What is handfasting?
Handfasting is possibly the oldest documented recognised wedding custom. It is associated with Pagan, Neopaganism Viking/Norse, Wicca, folklore, Celtic, Judaic and Hindu weddings. Attributed to perhaps be where we get the phrase ‘tying the knot’ from.
Handfasting is a meaningful, visual and memorable ceremony, regardless if you have spiritual or religious beliefs ,or none at all.
Specialising in handfasting
I have spent many years studying and specialising in various kinds of handfasting. This doesn’t mean I am a self proclaimed expert; far from it. Nobody truly is, as so many different cultures and religions have a form of handfasting in their belief. The exact origins of its true history haven’t been found. Many claim it comes from certain religions, many claim it comes from certain parts of the world. What is important to know for those seeking a handfasting ceremony is it is a symbolic, and memorable ceremony, and it is what you want it to be.
Agreement or love?
There is so much information about how handfasting should be done. References to a ‘lovers’, a ‘unity’, and an ‘infinity knot’ can be found online from many different sources. These knots associated with love are according to personal research a fairly new concept. Handfasting was believed to be a betrothal binding agreed upon by elders, and chieftains. If this is factual, handfasting had nothing to do with love; it was an agreement of a good union between the offspring of agreeing families.
Handfasting as a ritual is said to get its name from the Old Norse word ‘handfestr’ meaning to strike up a bargain; to bind. Spelling variations of the word differ with ‘handfesta’ also being used. Handfasting and its association with love is a fairly new conception, one which is accredited to have developed in the late Middle Ages when it was adopted by Christians after being introduced by Pagans.
Was it an early engagement ritual?
When Handfasting became more mainstream for Christians as well as Pagans, it was a pre-wedding ritual. There are once again various sources online and in books suggesting handfasting was an engagement period before a marriage took place. Engagement and wedding rings were very expensive items and not affordable to the average person.
Strips of clothing were believed by some to be used to bind a couple’s hands together signifying to others in a village or a community, that the two people involved were betrothed to each other. Various sources state the couple were together for a year and a day before they married, to decide if they were right for each other.
If they were, they would marry, if not the knots tied were undone and they would go their own ways.
Why is handfasting popular for Pagans?
For Pagans of many beliefs, handfasting is a significant and important ceremony. Many choose to engage vows, promises and declarations of intentions as the ribbons or cords are placed. The symbolism of being bound together through choice, in the presence of the four elements, (earth, wind, fire and water), and the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) is of high relevance. Pagans have a belief that only lack of love can break the binding between a handfasted couple; death even cannot.
It is a spiritual and meaningful ceremony. Gifts are given to the couple, and ceremonies are held outdoors during selected times of the year. For Pagans, handfasting is the ultimate declaration of love between two people in the called in presence of the Goddess, or their chosen God.
Can non-Pagans have a handfasting?
Many non-Pagan couples can, and do have handfasting ceremonies. Focus is given to the colours chosen for the handfasting rather than the Pagan reasons designated for the colours in Pagan ceremonies.
Handfasting ceremonies and celebrants
In recent years handfasting has become more popularised with the introduction and increase of wedding celebrants. Those seeking a handfasting ceremony over ten years ago were limited by their choices of people to perform them. Pagans performed them for each other with those belonging to temples, groups, gatherings, covens and circles requesting ceremonies to be led by elders, High Priestesses or Priests. Those who practised alone, or those without a specifically Pagan belief had limited options if they required a handfasting ceremony. Not anymore, as many celebrants now offer handfasting, but not all specialise in Pagan handfasting. Most offer a modern version coloured ribbons minus any form of spiritual or Pagan belief wording.
Popular culture and the increase of handfasting ceremonies
With the increase in numbers seeking celebrants to perform handfasting ceremonies, many couples have been influenced by TV, film and media shown handfasting. Game of Thrones and Vikings both featured variants of handfasting ceremonies as have various programmes about weddings. A form of handfasting was also featured in the film Braveheart.
What is used?
Religious, spiritual or colour themed handfasting is the binding together of the hands of the couple or the people the ceremony is for. Different chosen colours of cords and ribbons are the most popular materials chosen and these are placed singularly or have been braided are placed around the wrists and tied in a knot around, over or under joined hands. Materials used are personal choices of those involved and some choose to use family clothing from loved ones no longer with them.chosen locations.
Family members, children or friends can be involved in a handfasting by placing the ribbons if required.
Many couples make and decorate their own handfasting cords. It is a symbolic occasion, and some do it during specially chosen times on relevant dates. Other couples request the cords are made for them used specific colours, some buy them online from sellers or from shops in visited places.
Charms and important trinkets and small photographs can be added to handfasting cords. Pictures of family members, pets, tokens of remembrance of important places, the initials of the couple or jewellery are often used.