The Contemporary New England Witch

The Contemporary New England Witch
Author Ms.Faith

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Handfasting is an ancient Celtic engagement ceremony

 Good Evening,

Today was a thoroughly lovely day.  I officiated at a handfasting ceremony for a sweet couple this afternoon.  They were surrounded by loving friends and family and the energy of love was palpable.  So tonight, I wanted to discuss with you Handfastings. I'm often asked many questions about what they are, and how similar or different are they from what we know of wedding ceremonies in this country.

The handfasting ceremony seems to have its origins in ancient Scotland and Ireland where a couple in love, or by contract,  would betroth or promise themselves to each other for a year and a day, a trial marriage if you will. Iif they wished to part after a year and a day, they could with no consequences.  What we might call an engagement period today, but they would live as man and wife. A curious note, they would be able to live together in just about anyway, except that they could not have sex during this time. If they did succumb to temptation, the couple became permanently, legally married and were no longer handfasted.  I know! Just a tiny hitch there, huh?  Sounds like they had small print and disclaimers even in medieval times! 

This practice was in use during a time when the church, canon law rather than civil law, controlled the entire state of the marriage union. It's an interesting historical note that although the church controlled so much of day to day life, a man and a woman could hand fast themselves to one another, with no witnesses, no officiant, no banns read, no license, church or anything but the two of them, and it was accepted as legal, official and binding. This may have happened as young lovers wanting to be together, yet finding themselves in a social or politically unfavorable situation, would declare their commitment to one another. The handfasting as an official declaration of a couple's dedication to one another was considered a legal period of 'trial marriage' during these times, which was recognized and approved of by the church.This would make it impossible to be forced to marry another, and would be what today we would call an elopement.

In ancient times a man and woman would 'join hands' as a physical declaration of the mutual desire to be a couple.  The clasping of hands was the handfasting over time took on an element of having the couples hand's tied at the wrist.  There's a some varying thoughts surrounding handfastings of whether the bride and groom were tied together or not. It is said so the bride wouldn't run away!

Marriages at this time in history were very often contracts of financial and other political benefits for each side of the partnership. Marriages were arranged and brides were often bartered for land, political gain, money and goods. But this was the custom of the day, and I believe few brides ran away, the times and culture simply did not give one anywhere to run to. In general women were resigned to their political and societal fate, yet the ancient concept of handfasting, following clan rule, was a respected and legal way out of an arranged marriage, and may have gained favor as love started to outweigh other factors in the politics of marriage.   In any case, the term 'tying the knot' did originate with the legend of tying of the wrists of the couple during the handfasting ceremony.  

Marriage and the love that surrounds it calls for symbolism and makes it one of our more enduring rituals of life.  The ribbons that tie the wrists of the couple together are symbolic of the ties that will keep them together for that year and a day. Historically, after a year and a day if the couple decided to stay together then they were married officially for life, typically by a priest in church. Did you know these early church weddings, in the early medieval times were commonly held on the front porch of the church, never inside? 

Today modern pagans and those who wish to bring the handfasting experience into their lives re-affirm their vows or promises to each other on the anniversary of a year and a day of their commitment to one another. So on the day of their anniversary, they celebrate and the next day, they ask each other the question "do you want to do it again with me?"  Theoretically if one says no, they do not wish to continue,  it is said that both will part with no hostility or anger. Each year the question is asked, so that none take the relationship for granted and each has an opportunity to re-affirm their love or dissolve the relationship.

Modern handfastings often perform a ritual that has its origins in ancient African cultures. The 'jumping of the broom' consists of a corn broom or broom made of some natural material, decorated and laid upon the ground. The couple, hands still clasped, jump over the broom which is symbolic of the couple's willingness to jump together over any and all obstacles they will face in their life together. In ancient Celtic tradition, the couple would jump through a bonfire together, as passing animals or objects through bonfires gave special blessings to those touch by the fire.   I can only imagine the jumping the broom tradition was incorporated into modern pagan handfastings because witches love their brooms,  and it's a lot less dangerous than the blazing bonfire. It is only meant to be symbolic and the broom works quite nicely.  

Just about every couple that has been married in our times and culture has employed one custom that comes from the ancient handfasting ceremony. Th double edged knife held by both the bride and groom was a magickal knife called an athame. This is a common tool used by today's witches, and traditionally does not cut anything physical. It is used to direct energies. With one exception,  an athame is allowed to make the first cut of the wedding cake. This is considered a magickal cut, or action that blesses the blade of the ritual tool and blesses the couple with good luck and protection during their marriage. 

One wedding custom that also stems from ancient times is the groom carrying his bride over the threshold. In ancient Rome it was believed that evil spirits lurked waiting to cause trouble. A new wife, should she trip while entering her new home for the first time, would cause the newly wedded couple to have an unhappy, unlucky union. The groom would carry her over the threshold to prevent these evil spirits from causing her and their marriage harm.

There are two types of ceremonies I perform when I conduct handfastings. One is symbolic only with the couple going through all of the parts of the ceremony.  The other is the same except it is called 'legal'. The difference is if the couple acquires the licenses required by the state. I in turn file the license in the town hall after the ceremony and  it's legal.   If I conduct a legal ceremony it needs to be dissolved, if desired, in a court of law according to the laws of your state.

These are just some of the curious history surrounding what today we call handfastings.

 Peace and Happiness

© 2010 Enchantments, LLC Portions of this blog posting may include materials from my book “Enchantments School for the Magickal Arts First Year Magickal Studies.” For more information, see 

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