Rites of Passage: Marriage
These rituals were connected to the change of status and transitions in life a person experiences, such as birth, marriage and death.
Spring is here and love is in the air! For many people of Pagan and Wiccan faiths, this is the time of year for a handfasting ceremony. A couple who wishes to be married in a Wiccan or Pagan ceremony is handfasted. A handfasting is not a legally binding ceremony and traditionally either member of the couple may choose to end the partnership at any time. More and more Wiccan and Pagan clergy are becoming licensed ministers, however, so a handfasting may be accompanied by a legal marriage license if the couple chooses.
You’ve probably heard someone refer to marriage as “tying the knot” or “giving one’s hand.” Originally the word handfast came into English from Old Norse languages and meant the act of sealing any bargain by taking hands. From the 12th to the 17th century handfasting in England referred to a ceremony, usually about a month prior to a church wedding, at which the marrying couple formally declared that each accepted the other as spouse. The Scottish also showed some records of a handfast or 'left-handed' marriage taking place as recently as the late 1600s. In rural areas, it could be weeks or even months before a clergyman happened to stop by your village, so couples learned to make allowances. Some would use grape vines, ribbon or knotted fabrics to symbolize the giving of each other's hand. Generally this was done in the presence of witnesses.
After the beginning of the 17th century gradual changes in English law meant the presence of an officiating priest or magistrate became necessary for a marriage to be legal. The word handfasting fell by the wayside for many centuries. In the 1950s, when the witchcraft laws were repealed in England, various occultists and witches - including Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente - searched for a non-Christian term for their wedding ceremonies. They settled on handfasting and the concept was resurrected within the Neopagan movement.
Dormant for so long, the idea of the handfasting ceremony has enjoyed a huge rise in popularity. Prince William and Kate Middleton had a handfasting incorporated into their marriage. One benefit of having a handfasting ceremony is it's not the same as a legal wedding, there are more options available to people in non-traditional relationships. Anyone can have a handfasting -- same-sex couples, polygamous families, transgender couples, etc. Either way, it's becoming more and more popular, as Pagan and Wiccan couples are seeing that there is indeed an alternative for non-Christians who want more than just a courthouse wedding.
Handfastings are usually done outdoors, as pagans feel that nature is the most appropriate place to celebrate a ritual of life, love and fertility. For this reason, handfastings are most commonly performed in the warmer months and especially at Beltane, the Pagan holy day dedicated to growth, sexual union and the start of summer. It is also often at sunrise or sunset, when both the Sun and Moon are present.
Pagan handfastings are most often conducted with guests and witnesses standing in a circle around the couple. The circle symbolizes the womb of the Goddess and this ritual area can be marked out ritually either by the couple or by the officiating priestess/priest prior to the actual handfasting. In the center of the circle is a small table with the four basic elements (bowl of earth/soil to the north, bowl of water/seashells to the west, bowl of air/feathers to the east and a bowl of oil/candle to the south). It is also usual at this point for Divinity to be invoked, often in the form of the Goddess and the God.
Some handfastings have a bonfire or coincide with a sabbat. Others jump a broom or mix in other religion vows into the ceremony. In some versions of the tradition, the couple is tied at the wrist for the entire ceremony. In many pagan ceremonies, the bride and groom cross arms and join hands, creating the infinity symbol (¥) with the hands. The clergyperson performing the ceremony will join the couple's hands with a cord or ribbon during the ritual. With the couple's hands bound together with cord, symbolizing their union, they speak their vows, trade rings or other tokens may be exchanged. Other tokens might be the man coming to the ceremony wearing a hammer of Thor to place around his bride's neck to ensure her protection. In some versions the couple's hands are untied once they have kissed, but in others one hand remains bound until the union has been physically consummated in private. While some people may choose to have their handfasting be a permanent bond, others might declare it to be valid for "a year and a day", at which point they will re-evaluate the relationship and determine whether to continue or not. And of course, some sort of party or feast ends the handfasting day.
As with marriages between non-Pagans, sometimes Pagan marriages don't work out. Pagans have the same separation options as non-Pagans. They recognize that ending a marriage is as serious an undertaking as getting married and some choose to hold a separation ceremony to formally end their spiritual union, handparting.
Separation ceremonies are also usually written by the couple, but they don't need to be presided over by a legally recognized officiate even if the couple is receiving a legal divorce. The ceremonies are sometimes performed before the couple's coven, kindred, grove, friends and families, but can also be performed in private. The ceremonies are designed to help couples amicably end their relationship and ease the emotional pain that accompanies breakups. In many rituals, the knotted ribbon from the handfasting is cut in two and burned to symbolize the handparting.
Frigg was the wife of the all-powerful Odin and was considered a Goddess of fertility and marriage within the Norse pantheon. A couple devoted to Norse and Anglo-Saxon deities might choose a Friday as their handfast day, the day sacred to the Goddess Frigg, protector of marriage and childbirth.