Pagan Weddings – Then and Now
Paganism, or Wiccan as it is just as often referred to, is one of the oldest religions, and many people who are unfamiliar with the beliefs and traditions that Pagans live by may be forgiven for believing that it involves animal sacrifices. Today’s Pagans, while being very spiritual, are often strong supporters of feminism and environmental issues. A person who has been invited to attend a Pagan wedding can rest assured that they will not be subjected to anything weird or offensive in any way. They may, in fact, be very surprised by how beautiful a Pagan wedding can be.
A Pagan wedding ceremony is called a handfasting. To be handfasted is the equivalent of being betrothed or married. In Europe, prior to the advent of Christianity, a Pagan handfasting consisted of two families coming together to negotiate settlement of goods and land. Once a deal had been struck the ceremony was a simple matter of the couple exchanging gifts, clasping hands and declaring their loyalty to each other. This simple ceremony would be followed by a feast and party that involves both families and the entire community. While the ceremony was simple the bond and joining of the two was strong and sacred.
While the laws of Christianity dictated that marriage unions be presided over by a clergyman it was impractical for every small village and community to have one on hand. Clergyman would have to travel from town to town causing any couple wishing to be married to have to wait. This raised an issue when the two were deeply in love and/or the young woman had become pregnant. Due to the annoying delay in having a clergyman present Pagans fell back on their traditions and used handfasting to join the couple in marriage. In some parts of Europe handfasting was the equivalent of an engagement and no formal ceremony followed that was equivalent to a wedding.
Around two hundred years ago many countries passed legislation that required a couple to undergo a legal marriage that satisfied particular requirements. In other parts of the world handfasting was still considered as binding as a legally formed marriage partnership. As modern Paganism evolved Pagans sought ways to honor past traditions and two forms of ‘marriage’ became widely accepted – handfasting and jumping a broom.
What a handfasting means to each couple is what they wish it to mean. For some it is a legal marriage to each other, and for others it is a commitment ceremony. Non-Pagans may see a handfasting as not being legally binding, however it is not uncommon for Pagans to go through a handfasting ceremony led by an officiant and then take care of the required paperwork afterwards. This satisfies both the Pagans and the legal requirements of the state the couple live in.
A typical handfasting may have many features one would expect to see at a Christian wedding. The bride will likely wear white, the couple will exchange vows and rings, and wine will be shared. These are things a non-Pagan will be familiar with however non-Pagans may find aspects that are not familiar. The ceremony is likely to be conducted while everyone stands in a circle. Typically the area where the ceremony is held will be blessed by either burning incense, sprinkling sacred water, beating drums, ringing bells, tossing herbs and/or flower petals, and ‘casting the circle’ by walking around it. This blessing ritual is also to ward off evil spirits.
‘Tying of the knot’ is a ritual performed by Pagans also, where the hands are clasped and a ribbon or cord is lightly tied around the wrists of the couple, signifying their joining in matrimony.