Modern Paganism is one of the world’s fastest growing religious bodies. In its simplest definition, Paganism is a modernized recreation of the indigenous spiritual traditions of Europe — basically, it’s a revival of ancient pre-Christian beliefs and practices. However, this is the 21st century. Modern Paganism has been heavily influenced by modern values and ethics, such as feminism and environmentalism.
Don’t worry that you may witness an animal sacrifice at a Pagan ritual; many Pagans are vegan and strong supporters of animal rights!
There is a wide array of religions and spiritual traditions that fall under the Pagan “umbrella,” and yes, some are legally recognized faiths. The main three religions you will find within Paganism are:
- Wicca: A nature-oriented faith that focuses on the cycle of the seasons. One of Wicca’s main tenets is the Rede, which is summarized as, “An it harm none, do as thou wilt.”
- Druidry: A recreation of ancient Celtic practices, with a strong focus on poetry and storytelling. An example of a Druid wisdom teaching would be this Celtic triad, “Three things loveable in a person: tranquility, wisdom, and kindness.”
- Asatru: A reconstruction of ancient Northern European beliefs. Think “Vikings” and you aren’t so far off. Asatru has the Nine Noble Virtues, three of which are courage, truth and honour.
What is a handfasting, exactly?
A handfasting is a wedding or betrothal ceremony, and to be handfasted is equivalent to being married or betrothed, but before we get into the details, let’s back up a bit and have a quick history lesson.
In most of pre-Christain Europe, weddings were fairly straightforward affairs, and this was especially true for northern Europe and Celtic lands. Two families came together and they worked out a deal on land ownership and any trading of goods. Then, the couple would exchange gifts, clasp hands, and make oaths of loyalty to each other. Afterward their families and the community they lived in would throw a party and have a feast.
Going to the trouble of a full religious ceremony officiated by a Druid (or someone similar) was typically reserved for people of very high social status. For most people the transition from single to married was a do-it-yourself affair, with the couple’s community acting as witnesses.
As Christianity began to spread across Europe, the new Church lacked the resources to have a clergyman in every rural village and hamlet. As such, the Church would send circuit priests to travel to out-of-the-way parishes during the warmer months.
Obviously, this presented a problem to families who needed to make an alliance with another family or clan. It’s also difficult to ask young people in love to wait so long before they can make a home together. Especially if the young woman was already pregnant! Governments had a similar problem: it was too difficult to provide a judge or magistrate to every little village, let alone manage all the paperwork required for marriage licenses at a time when everything was handwritten on parchment.
So, folks looked back to the traditions of their grandparents and found a compromise. The couple would “self-marry” in the old style when it was convenient for the community. The union would later be formally blessed by the church when the circuit priest came around.
In the Middle Ages, handfasting-type rituals became popular as betrothal rituals. In some parts of Europe, e.g., Scotland, the word “handfasting” was used to say that a couple was engaged. It was more common to hear that a couple was “handfasted” than “betrothed.”
These types of self-uniting marriage traditions lasted well into the colonial era, when settlers in the New World faced difficulties due to long distances and lack of resources.
It was only a couple of hundred years ago that nations began to pass legislation requiring couples to be legally wed via a specific set of rules. In fact, in some parts of the world, self-uniting ceremonies are still perfectly valid and legal.
As modern Paganism began to truly grow in the early-to-mid 20th century, Pagans sought marriage rituals that had historical significance without strong ties to other religions.
Two fit the bill: the tying of hands in the handfasting tradition, and the jumping of the broom.
So is it a real marriage or not?
A Pagan handfasting can be several things, depending on the couple’s wishes. It can be a legal marriage. It can be a commitment ceremony for a common law or civil union. It can be a kind of trial marriage for a couple who wish to ease into married life. It can be a formal betrothal.
The ceremony can be led by an officiant, Pagan clergy, a friend, or be a self uniting-ritual. Sometimes, due to the small size of their religious body, it can be difficult to find a clergy member who is also a legal officiant. As such, Pagans who wish to become legally married will often “get legalled” before or after the wedding. They will have the legal paperwork and requirements taken care of at the local clerk’s office or other government-specified office.
What can I expect to see during the ceremony?
You may be surprised at how familiar much of the ceremony will be. There will be vows. You might see a bride in a white dress. You may see a wine blessing, or the sharing of a loving cup by the couple. You may see a bride wearing a veil; after all, this practice goes all the way back to ancient Pagan Rome, when brides wore brightly colored veils to protect themselves from evil spirits. You will probably see the couple exchanging rings or some other token of their love, such as necklaces. Rings and other jewelry have been used for the purpose of binding people to an oath since at least the Iron Age. You may see the lighting of candles, possibly even a unity candle ceremony.
Next: Pagan weddings: Things that could be unfamiliar to you.