The hand-fasting ritual is a beautiful, magical rite of passage. Many non-Pagan and non-Wiccan couples are adopting this old custom, much like when couples borrow from other traditions to craft their own ceremony to match their distinctive personalities.
“Hand-fasting” is a self-explanatory term – the joining of a couple’s hands is an ancient symbol of union between two people. It is from this very old custom we get the expression “tying the knot”.
For modern Pagans and other followers of earth-based religions, a hand-fasting is a ceremony for those who wish to commit themselves to a loving relationship.
Two kinds of hand-fastings are widely recognised by the Pagan community, the first is known as the ‘year-and-a-day’ hand-fasting, and the other is a lifelong commitment.
The ‘year and a day’ hand-fasting is where a couple enters the ceremony with the intent of joining together for the period of, you guessed it, a year and a day. They may, if they wish, elect to renew that vow the following year on the day the term expires. While it can be a very practical arrangement, it is not recognised by Australian law as a legal marriage. It is, however, a great way for a young couple (and the young at heart) to stand before friends and family and announce their love for one another.
The second kind of hand-fasting, entered into as a lifelong commitment, is the equivalent of an ordinary marriage ceremony. Anyone who wants to be legally married in a Pagan rite of hand-fasting needs simply to have a Pagan who is a registered Marriage Celebrant come and officiate at their ceremony.
Hand-fastings of same-sex couples have the same recognition within Pagan faiths as heterosexual couples – although sadly these unions are not recognised under Australian law. The Pagan Awareness Network is on record as stating that this is a violation of human rights by the Commonwealth of Australia.
What a Hand-fasting Looks Like
Hand-fastings 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, hand-fastings 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.
Unlike Christian weddings, Pagan hand-fastings are most often conducted with guests and witnesses standing in a circle around the couple. The circle symbolises the womb of the Goddess, and this ritual area can be marked out ritually either by the couple or by the officiating priestess or priest prior to the actual hand-fasting. It is also common for the spirits of the four directions (east, north, west and south) and the elements to be called upon to witness the rite. It is also usual at this point for Divinity to be invoked, often in the form of the Goddess and the God.
The couple’s hands are then bound together with cord, symbolising their union. At this point, they speak their vows, and rings or other tokens may be exchanged. 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.
It is common for the newly hand-fasted couple to bless a chalice of wine as their first act as a married couple and pass it around to guests. For some, the hand-fasting is not considered complete until the couple have ‘jumped the besom’, which means literally jumping over a broom together while holding hands. The broom, or besom, is an ancient symbol of fertility, and jumping over it is an invitation for wealth and abundance (including many children) to enter the couple’s life.
As a point of interest, a hand-fasting is considered particularly auspicious if the woman is already pregnant, or a pregnant woman is present as a witness.
A Brief History of Hand-fasting
In the British Isles, hand-fasting was the old pre-Christian ritual of marriage. By the 18th century, the Kirk of Scotland no longer recognized marriages formed by mutual consent (i.e. without the blessing of the Church), even though the Scottish civil authorities did. To minimize any resulting legal actions, the ceremony was always performed in public. This situation persisted until 1939, when Scottish marriage laws were reformed by the 1939 Marriage Act.
In England, Lord Harwicke’s Act of 1753 declared that marriages in England were legal only if performed by a clergyman. Subsequently, the Scottish border town Gretna Green became a Mecca for eloping couples from England who fled there to perform their own hand-fastings or marriages by consent. In those times, the couple themselves performed the hand-fasting.
In Europe, the Council of Trent in the 16th Century changed Roman Catholic marriage laws to require the presence of a priest, and so hand-fastings were commonly practiced until that point.