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Handfasting part I

previously published as “For as Long as Love Shall Last” in issue 9 of WitchCraft magazine

With its ancient pre-Christian roots in the timeless Old Religion of Nature, Handfasting has become the NeoPagan term for Marriage, but was originally a betrothal, a trial marriage which was either dissolved or made permanent at the end of the traditional “Year and a Day”. Because the celibate priesthood considered matrimony to be “impure and unholy, a means of sexual passion”, it took the Church till the thirteenth century A.D. to even allow priests to bless a newly married couple, and even then only outside the door, on the steps!

The other reason for their repudiation of marriage was that it was presided over by the priestesses of the Goddess, who ruled all phases of human love - sex, conception, gestation, birth, nursing and mothers. The modern religious service is mainly the elaborate blessing of what remains of the original ceremony, still discernable in such things as the throwing of grain, the wearing of white for new beginnings, the exchange of rings, etc. In pre-Christian times the real wedding ritual was performed by a wise-woman or priestess.

In Wicca, the Witchcraft Revival, the influence of Romany Gypsy traditions is evident in such features as the exchange of blood (optional for the squeamish) and the practice of jumping over the Broomstick, a fertility symbol of phallic staff joining the female “bush”! Gypsy couples were also instructed in marital duties and mysteries by an elder priestess dedicated to the Moon.

These days I’d say that a Handfasting should be performed by a trained Pagan Ritualist, i.e. a dedicated Priest or Priestess of the Old Magickal Religion. This gives you many traditions of NeoPaganism to choose from. Depending on your circumstances, Handfasting has a whole range of possible expression, so a good Celebrant can design a big “folky” communal ritual, an intense, highly magickal Ritual with few people, or anything in between.

Some couples opt for a mainly conventional wedding, but want me to diplomatically work a secretly magickal and Pagan segment into it. (In Part 2 I will cover the Ritual and Spellcraft aspect in more detail.) You could say, for example, that you are a mad Folklore enthusiast and cunningly time your Wedding to one of the Eight Sabbats (Seasonal Fire Festivals, if anybody asks).

Taking the path of least resistance, the straight civil or church ceremony and the magickal Handfasting Ritual can be held on separate dates. The perfect solution for the purists would be to find Pagan Priests and Priestesses who are also licensed Celebrants, but as far as I know, they are not exactly thick on the ground in this country. If your chosen Celebrant is not legally qualified, the civil wedding can be held either before or after the religious one. If you only have the minimum number of people attending, it will make the statement that the civil wedding is not the “real” one to you.

Whether by accident or choice, many NeoPagans live mostly outside the mainstream culture, including those who enjoy the mixed blessing of having no family close enough to offend. Through necessity, these people become the pioneers of creative social experiments, sometimes drawing inspiration from ancient cultures to explore different possibilities of relationship. Delightfully liberated and realistic, the ancient Celts had a whole range of different marriage contracts including monogamy, polygamy, and arrangements for political, social and financial advantage.

A common element in the Handfasting of the NeoPagan revival is the replacement of the deadly old “Till death do us part” with “Until the Gods decree, for as long as Love shall last”. Endlessly adaptable, the Handfasting Rite can also be a way of making sacred a committed relationship of long standing, honouring bonds already strongly forged, consecrating a new phase of commitment, or to serve as a healing after the weathering of hard times, to call back joy, mirth and reverence.

Rites of Passage are part of the timeless circling of seasons in human Nature. By designing new ways of living in community and evolving new experiences of tribe, clan and family bonding, we shape a new Dreaming for the future. This is one reason why a Rite of Passage like Handfasting is so powerful. Like any form of Marriage or Commitment, as a manifestation of human Love it vibrates on all levels of existence - the individual, the social/ communal and the cosmic.

On the individual level, Handfasting is an Initiation for two people whose lives will be changed forever. It is the death of the illusion of being separate, and a rebirth into a new sense of Self, into an expanded way of being, somehow more powerful and fulfilled. This is true whether it is a Beltane “Greenwoods” Handfasting (that could well only last for the weekend!), a “Year and a Day” Rite or a Handfasting Ritual with the most solemn of Magickal Vows.

Be very respectful of promises made before the Gods within the sacred space of a Circle. Never promise what you are not sure you can deliver and never underestimate the power of your magickal word. My point is not to make Handfasting a heavy deal, but to remind you to exercise your divine magickal freedom by making choices consciously and creatively. If any tradition or arrangement does not honour your freedom or chokes your joy - for the Gods’ sake get rid of it!

Because a wedding is a Beginning, echoing the cosmic beginning of Creation, the union of the God with the Goddess, the couple are enacting the sacred marriage of Heaven and Earth like Priest and Priestess, King and Queen. See what you’re letting yourselves in for? I guess we humans are just “lemmings for Love”.

The Wedding is still a powerful Ritual, no matter how much our cynical modern culture has tried to fracture the romance of it. So what is “romance”? Its original meaning comes from the French word “roman”, meaning “story”. Romance is the power of story, which can be passed on down the generations, because real life is the stuff of myth. That is why truth is always more exciting than fiction. The urge to join with another is the urge to join in the great Circle Dance of the God and Goddess round the wheel of life, the cycle of the seasons, to lose oneself in the romance of a Story of mythic power beyond our little, separate selves.

The Handfasting of Mark and Jenny, a couple in their early 20’s, is vivid in my memory as both the most difficult and the most heartfully rewarding gig I’ve had so far. They decided out of glorious youthful inexperience to “go the ton” and have a fully magickal Ritual and also include their little community of conservative, but very supportive parents, relatives and friends. Talk about grasp the nettle - I don’t think they quite realized how gutsy that was!

Somehow we all came through the touchy minefield of family emotional dynamics and last minute dramas, probably because of the sheer force of all the dedication, passion and hard work that went into it. The wedding party’s medieval costumes, for example, all made single-handedly by the Bride’s mother, were worthy of an Academy Award. The Ritual came together with such flow and grace that I was stunned by the presence of Love in the Circle, and such a strong gathering of Nature Spirits that I could almost see them even in the bright sunlight.

This Handfasting was held in beautiful rainforest setting in Northern N.S.W. As I was setting up before the Ritual, I held my breath as first two Bush Turkeys, and then a magnificent Goanna, stalked imperiously around the Circle space as though inspecting the proceedings. I was told later by a guest that as I was casting the Circle, a pair of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos settled in the trees close by. I felt honoured by these messages of approval from the Old Ones of the Land.

I remember lovely cameo moments from the Ritual - how the father of the Groom instinctively took off his hat as I bound the couple’s hands together with the Cords. Also the rather hilarious moment when the Groom totally forgot the Challenge by Sword at the gateway to the Circle. The look on his face as he barged through was pure theatre. I was nearly forced to impale the poor guy - it definitely made him stop and think!

A Handfasting has all the true-life pathos and drama that a “straight” wedding has, and if anything, tends to be more intense. Through the Bride and Bridegroom as the living God and Goddess, in every Handfasting we participate in the creative and healing power of male and female energy joining in the divine Oneness of Love. Why do we cry at weddings? Because the heart is opened up to a beautiful story, a possibility of never being alone again, of being cherished forever, beyond all time. It is a living myth, a true myth. “Never be cynical about Love, for it is as perennial as the grass”.

Part II covers the Spellcraft of Handfasting & Magickal Relationships.

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