The History of Handfasting

Handfasting at one time was the only way that couples could be engaged and/or get married because the church let the civil government of the period take care of these matters. In the British Isles, Handfasting was the old pagan ritual of marriage and it remained legal in Scotland all the way up to 1939, even after Lord Harwicke’s Act of 1753 declaring that marriages in England were legal only if performed by a clergyman. After Lord Harwicke’s Act, the Scottish border town, Gretna Green became a mecca for eloping couples from England who fled there to perform their own Handfastings. In those times, the couple themselves performed the Handfasting before witnesses. It was also used in Scotland for the engagement period of a year and a day before a wedding was proved.

The very word handfasting got it's origin in the wedding custom of tying the bride and groom's hands (actually, wrists) together. In some versions, this is only done for as long as the ceremony lasts, but in others, the cord is not untied until the marriage is physically consummated.

Handfasting is the marriage rite used toady by many Heathens, neo-Pagans and Wiccans. The term itself comes from the custom of shaking hands over a contract. It is a custom steeped in old tradition.

In most Pagan traditions today it may mean a non-state registered wedding or one in which a marriage license is filed. For some it is a year and a day, renewable "so long as love shall last" and for others a commitment to be together through many lives.

There are probably as many rituals for this as there are people who have joined themselves together.

The hands are generally bound with a cord as part of the ritual.

One custom is that while facing each other, the couple placed their right hands together and then their left hands together to form an infinity symbol while a cord is tied around their hands in a knot. Another custom is that the man and woman place their right hands only together while a cord is used to tie a knot around their wrists.

The ritual itself might have been led by a respected non-church affiliate such as a Chieftain, Leader, Priest, Priestess, Shaman, or Elder of the community while the couple took turns reciting their vows of promise to be engaged for a year and a day in front of witnesses. On the last day of “the year and a day promise” they would then make a promise for infinity repeating their promise to each again. A cord is tied in a knot around their hand while the ritual takes place. This is where the term “tie the knot came from” when referring to getting engaged or married today.

In day of old, records were not kept who got engaged, married, had kids, and died. Today the Sacraments of the church has the responsibility of taking care of these things. Before the church took over these duties, these things were overseen by the whole community and therefore were set in law by their witnessing what happened between the couple making the promise.

If a handfasting was performed with the two left hands together without the tying of the knot, as was the custom of rich and influential German nobility, it meant that the woman was a mistress and would not be able to claim the name, inheritance, property, etc. of the real wife and was only in the protection of the man. But her offspring would be taken care of as legal heirs second in line to the man's legal and first wife. Having lots of children was once the only form of "Social Security" in one's old age. The previous combinations were all considered legal and binding in an engagement or marriage except for the “left hand ritual.”

The Handfasting gesture seems to have been derived from one of the ancient Indo-European images of male-female conjunction, the infinity sign, whose twin circles represented the sun (female) and the moon (male) or in some of the southern Mediterranean traditions it was sun (male) and moon (female).

Two-handed Handfasting still constituted a fully legal marriage throughout Europe whether the blessing of the church was sought or not. Clergymen, of course, recommended that newlyweds attend church as soon as possible after the signing of the contract and the Handfasting. Marriage is now one the Seven Sacraments that had been ignored by the church for centuries. Only the very wealthy and affluent could afford church marriages. Handfastings were under the jurisdiction of common law rather than canon law. In the 16th century in Switzerland, if couples were seen in public drinking together they could be considered married.

Copyright Reverend Helen J. Carol Thompson 
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