Monday, July 26, 2010



Handfasting is an ancient Celtic custom; once common it is now experiencing something of resurgence. It is a ceremony in which a man and woman come together at the start of their marriage relationship. Their hands, or more accurately, their wrists, are literally tied together. This practice gave way to the expression "tying the knot" or “getting hitched” which has come to mean getting married or engaged.

The handfasting ritual recognized just one of many forms of marriages permitted under the ancient Irish (Brehon) law. The man and woman who came together for the handfasting agreed to stay together for a specific period of time, usually a year-and-a-day. At the end of the year the couple faced a choice. They could enter into a longer-term "permanent" marriage contract; renew their agreement for another year, often turning their backs on each other to go their separate ways.

The custom hails from the pre-Christian era but continued after Christianity was well established because it was not ordinary for either the Church or government to play a role in witnessing marriages during this period. Even though Marriage was one of the seven sacraments, it wasn't until the Council of Trent, which began in 1537, that the Church required that the Church witness marriages. Government registration of marriages in Ireland only began in the middle of the 19th century.

It is important to understand the view of the Brehon Law on marriage to see the importance of handfasting. In an article entitled Marriage, Separation and Divorce in Ancient Gaelic Culture, Alix Morgan MacAnTsaior points out that marriage was seen as a contract intended to first protect the individual and property rights of the parties (and their families) and secondly to ensure that any children born of the union were properly recognized and cared for.

If the couple decided to separate at the end of the year (or at any other time) Brehon law specified how their property would be divided. More importantly, it established the recognition of the inheritance rights of any child conceived during the time of the handfasting union.

Lughnasadh, the August 1st Celtic festival, was one time of the year when handfastings often took place. These unions were known as "Teltown marriages" because men and women came together at the festival at Teltown, Co. Meath, often not knowing in advance who their partner would be. They remained together through the year and if necessary, parted company at the festival in following year.

WOMEN - In Celtic culture women were equal in the eyes of the Law up to the coming of the Romans and Christians. Some patriarchal extremes may have started to be taken on with the continued interaction with Brythonic tribes, however the Laws and customs remained largely unchanged until Christianity became implanted on Irish soil. This was compounded with the coming of the Saxon and then the Norman. Though the Brehon Law remained gender neutral and in power up to the 17th century, patriarchal elements who had gained power over our people interpreted the Law as only applying to men much earlier than this. The records show that women had the rights to own and disburse property, inherit property and have skills, as well own and use weapons on the field of battle. They also had rights in the construction of their marriage contract, as well as complete authority within their homes. A woman’s authority was in the hearth and the man’s on the land.

HEARTH - The hearth was of central importance in Celtic society, and its foundation was the marriage contract. Within the hearth the woman's authority was absolute. The hearth was the centre of much activity, where many traditional crafts were carried out; it also provided warmth and nourishment, it was a gathering place for storytelling and music, and it had to be an open place of hospitality to all.

Handfasting survives in several forms today. It is present in part in many Western religious and secular ceremonies as the celebrant asks, "Who gives this woman to be married?" The giving of the bride's hand to the groom is reminiscent of the handfasting ceremony. Handfasting is also the marriage rite practiced by pagan and Wiccan groups.

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