with the ancient Celts. Evidence suggests it may date as far back as 7000 B.C. (1) The etymology of the word suggests that it stems from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘handfaestung’ which was the tradition of shaking hands to signify a contract. (2)
Handfasting was most common among the peasant community for many of the same reasons elopements are popular today. It was simple and easy to perform without pomp or fuss; required little or no money; was relatively quick, especially since, unlike the wealthy, peasant couples had little or no possessions and therefore were not caught up in long, drawn-out negotiations for estate or dowry. The ceremony could be performed anywhere, be it a private home, village center, or as we saw in Braveheart, a secret glen.
However, the most noticeable difference is the absence of Clergy. Long before the influence of Christianity, if the ritual was presided over, which was not always a requirement, it would have been done so by a chieftain, shaman, priestess or elder of the community. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, writing around 110 A.D. to Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, reflected the writing of St. Paul when he exhorted, “It becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.” (3). By the Fourth Century, Christian couples were obligated to have their marriage blessed by the Church, as was by then the established practice instead of the Celtic tradition.(4) The Council of Trent in 1527 declared since marriage was considered to be a sacred sacrament then only The Church could conduct the ceremony. (5) In 1753, Lord Hardwicke’s Act made handfasting illegal in England when marriage was proclaimed valid only when performed by Church clergy. (6) Soon after, the Scottish border town of Gretna Green became a mecca for eloping couples from England who wanted religious freedom to continue the tradition of handfasting (7) (and I would guess, possibly for monetary reasons). Back in England, the term handfasting fell out of usage until the 1950s with the repeal of the witchcraft laws of England. Repealing these laws meant citizens would no longer be tried and prosecuted for practicing “witchcraft”. For nearly two centuries until 1939, Scotland continued to recognize the handfasting custom as a legitimate wedding ceremony. (8) But perhaps it wasn’t until Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, early 20th century English Wiccans who played a big part in bringing the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca to wider public attention through the publication of a string of books on the subject, that the old term handfasting was dug up again. (9)
Today, with the upsurge of Earth-based religions such as Neo-Paganism, and as more and more Christian couples choosing to break from the staunch tradition of a “Church Wedding”, handfasting is regaining popularity. A universal reason couples like the simple ritual is because it gives a romantic nod to the original meaning of “tying the knot”.
A handfasting knot, like any other knot, can be tied with just about any kind of flexible material. When performing this ritual, you’re going to want to use something with some aesthetic appeal. I recommend a colored cord, colored ribbon or a beautiful silk scarf. Sometimes I use my Minister’s Stole. If you want something more personal, you can weave or braid your own cord with multicolored cord or ribbon. For example, you might use red for love, white for purity, pink for unity, blue for longevity and gold for prosperity. You might also want to weave in beads or charms with special meaning. Same sex couples may want to use a rainbow of ribbons representing diversity. Whatever material you choose, it should be about a yard to a yard and a half depending on how complicated you want to make the knot. You’ll want the width be about 1 to 10 inches wide.
Although handfasting originated from ancient Indo-Europeans, many other traditions and cultures around the world have developed their own versions. Buddhists might use malas (prayer beads), or a white prayer scarf symbolizing peace. Hindus will use a red, cotton thread specially used for sacred rituals. In the Hindu tradition, handfasting is called Hastaganthi. ‘Hasta’ meaning hand and ‘ganthi’ meaning stringing together. A Hindu priest will bind the couple right-hand to right-hand with thumbs interlaced and then tie their hands in a fashion similar to wrapping a gift (below center). Don’t think this is a simple knot. The Hindu tradition is very technical and every gesture, even the smallest is executed with exactness. In the Catholic tradition, the priest will wrap the couple’s hand in his Priest’s stole. If the couple chooses to acknowledge their African heritage, they might use a Kente cloth representing their family tribe (below left). Some of my couples with Celtic heritage use a strip of tartan representing their clan. For example, from my ancestry, the Cunningham formal tartan (below right).
To start the ritual, I ask the couple to join hands. This can be right-hand to right-hand, or as in Braveheart, the Bride can place her left hand over the Groom’s right hand, or any variation thereof. I most often like to ask the couple to join both hands, right to right and underneath, left to left as if they are shaking with both hands. I like this because it forms a figure eight or an infinity symbol which gives me lots of great imagery from which t work. I can talk about infinite love, partners intertwined as one, interconnection of the earth and sky, sun and moon. I will then wrap the couple’s clasped hands with the binding of their choice, also making a figure eight.
Once the couple’s hands are fasted, there are several options. I might say a prayer or a blessing if the couple asks for a spiritual or religious ceremony. Sometimes the couple asks me to say something personal about their union. I will keep the binding on through the vows up to the ring exchange unless the couple plans to read their personally written vows. Before the full ceremony is over, I will pronounce the couple as married.
Not all handfastings result in a marriage. In the Neo-Pagan tradition, a handfasting can also mark the beginning of a pre-marriage trial period lasting a year and a day. During this time, the couple will go about their daily lives in the same manner as any married couple. After 366 days, if the couple wishes to stay together, they would then make their marriage union official. Otherwise, they would go their separate ways.
Just as there are handfasting ceremonies to mark the beginning of a union, there are handparting ceremonies to mark the end of a union. All things have a beginning and an end. Sometimes that ending comes sooner than expected. Just as the sun rises, so does it set and thus the infinite cycle of life.
While the origins of handfasting are steeped in tradition and ancient history, dating back many thousands of years, this rich tradition continues today in full force in many forms and adaptations. All include some version of fasting the couple’s hand together with some sort of meaningful textile.
(1) (2) http://www.handfastings.co.uk/history.php
(4) Ladislas Örsy, Marriage in Canon Law (Gracewing 1986 ISBN 978-0-89453651-9), p. 157
(6) Leneman, Leah (Spring 1999). “The Scottish Case That Led to Hardwicke’s Marriage Act”. Law and History Review (University of Illinois Press) 17 (1): 161–169.
(8) (9) Kaldera, Raven & Schwartzstein, Tannin (2010) “Handfasting and Wedding Rituals – Inviting Hera’s Blessing” p. 8