There are two conflicting beliefs about the history of Handfasting:
||"Handfasting" was the word used by the ancient
Celts to describe their traditional trial-marriage ceremony, during which couples were
literally bound together. The handfasting was a temporary agreement, that expired after a year and a day. However,
it could be made permanent after the year was up, if both spouses agreed.
||"Handfasting" was the word used throughout the
once-Celtic lands of Scotland
and Northern England to refer to a commitment of betrothal or
engagement. It was a ceremony in which the couple publicly declared
their intention to marry one year and a day in the future. In 1820,
Sir Walter Scott used the term to refer to a fictional sacred ritual that bound the couple in a form of temporary marriage for a
year and a day. He wrote of it in his book "The
"When we are handfasted, as we term it, we are man and wife
for a year and a day; that space gone by, each may choose another
mate, or, at their pleasure, may call the priest to marry them for
life; and this we call handfasting." 1,2
Handfasting was suppressed following the Synod of Whitby in
Celtic Christianity was abandoned and Catholicism followed.
Even though the historical legitimacy of handfasting as a form of trial
marriage is in doubt, some Wiccans and other Neopagans today create handfasting
rituals for their own use or adopt ceremonies written by other Neopagans.
1995 movie, Braveheart, Mel Gibson, in the role
of William Wallace, was handfasted with his girlfriend Murron. Handfasting has
since grown in popularity among Cowans (non-Pagans) -- particularly those whose ancestors lived in ancient Celtic lands. 3
What is the legal status of a handfasting ritual?
They certainly can result in a legally-recognized, permanent marriage or
civil union. However, certain legal standards have to
be met, as specified by the applicable state and province. A common set of
You might wish to check in advance with the local office that issues
states and provinces have their own special regulations.
||The officiating person must hold a valid license issued by the government
to perform marriages. Obtaining such a license is a simple procedure for
clergy who are affiliated with an established denomination. Some
jurisdictions require a faith group to have been registered for an
minimum number of years before their clergy are eligible for
licensing. In many cases, the regulations assume that a traditional
church structure is in place, with a defined laity and clergy;
Wiccans, other Neopagans, Aboriginal spirituality, etc. sometimes have
difficulty adapting to these requirements.
||A license has to be purchased in advance. Various jurisdictions
have regulations which prohibit the issuance of a license if the couple do
not meet certain gender, age, medical, and consanguine criteria. A license
may expire after some period of time. If a spouse has been married before,
proof of divorce or annulment is normally required.
||There may be a minimum interval of time required between the purchase of the license
and the ceremony; one day is common.
||There must be witnesses at the ceremony, other than the officiating
person and the couple, who will sign the license. A minimum of two is
||The couple must be aware that they are engaging in a ceremony that will be
cause them to be permanently married according to state/federal law.
Alternatively, a handfasting can be simply a declaration by a couple that they wish to form
a temporary or permanent "common-law" relationship. The couple would
not be married after the ritual.
Couples who wish to have their handfasting recognized as a legal marriage may
have difficulty obtaining a person who is willing to officiate. Most Christian
and Jewish clergy would not be willing to conduct a Pagan ritual. Some ways of
finding a cooperative presider
||Ministers from congregations affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist
Association (UUA) will frequently perform ceremonies that are written by the
couple; some even require it. 4Since the UUA recognizes
Neopaganism as one of the sources of its religious and spiritual
traditions, many of its clergy should not object to conducting a Pagan
||Some Neopagan priests and priestesses have been able to obtain a license
to marry in a few states by presenting various legal documents which show that they have
been selected by their coven as their clergyperson. This process sometimes
||Some Neopagan priestesses and priests register as clergy with Universal
Life Church, and are subsequently able to obtain a license in some state
or provinces to officiate
at marriages. 5 However, not all jurisdictions recognize
the Universal Life Church as a valid religion. They have minimal
requirements for ordination.
What happens at a Neopagan handfasting?
In some ways, a handfasting is much like a typical marriage. The couple, a presider,
friends and family are present. The couple exchange vows and (usually)
rings. The couple generally has some attendants to assist in the ceremony. The
presider, and the handfasting party sign the wedding license. Pictures
are taken. Everybody smiles and hugs.
But in some ways a handfasting is quite different from the typical marriage
ceremony. Most couples designed a unique ritual which fits their needs. Some of
the following components may be present, in any order with which the couple feels
comfortable. A heterosexual handfasting ceremony is described below; the
text can easily be modified for a same-sex couple. Some of the statements and
the ritual of casting and banishing the circle would be modified to match the
specific Pagan tradition that the couple follows:
||The date may be chosen to be near a full moon. Handfastings during
the month of May are rare
because that is the month of the union of the Goddess and God. (Most Wiccans
are duotheistic: they believe in two deities, one female and the other
||The ceremony is often held outdoors; preferably in a wooded area; ideally at a
crossroads. A backup location is selected in the case of rain.
||The bride will not be dressed in a traditional wedding gown. The couple
will wear attractive clothes for the ceremony. The bride often wears red.
||A circle is formed on the ground with rocks, crystals or some other
marker. It's circumference is large enough to handle the entire wedding party, and
guests, with plenty of empty space. Candles will mark the four cardinal
directions. An altar is located near the center of the circle. It is large
enough to support the marriage documents; a knife; chalice; a cloth,
rope or ribbon; a small silver box and a trowel! A broomstick is laid
beside the altar. Wildflowers may be spread inside the circle. The bridal couple
stands to the east of the circle. They wear circlets of flowers. Friends and family are gathered around the
||The presider rings a bell three times to indicate the start of the
ritual and to demarcate divisions within the handfasting ceremony.
||The couple approaches the circle from the east -- the direction of
sunrise; this symbolizes growth in their relationship. They walk once
around the circle and enter from the east.
||The presider explains to the guests the significance of the ritual
to be performed.
||The circle is then cast. This usually involves a Wiccan priestess or
priest walking around the periphery of the circle four times, with
elements representing earth, air, fire and water. They will recite a
statement at each of the four directions.
||Answering a challenge from the presider, the couple each declares
their intent to join each other so that they are one in the eyes
of the God and Goddess, and of family and friends present.
||The presider asks the traditional question whether anyone present is
aware of any reason why the couple should not be handfasted.
Hopefully, nobody objects. (This is a legal requirement for a marriage in some jurisdictions).
||The couple recites a statement, saying that they have come of their
own free will "in perfect love and perfect trust" to
seek the partnership of their future spouse. They exchange rings. Each
recites a prepared statement, such as: "I, [name], commit
myself to be with [name] in joy and adversity, in wholeness and
brokenness, in peace and turmoil, living with him/her faithfully all
our days. May the Gods give me the strength to keep these vows. So be
||The presider challenges them to drink from the same cup. Each drinks
separately. Then each holds the
cup so that the other may drink. This symbolizes the need for a balance
between apartness and togetherness in their future life together.
||The couple will face each other, joining both their left and right hands
together. Their arms and bodies form a figure 8 when viewed from
above The a double circle is both the mathematical infinity symbol and
an ancient religious symbol for the union of a man and woman.
||The presider will place a cord, ribbon, or strip of cloth over
the couple's hands. It may be loosely tied; it might be red in color,
symbolizing life. This identifies that the handfasting is a
commitment, but one that is not an onerous one. One year and a day
after being handfasted, the couple may return to the presider and
repeat their vows with the cord or cloth tightly knotted. This
symbolizes the intent to have a permanent relationship. This ritual is
the source of the expression "to tie the knot."
||The couple each reads a statement to the other, expressing their
love and their hopes for their future together. Since their hands are
bound, the texts are held by their assistants. The bonds are removed.
||The couple uses a knife to cut off a lock of each other's hair. This
is put in a silver box. This symbolizes their future relationship, one
as intimate as the mixing of their hairs.
||The presider offers advise to the couple, perhaps saying: "Be
understanding and patient, each with the other. Be free in the giving
of affection and warmth. Be sensuous with one another. Have no fear
and let not the ways of the unenlightened give you unease, for the
Gods are with you now and always." 10The
presider asks the assembled guests whether they will support the
couple in their new relationship together. Hopefully, they answer
"I do." The presider then pronounces the couple to be
handfasted as wife and husband or as spouses.
||The couple kiss each other -- their first gift to each other as a
handfasted couple. They then perform their first task together: they
pick up the trowel from the altar, and bury the silver box at the
center of the circle.
||The presider, married couple, and witnesses sign the legal marriage
||After the legal formalities are completed, the handfasted couple join hands and
jump over a broomstick. This symbolizes the effort required to make a
committed relationship work.
A benediction may be recited by the presider. The author's favorite is
an Apache marriage blessing:
"Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be the shelter for the other.
Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be the warmth to the other.
Now you are two persons, but there is only one life before you.
Go now to your dwelling, to enter into the days of your life together,
and may your days be good and long upon the earth."
||The priest or priestess who originally cast the circle now banishes
||The presider states the the handfasting is concluded: "The
circle is open but unbroken. May the peace of the Old Ones go in our
hearts. Blessed be."
||The bell is rung three times. The married couple then go clockwise
around the circle, greeting friends and family.
||A feast traditionally follows.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Leigh M., "Witches Wed." See: http://www.thetask.com/ This
site once consisted of over 200 pages. Unfortunately, it is no longer
- "The client page," at: http://members.aol.com/
- "Movie information: Braveheart," at: http://www.macbraveheart.freeserve.co.uk/
- Unitarian Universalist Association has a web site at: http://www.uua.org They have a search facility for congregations in your area at: http://www.uua.org/
- Universal Life Church has a web site at: http://www.ulc.net/
- Reference deleted.
- "Medieval and renaissance wedding page," at: http://www.drizzle.com/
- "Rites of Passage," at: http://www.mindspring.com/
- "PookLaRoux's Handfasting FAQ," at: http://www.geocities.com/ They have a moderated mailing list.
- Some portions were copied from a Wiccan couple's handfasting ceremony. The
origin(s) of the text is unknown.
- Goddess Moon Circles has information on handfasting/marriage
requirements in various states, and MUCH more. See: http://www.goddessmoon.org/
- Mary Amanda lists the texts of three Wiccan
rituals, including a
handfasting. See: http://www.avana.net
- The Dallas - Ft. Worth Wedding Exchange has the text of a typical
Pagan handfasting at: http://www.dfwx.com/
Copyright © 2000 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAY-31
Latest update: 2011-SEP-11
Author: B.A. Robinson