Hello, blessed Imbolc, and thank you for spending time with me today. We have made it to February and as if that isn’t exciting enough, we are officially out of all retrogrades at this time. Every planet is direct and I couldn’t be more thankful for that. We have just about 10 weeks or so to enjoy this time and make some headway before we have to worry about any of that nonsense again. Mercury will enter retrograde in mid-April, but we really don’t need to dwell on that.
We have a full moon in Leo on Sunday the 5th, and I have a few intentions that I’ll be setting myself. Leo is big, can-do energy. It’s optimistic, it’s almost delusional at times, but Leo energy is so perfect for hyping us up and getting us out of our own heads and convincing us that there’s no way we can lose and I am here for it. I love Leo. Whatever intentions you’re feeling called to put out in the world, Leo energy believes in you.
Now, since it is February, and we are looking forward to Valentine’s Day and feeling all lovey dovey, we are going to talk today about handfasting. And today’s topic comes from a message I received from the website:
Hi Eli! I love your show! I wait with anticipation every Thursday. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. You gave me a spell a bit ago and it has changed my life. I’m no longer a slave to fear and anxiety. I no longer feel beat down as a perpetual victim. I am finally able to trust my path and get back my strength.
My partner and I have been dating for years and we are discussing marriage. We would like to do a pagan/witchy wedding. Can you do an episode on handfastings and the like? What time of the year or moon phase is best? What foods are eaten? Is it typical to serve mead? Do I have to join a coven in order to have the ritual done by a priestess? Thank you so much again for your time and dedication!
I would love to talk about handfasting and especially the reimagining of weddings and wedding customs outside the very rigid definitions of organized religions and like, splashy American wedding trends. I know that the wedding industry, at least here in the States, is just outlandishly bloated. I googled the numbers when I was putting my notes together for this episode and the wedding services industry is projected to make 62.1 billion dollars this year. That is crazy money.
And far be it for me to presume to tell people how to celebrate their own unions. That is none of my damn business. But if folks are gonna drop mad coin on their weddings anyway, I say why not make this day exactly what you would like it to be? And if you’re a witch or a pagan, that might mean performing a handfasting. Just to give some background, the history of handfasting is not nearly as extensively well-documented as we’d probably like, but it does go back a long, long way.
Handfasting as a phrase refers to the sealing of a pledge by the joining of hands. It’s the origin of shaking hands on a deal. And it used to be taken much more seriously than it is today. In modern times, we would never consider a handshake deal as a binding contract, but that used to be exactly how things were done.
It is a symbolic gesture of mutual commitment to an oath or promise: two hands clasping each other represents the sealing of a bond. Handfasting as a means of solemnizing a marital union is just an extension of that, and it was primarily associated with early English, Norse, and also Scottish Gael tradition.
But beginning in the year 1215, the council of Pope Innocent forbade clandestine marriages in Medieval England. The Church wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to be married had to jump through its own hoops, and so the council required all marriages to be presided over by a priest and in the presence of at least two credible witnesses. A bit later an additional stipulation was made that a marriage must also be formally announced in a church by a priest, 30 days in advance of the wedding.
This meant that if you were a rural peasant, maybe a farmer, you had to make your way into a town with a church, frequently enough get familiar with the priest, pay your tithes, make your confessions, take Communion, in order to be married. Well, this was asking a lot. And so to kind of get around all this nonsense, folks began performing handfastings. The couple would join hands and announce their intentions to one another and in front of a witness, and go ahead and proceed with their lives as though they were married. The presumption of course was that eventually, the couple would make it church official.
And the church even recognized handfastings as legally binding, The church weddings became a bit of a formality, up until it became pretty apparent that a lot of folks had legitimized handfastings to the exclusion of a proper church wedding and so the Church came down pretty hard on the custom by the 18th century, and eventually outlawed it altogether.
The Scots approached it a little differently, to the surprise of no one, I’m sure. While the Church of Scotland formally forbade handfastings and any marriages that were performed by mutual consent without the intercession of a priest, local authorities pretty much looked the other way. Secular authorities considered it a completely valid form of marriage. To get around the pesky church authorities, the Scots simply performed their handfastings in public. It’s not a clandestine marriage, we held it in the pub! And this practice persisted right up until 1939, when the Marriage Act was passed and put an end to all of it.
Neopagans got a hold of the concept beginning in the 1960s and really rallied behind it as a way of reclaiming the concept of marriage and commitment outside the constructs of religion and government. And the Neopagans get the credit for popularizing the wrapping of the couples’ hands with a ribbon or a cord. It wasn’t unheard of, but this wasn’t a strictly necessary part of the ceremony, historically speaking, but now it’s become commonplace in handfasting rituals. The tying of the proverbial knot.
Now, as for those questions about the best time of year for handfastings or weddings in general, I hate to be basic, but June is the month of the year that’s probably most auspicious for marriage. It’s associated with love, abundance, prosperity, and successful relationships.
Now, if June isn’t the move, December is also a great time for weddings. It’s associated with devotion, love, prosperity, and strength. And if you can possibly time your nuptials with the full moon or a waxing moon, all the better. If you can somehow book a date on the full June moon, well then. Hallelujah holy shit. That’s a great day.
But really, if you look ahead at a calendar year and find a day that’s astrologically chill, that’s gonna be plenty. You and your partner are going to have to do the heavy lifting of making sure that your union is cared for, nurtured and respected. You’re not gonna be able to blame the stars if you drop the ball on that.
Foods that are associated both directly and indirectly with strong, successful marriages include apples, olives, vanilla, duck, rosemary, and lavender. As far as mead being traditionally served at handfastings, well, early English and Scottish handfastings would certainly have served mead or wine.
As for having to join a coven to have a priestess perform your handfasting, well that’s up to the priestess. Every coven has their own way of doing things. And even if you are a coven member, you will need to do some homework and make sure that your priestess, or whomever you choose to perform the ceremony, is ordained to do so. Every state has its own regulations about that, so you’ll need to make sure that the person officiating is qualified to sign off on the paperwork.
Modern handfastings generally follow a pretty traditional wedding script, but the officiant will ask the betrothed to face one another, and then wrap a ceremonial cord or ribbon around their clasped hands. The bride and groom or bride and bride or groom and groom will say their vows to one another, the officiant will pronounce them married, they will kiss, and the cord is tied such that it’s pulled into a knot when the couple separates their hands. It’s such a meaningful and symbolic variation on a traditional Western wedding.
And handfasting can be the entire show, or it can be combined with other pagan practices. Jumping the broom is a practice that is sometimes folded into wedding celebrations. And we talked about it briefly in the Broom Magick episode, so I’ll just briefly recap what we said about it then. “Jumping the broom is a practice which originated in pre-Christian Celtic Europe. Once Christianity drove paganism underground, the practice came to solemnize marriages between people whose weddings would not have been recognized as valid by the church or under the law. This included Romanis in Wales, Celtic Scots, and eventually jumping the broom even came all the way to the United States. There are some records of enslaved peoples in the antebellum South jumping the broom as a way to formalize their own folk marriages during a time when it was forbidden by law for enslaved peoples to enter into such contracts.
This connotation, the idea that jumping the broom is a way for all kinds of marginalized peoples, the poor, the religious minorities, the racial or ethnic minorities, the oppressed, to jump the broom in front of witnesses as a way to validate their own vows and the law be damned, is incredibly powerful and empowering. And this is a practice you will frequently see at handfasting ceremonies as well. And I think it’s a really beautiful way to reclaim agency. For a couple to say, ‘This marriage is not valid because the church says so, or because the law says so, but because we say so.’
We don’t really know the original significance of this practice, but historians tend to agree that because brooms were both inexpensive and intrinsically tied to the concept of a household, that it’s likely that new couples would have received a broom as a gift and the practice just sort of evolved from there. And it makes sense. A broom is a household tool whose purpose is to keep order; it’s meant to keep a home tidy. To sweep things out that are unwanted and that do not contribute to the comfort of its family.”
A Wiccan wedding may include any or all of the things we’ve talked about, and they may even include a Wiccan wedding altar, to include wine, a ritual knife, flowers, candles, incense, and so on. A Wiccan wedding may invoke the four elements or even cast a circle of protection around the wedding and the couple may make offerings of wine or mead to the god and goddess.
Another really cool Celtic practice, if your ceremony or your reception will take place near a natural body of water, is the Celtic pebble toss. Each guest is given a pebble. The guests hold them for the duration of the ceremony, and then make a wish on their pebble for the happy couple. Happiness, health, prosperity, whatever it may be, and then the pebbles are tossed into the water, invoking blessings from the spirits upon the newlyweds.
A similar custom is the Oathing Stone, wherein a large stone is clasped between the hands of the betrothed during the ceremony. This stone would be imbued with the vows given and once those vows are sealed, it’s either tossed into the water or kept in the home. Stones that are kept are frequently carved with a Celtic knot or the names of the couple.
And I love these two practices in particular because they really lean into the earth magick aspect. And I know that weddings and love and romance and all of that is really emotionally charged and so we are more likely to think of water magick, probably, when we think about those things. Because of course, love is certainly a matter of the heart.
But the day-to-day aspects of building a life together, of joining two people to create a new family, and being able to depend on one another, and overcome obstacles together, that’s all earth magick. That’s about creating stability and combining resources, and putting in the work to create something unique and long lasting. That’s about building a legacy. And maybe that’s not a super romantic way to approach it, but it’s important. And I really appreciate the inclusion of grounded earth magick in a wedding ceremony.
And thank you very much to the witch who wrote in. I’m so gratified that she has become more empowered in her craft and in her life and it’s really exciting that she’s planning her own wedding. I wish you all the very best in building your future together with your partner.
So, thank you again for joining me today, we will meet again next week to discuss Sex Magick. Message me on the website at middleagedwitch.com, or email me at email@example.com. My name is Eli Ro, and this has been the Middle-Aged Witch podcast.
One reply on “Handfasting”
My wife and I handfasted. Small gathering. I want to say Diane Ferguson and her book was my guide. I wished I’d have known about blogging then, because this was a great read.