Handfasting is a sacred marriage rite practiced by Pagans, Druids, and Wiccans for centuries. Anna Franklin explores the fascinating origins of this solemn ceremony and provides practical advice and inspiration for planning one's own handfasting celebration.
From choosing wedding garb and rings to selecting a date, this book offers a wealth of ways to infuse one's special day with magick and symbolism. The author discusses the history of common wedding customs; lists gods and goddesses associated with grooms, brides, and marriage; and offers sensible tips related to budget and location. Also included are handfasting themes, sample rituals, flower/herb uses, spells, charms, and recipes for magical incense, oils, and wedding foods.
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Anna Franklin (England) has been a witch for 30 years, and a Pagan in her heart for all her life. She has conducted many rituals, handfastings and sabbat rites. She is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, a coven of the Coranieid Clan, a group of traditional witches with their roots in the New Forest, and branches in several parts of the UK. The Hearth publishes the long-running Silver Wheel Magazine, runs teaching circles and postal courses, and is also a working coven. Anna Franklin is the author of eighteen books on the Craft, including the popular Sacred Circle Tarot, Midsummer, Lammas (with Paul Mason), and The Fairy Ring.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Contrary to popular belief, marriages in the old days did not always take place with the benefit of clergy. Oftentimes only the rich could afford a church ceremony (which took place in the porch of the church, not inside), and in any case, in some areas, priests were thin on the ground, and one could not be found to conduct every marriage. In most parts of Europe, a declaration before witnesses was enough to constitute a legal marriage recognized by Roman Catholic Canon law. Even children were married in this manner, with the consummation sometimes taking place years later. It wasn't until 1563 that the Council of Trent changed the law, and a priest and marriage ceremony were required to constitute a valid marriage in Catholic countries.
Roman Common-Law Marriages
The ancient Romans could celebrate marriage ex usu, by which, if a woman, with the consent of her parents or guardians, lived with a man for a year without being absent for three nights, she became his legal wife. This custom was obsolete in Roman law by the time of the Republic.
The term handfasting originates in the Anglo-Saxon word handfæstung, which meant the shaking of hands to seal a contract. A similar word exists in German and Danish. Among other things, it was applied to the act of betrothal in both England and Scotland. This betrothal itself was called, in Anglo-Saxon, a beweddung, because the future husband was called upon to make a down payment, or wed, against the bride price of his lady. (This is the origin of our term wedding.) The contract was sealed with a handshake, or handfæstung.
In ancient Ireland, Teltown Marriages were temporary unions entered into at Lughnasa, the festival celebrated at the beginning of August. At Larganeeny (Lag an Aonaigh, “the hollow of the fair”), there was an oral tradition, recorded in the nineteenth century, that a form of marriage was held there in Pagan times. According to this legend, a number of young men would go to the north side of a high wall, while a number of young women went to the south side. A woman would then put her hand through a hole in the wall, and a man would take it, guided in his choice only by the appearance of the hand. The two who had thus joined hands by blind chance were then obliged to live together for a year and a day. At the end of that time they appeared together at the Rath (Fort) of Teltown, and if they were not satisfied, they obtained a deed of separation and were entitled to go to Larganeeny again to get a new partner. If they were satisfied, a longer-term arrangement was entered into.
One of the largest Lughnasa fairs was held at Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. The fair lasted eleven days, and taking a sexual partner for its duration was a common practice. Such couples were known as “Lammas brothers and sisters.” For couples thinking of a slightly longer-term commitment, this was a traditional time for handfasting. Couples would join hands through a holed stone, such as the ancient Stone of Odin at Stenness, and plight their troth for a year and a day. Many such temporary unions became permanent arrangements. The handfasting ritual was just one of the forms of marriages permitted under the ancient Brehon law. The same law declared how the property would be divided if the couple split up, and how any children of the marriage would be cared for.
It wasn't until the middle of the nineteenth century that the registration of marriages was required by the government in Ireland.
In Scotland, the civil authorities recognized marriages constituted in the old style-consent to marry followed by intercourse at some later date-though the Scottish Church did not. Such marriages were legal until 1940. As a result, many English couples whose parents objected to their marriages crossed to the Scottish border town of Gretna Green where they could perform their own handfastings before witnesses. In Scotland, the term handfasting, or handfisting, meant the shaking of hands to seal a contract. This might be a contract of employment or a betrothal.
In 1820, the famous Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott wrote of handfasting as a trial marriage in The Monastery:
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.
The practice was also mentioned by Thomas Pennant, recounting his tour of Scotland in 1772:
Among the various customs now obsolete the most curious was that of handfisting, in use about a century past. In the upper part of Eskdale . . . there was an annual fair where multitudes of each sex repaired. The unmarried looked out for mates, made their engagements by joining hands, or by handfisting, went off in pairs, cohabited until the next annual return of the fair, appeared there again and then were at liberty to declare their approbation or dislike of each other. If each party continued constant, the handfisting was renewed for life.1
This account was confirmed in The Old Statistical Account of Scotland:
At that fair [in Eskdale], it was the custom for the unmarried persons of both sexes to choose a companion, according to their liking, with whom they were to live till that time next year. This was called hand-fasting, or hand in fist. If they were pleased with each other at that time, then they continued together for life; if not, they separated, and were free to make another choice as at the first. The fruit of their connexion (if there were any) was always attached to the disaffected person. In later times . . . a priest . . . came from time to time to confirm the marriages.2
Welsh Broom-Jumping Weddings
There was a custom of jumping the broom as a declaration of marriage in both Wales and England. As a child I remember an old lady saying that a couple were “living over the brush,” meaning that they were living together without being legally married, but had a common-law relationship obtained by jumping over a broom. In Wales, this was called the priodas coes ysgub, or broom-stick wedding.3
In Wales, a broom was placed on the doorstep with its handle leaning on the door frame, and the couple had to jump over it in front of witnesses. The couple were free to part within the first year, and simply had to jump over the broom again. If a child had been born, the man was obliged to support it. In Caernarvonshire, the practice was overseen by the oldest man in the village, and the broom was constructed of oak branches and called ysgub dderwydd, or “druid's besom,” indicating that the custom may have been very old indeed, dating back to the time of the druids.
1. Thomas Pennant, Tour of Scotland (London, 1790).
2. The Old Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-99).
3. T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1930).
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