Modern Definition
A pagan marriage-type commitment. Not necessarily legalized and usually for a specific period of time - most often the traditional "year and a day."

Traditional Definition
Handfastings were popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. A couple would be handfasted for a year and a day before being formally wedded in the local Catholic Church. The handfasting was intended to assure the fertility of the couple in a time when it was imperative to have as many children as possible.


Handfasting isn't always used as a marriage ceremony, although it can be. In many contexts it is used as something more like an engagement, but deeper, there actually is a ceremony and a spoken pledging of promise, in front of friends and/or family, and it is led by a pagan priest or priestess.

Most of the couples i know who have been handfasted have since then either gotten married "legally" or have wedding plans in the works. But in most cases it is interim either way, a period before a marriage, "legal" or not, there are wiccan/pagan wedding ceremonies that dont hold up in courts of law. Sometimes it is done because outside reasons leave marriage an unviable option at the time, some people just want some bond deeper than an engagement in the period before the marriage.

however, handfastings, or more often their renewal a year and a day later do have one option of being "legal"--most pagan clergy also become ordained in the unitarian church, who is more than happy to comply. Having done this, they have the same athourity to sign the papers as does a justice of the peace or any other minister. So the ceremony will be performed in proper tradition, and the papers signed in a way it complies with the state.

see http://www.thetask.com/thresholds/handfastings/ for *much* additional information on pagan/wiccan handfastings and weddings.

Handfasting is the ritual occasion when two Wiccans want to be together as in a marriage.

All Wiccan rituals begin with a circle casting. Since we don't tend to have church buildings, and we often worship outdoors, this is how we declare a place to be our church for the duration of the ritual. The Circle may be cast with great ceremony and fanfare and waving of swords, or it may be done simple by gathering the participants in a ring where the ceremony is going to take place.

Then, after the circle casting, there will be a invocation of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water in the four directions. This may involve spoken incantations, or it may involve holding up or carrying physical objects which are symbols of the elements.

After the four elements invocation, the priest and priestess invoke the divine forces, in the form of the God and the Goddess. They may also be called under specific names in order to indicate something about the particular quality of divine energy we want to bring into our ceremony.

When the invocations are done, there will be a wine blessing. The priest and priestess (or the bride and groom if they wish) will dip a ceremonial knife into the chalice. This symbolizes the creative union of opposites -- female and male, Goddess and God, earth and heaven, life and death. After the wine is blessed, it may be passed around the circle for all to partake in.

After the wine blessing, the couple will exchange vows, just as they would in a normal wedding. After each has said their vows, the Priest and Priestess will tie a ribbon around the bride and groom's wrists.

When the couple is tied together, they will proceed to leave the circle by "Jumping the Broom" which symbolizes crossing the threshold into married life.

As used by mundanes, a ceremony taking the place of a wedding whereby one a) doesn't have to formally divorce if things don't work out, b) doesn't have to invite potentially uncool parents or relatives, and c) can have all your friends, whatever music you want, write your own vows and ceremony, and pontificate on how awesomely traditional it all is -- in short, all the fun, pageantry, and free loot of making your sex life public without the messy responsibility of grafting two families. In the same category as engaged-to-be-engaged, and any number of other little rituals that lovers design for themselves when they decide that no one's ever felt exactly like this before, and so, any established cultural ritual (from anything less than say, five hundred years ago and/or in the American sphere of influence) is inadequate to express their joy. Participating in a ceremony outlawed in the Catholic Church by the Council of Trent gives a certain...spice to the occasion.

Incredible how many people decide they're Wiccan when they're in love.


4,000 and 2001 BCE In Newgrange, Fourknocks and Creevykeel (Ireland) Huge (megalithic) tombs and monuments were built in Ireland, Artifacts found in and around them strongly suggests these were used for many ritual purposes.

664 CE Following the Synod of Whitby (UK), handfasting began to be supressed after Celtic Christianity was abandoned for the Catholic Church.

1563 Council of Trent- Roman Catholic Cannon law was altered, so that paperwork, in addition to a priest, became part of a formalised marriage ritual.

1753 Lord Hardwicke’s Act - after this no marriage was recognised unless formalised by a Clergyman and recorded in civil records. Prior to this Handfastings were under the jurisdiction of common law rather than canon law.

1790 Thomas Pennant "Tour in Scotland" wrote - "Among the various customs now obsolete the most curious was that of handfasting, 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 handfasting, 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 handfasting was renewed for life...."

Please note that Thomas Pennant does not cite any historical source, evidence or otherwise to support what he says, This is the earliest record of this mythical version of handfasting, and none of the historical evidence supports his version of events. In fact the practice of Handfasting continues to this very day, and was extremely common up until 1900. Followers of various Neopagan religions, believing the myth to be an actual pre-Christian practice, adopted the form of the myth into their own modern religious practices and ceremonies.

1820 Sir Walter Scott wrote "The Monastery". In this work he described a fictional sacred ritual that bound the couple in a form of temporary marriage for a year and a day.

"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."

A great many of our modern misconceptions about this practice stem from this book, which maintained relatively high sales for many years after publication.

1939 Handfasting was made illegal in Scotland, there was some exemption from the imposition of English law (Lord Harwicke’s Act) prior to this.

2000 William Mackie is a bishop of Celtic Church in Scotland, and has been lobbying parliament to have handfasting recognised more fully.

(please bear in mind that this is primarily a British and European summary of this ritual)


As there is a great deal of variation in performance of this bonding ritual,due to it being a "common law" (in England) or "folk practice" it is not possible to produce a standardised format. Therefore bear in mind that not all of these may be used in a handfasting, but that as a general rule some will be used.

The joining of hands - When viewed from above the arms form an infinity symbol.

Witnesses - Due to the fact that handfasting is a declaration of intent, there are generally people present to recognise this promise.

The tying together of hands - Obviously symbolic, it is where the phrase "tying the knot" comes from.

Shaking Hands - A method by which a contract is sealed (we still do this today, though we take it far less seriously...)

The ritual being held outdoors - It's nice, but not recorded in any historical record of this tradition.

A Broomstick - representing the sweeping aside of the old to make way for the new, in some parts of scotland the couple would jump over the handle after the ceremony.

Sharing a drink from a cup or chalice: This practice is continued after modern weddings, where the couple will each hold the glass for the other.

Handy Links:








Recommended reading:


Smout, T. C. "Scottish Marriage, Regular and Irregular, 1500-1940." In Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage, edited by R. B. Outhwaite, 204-36. London: Europa Publications Limited, 1981.

Anton, A. E. "'Handfasting' in Scotland." The Scottish Historical Review 37, no. 124 (October 1958): 89-102.

Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990

Forte, A. D. M. "Some Aspects of the Law of Marriage in Scotland: 1500-1700." In Marriage and Property Ñ Women and Marital Customs in History, edited by Elizabeth Craik, 104-18. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1991.

Leneman, Leah, and Rosalind Mitchison. Sexuality and Social Control: Scotland 1660-1780. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Please feel free to message with suggestions to improve the layout of this writeup, I will also research and add further material if asked, regarding more specific aspects of the history of this practice.

C. H. Wallace once spent a day hanging around with the beast, once. It is written in his book on witchcraft. The whole time, they say nothing but woah to each other. All communication they exchange is through an interjection. And he seems to think that it works quite well.

Find a close friend, or a stranger. Someone. Don't say anything for a day, just whistle. Use melody and rhythm and timbre. See how much you can learn about them. Maybe you can't communicate as effectively as you thought. Or maybe, you possess the deft proficiency of Nightingales.

It is one thing to be bound physically, in the some home. It is another be bound hand-in-hand, and to be aware of your partner as though they are yourself. But separate and yet together, unspoken and bound. That is different.

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