Handfasting (Neopaganism)

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Neopagan handfasting ceremony

Handfasting is a term for a wedding ceremony in Neopaganism, especially in Wicca.

Origin of the term

Handfasting is a historical term for "betrothal" or "wedding". In the Early Modern history of Scotland (16th and 17th centuries), especially in the Hebrides, the term could also refer to a temporary marriage. The term has come to be used as a replacement for "marriage" in the vocabulary of Neopaganism, especially in Wicca.[1]

The verb to handfast in the sense of "to formally promise, to make a contract" is recorded for Late Old English, especially in the context of a contract of marriage. The derived handfasting is for a ceremony of engagement or betrothal is recorded in Early Modern English. The term was presumably loaned into English from Old Norse handfesta "to strike a bargain by joining hands"; there are also comparanda from the North Sea Germanic sphere, Old Frisian hondfestinge and Middle Low German hantvestinge. The term is derived from the verb to handfast, used in Middle to Early Modern English for the making of a contract.[2]

The term "handfasting" or "hand-fasting" has been in use in Celtic neopaganism and Wicca for wedding ceremonies from at least the late 1960s, apparently first used in print by Hans Holzer.[3] It was popularised by the 1991 film The Doors, depicting a fictional version of the real 1970 handfasting ceremony of Jim Morrison and Patricia Kennealy-Morrison (with the real Patricia Kennealy-Morrison playing the Celtic Pagan priestess). The expression "handfasting" is also found in newsgroup discussions from the early 1990s.[4]

Neopagan wedding ceremonies

In Neopaganism, and particularly in Wicca, "handfasting" is a term used for a wedding ceremony. The marriage vows taken may be for "a year and a day," "a lifetime", "for all of eternity" or "for as long as love shall last." As with many Neopagan rituals, some groups may use historically attested forms of the ceremony, striving to be as traditional as possible, while others may use only the basic idea of handfasting and largely create a new ceremony.[5] In some traditions, the couple may jump over a broom at the end of the ceremony. Some may instead leap over a small fire together.

"Handfasting ribbon" custom

Civil wedding ceremony in Ukraine. The cloth is a ceremonial rushnyk decorated with traditional Ukrainian embroidery.
An example of a handfasting knot where each wedding guest has tied a ribbon around the clasped hands of the couple.

By the 2000s, the term "handfasting" has also come to be interpreted literally, as the symbolic act of tying a marrying couple's hands together with a ribbon (as opposed to referring to a supposedly "ancient" form of temporary marriage). Such a custom is found in various traditions[clarification needed] (but as discussed above it is not the origin of the English term "handfasting" ). It has probably entered the English-speaking mainstream from Neopagan wedding ceremonies during the early 2000s; such a ceremony is described and attributed to "pre-Christian times" in Mary Neasham, Handfasting: A Practical Guide (Green Magic, 2000, ISBN 9780954296315). Evidence that the term "handfasting" had been re-interpreted as describing this ceremony specifically is found in the later 2000s, e.g. "handfasting—the blessed marriage rite in which the hands of you and your beloved are wrapped in ribbon as you 'tie the knot.'"[6] By the 2010s, "handfasting ceremonies" were on offer by commercial wedding organizers and had mostly lost their Neopagan association (apart from occasional claims that attributes the ceremony to the "ancient Celts").[7] The term "handfasting ribbon" appears from about 2005.[8]


  1. OED recognizes the following senses of the term,
    1. Engagement to be married, betrothal; the ceremony in which this formally takes place. ( now historical)
    2. An uncanonical, private, or (esp. in Scotland) probationary form of marriage
    3. Now also: a form of marriage practised in neopaganism, Wicca, etc.
    The sense of "probationary form of marriage" is recorded for 1541. Thomas Pennant in his A Tour in Scotland, and Voyage to the Hebrides 1772 explicitly records the custom as being "now obsolete".
  2. "handfasting, n." and "handfast, v." OED Online. November 2010. Oxford University Press. "Old Norse hand-festa to strike a bargain by joining hands, to pledge, betroth" The earliest cited English usage in connection with marital status is from a manuscript of c. 1200, when Mary is described as "handfast (to) a good man called Joseph". "?c1200 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 2389 "Ȝho wass hanndfesst an god mann Þatt iosæp wass ȝehatenn."
  3. "My wife and I were married by the handfasting ceremony, and it was most controversial." - Hans Holzer, The Truth about Witchcraft (1969), p. 172; "Then I learned that the "special meeting" was, in effect, a wedding ceremony called "hand-fasting" in Wicca." Hans Holzer, Heather: confessions of a witch, Mason & Lipscomb, 1975, p. 101.
  4. rec.music.music "Jim Morrison was a vampire?", 21 July 1991 [1]; alt.sex.bestiality, 19 August 1993 [2], alt.pagan 10 May 1993 [3]
  5. "Breaking with tradition". Irish Independent.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. cover blurb of Kendra Vaughan Hovey, Passages Handfasting: A Pagan Guide to Commitment Rituals, Adams Media, 2007.
  7. Wendy Haynes, "Handfasting Ceremonies" (wendyhaynes.com), January 2010: " It was used to acknowledge the beginning of a trial period of a year and a day during which time a couple were literally bound together - hand fasted."
  8. Handfasting ribbon, finished (wormspit.com) 4 July 2005; Jacquelyn Frank, Jacob: The Nightwalkers, Zebra Books, 2006, p. 320.

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