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Handfasting Tradition – The Origin of Tying the Knot

Updated on August 8, 2013

Handfasting is an age old tradition practiced by the Celtics. It’s a custom of performing trial marriage ceremonies similar to betrothal or today’s engagement period. It involved couples publicly declaring their intention of marrying. These days, it is still being practiced by Pagans, Neo-pagans, Wiccans and romantic couples.

Handfasting used to be an official arrangement of marriage for one year plus one day, or another predetermined time frame. It is something like a trial marriage to test a couple’s relationship. After the set time frame, the couple will then decide if they still want to pursue an official wedding or to go their own separate ways.

Before Christianity, this was the way most people where married with civilians and community members supervising the contracts and agreements. Today, it is usually the civil court or church that takes care of these matters. The term “handfasting” originated from the custom of literally fastening or tying the groom and brides hands together during the ceremony.

This grew out of the tradition of shaking hands to close a deal or agreement. Back then the ceremony required the couple to come face to face with each other and hold each other’s hands forming an infinity sign like a number 8. A cord is bound on their wrists to fasten them together. The cords was only untied after the marriage was consummated.

If only the left hands were bound together without actually tying a knot, this symbolized the union between a man and his mistress. This was customary for rich German nobility when they took on a mistress. The woman was then recognized as a mistress, not a legal wife and their children together will be legally provided for. The mistress would not have any legal claims to the man’s property or inheritance.

The mistress is taken cared off while the man is alive. Mistresses then tried to have as many children as possible to secure themselves after the man passes away because the illegitimate children had legal claim to their father’s estate and assets after he passes away. This tradition was known as Brehon in ancient Irish law.

For those who still follow this tradition, the modern bride may wear red to her ceremony. The arrangement involves rocks, crystals, candles, an altar, a knife, cloth, robe or ribbon, a broomstick, marriage documents, a silver box and trowel arranged inside a circle drawn on the ground. Flowers are scattered inside the circle as the couple enter the circle from the east wearing crowns of flowers. Friends and family relations stand around the outer part of the circle to witness the ceremony.

A priest leads the ceremony and the couple announces their intention to be united under the watchful eyes of Gods and Goddesses and their friends and family as witnesses. The bride and groom may cut a lock of hair from their heads and place them in the silver box to represent their future intimate relationship. After which they use the trowel to bury the silver box in the ground within the circle.

The handfasting ceremony is finished off with the signing of documents, legalizing the union of the couple. Custom dictates that the bride and groom get on the broomstick symbolizing their commitment to make their relationship work. This tradition may be the origin of the term “tying the knot”, as the ceremony required the wrists of both parties to be fastened together.


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      4 years ago

      Not accurate. Celtic handfasting was a betrothal only. The myth relating to a year and a day trial marriage was an embellishment or misunderstand by a late 18th century author named Thomas Pennant. The myth was then copied by later authors. (Though a year and a day has been linked to Germanic traditions)

      Handfasting was a betrothal that was a promise of future vows in front of friends and family and was little more than a handshake. Cords and fabric handfasting came later, but that wasn't the traditional tying of the knot since it wasn't the actual marriage ceremony.

      Traditional tying of the knot was performed during the marriage ceremony when the bride and groom would rip fabric from their tartans and tie them together.