In February, my partner and I will be celebrating our third anniversary. Like many people who have been dating for a while, we’ve decided to get married. Because we’re both pagan, we’ve always known that we wanted a pagan wedding. But because neither of us is Wiccan (I’m a Heathen and he’s a Roman pagan), we knew that our pagan ceremony probably wasn’t going to look like a typical neopagan wedding. And, since we live in an area that doesn’t have a lot of pagan resources, we knew we would be planning the ceremony and writing the ritual ourselves.
We are going to be having a true handfasting — a Celtic-style marriage ritual that includes actually binding the couple’s hands together with cord or ribbon. We’re both Irish American, and we both incorporate Irish elements into our spiritual practices, even though we both have other stuff going on. We chose Lughnasadh (August 1st) as our wedding date because it’s a traditional time for handfastings in Ireland, and we will be incorporating the binding of the hands. However, we’re also planning for the ceremony to include lots of Norse and Roman elements. The cool thing about writing your own wedding ritual is you can include whatever religious or cultural elements are meaningful to you. (Provided you’re not stealing from closed traditions you aren’t a part of.)
Because I feel like struggling to plan a modern pagan wedding ceremony is a pretty common experience, I’m going to be sharing a lot of our research and planning process on this blog so you can learn from our experiences and (I’m sure) our mistakes. I’m calling this “The Great Handfasting Project.”
Step one of wedding planning, as with so many things in revivalist spirituality, is research.
(I am aware that Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein have a book on handfasting. However, I personally do not feel comfortable reading or reviewing anything with Kaldera’s name on it because he has been accused by multiple former followers of some truly horrific abuse and exploitation. Aside from any ideological issues (and I do have several), I don’t think someone who openly uses religious rituals to act out rape and torture fantasies is the type of person I want to take wedding planning advice from.)
Modern Handfasting: A Complete Guide to the Magic of Pagan Weddings by Liz Williams
(2021, Llewellyn Publications)
This was the first book I read after my partner and I decided we wanted a handfasting. Overall I felt like it was a great guide to modern handfasting ceremonies, especially the logistical side of planning one. (Can a handfasting be legally binding in my country? How do I handle family members who aren’t pagan? What kind of venue should I book for my handfasting? Etc., etc., etc…) At the same time, this book is definitely focused on handfastings and doesn’t really talk about other types of pagan wedding ceremonies. The wedding planning advice is still good, but if you’re not planning a handfasting for your ceremony, the sample rituals won’t be as helpful.
- Very thorough advice on how to plan a non-traditional wedding. After reading this book, I had a good idea of all the logistical stuff I’d need to do for my own wedding.
- Queer and trans inclusive! The author includes extra advice and information specifically for queer couples and couples in which one or more partner(s) is trans.
- Polyamory affirming! While this book mainly focuses on ceremonies with two partners, the author does talk a little bit about poly handfastings and about historic precedents for polyamory in paganism.
- I liked how the author included mentions of love and marriage deities from other religions, like Hinduism and Vodou, while also talking about the dangers of cultural appropriation and making it clear that readers should seek out a clergy in those religions if they want to form a relationship with those deities.
- The book is mostly very well-researched and transparent about sources.
- Includes anecdotes from people who have been handfasted and from celebrants who have performed handfastings, including non-pagans.
- Includes information on the legal status of pagan marriages in many different countries.
- While the author frequently mentions other traditions, most of the rituals given in this book are very much Wiccan handfastings. There’s a lot of emphasis on Wiccan ritual elements like calling the quarters and tools like athames and chalices. As someone who is not Wiccan, a lot of this just wasn’t relevant to me.
- There’s not much mention of other ritual formats pagan weddings can take — which is fair, since handfasting is in the title, but this book will be less helpful to someone planning a Hellenic or Kemetic wedding, for example.
- While the research is mostly pretty good, the author will occasionally come out of left field with something really “out there” and provably false, like saying that Odin’s horse Sleipnir has nine legs. (He has eight.)
- The flower, herb, and tree correspondences given in this book mostly feature European species. Less helpful if you’re outside of Europe and want to use native plants in your wedding.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Do I recommend it? Yes
Handfasting: A Pagan Guide to Commitment Rituals by Rev. Dr. Kendra Vaughan Hovey
(2007, Provenance Press; part of the Passages series)
Although the title just says “pagan,” it’s made explicitly clear in the first few pages that this book is about neopagan handfasting traditions. Except not really — the author is clearly talking about Wicca exclusively (she talks about the God and Goddess a lot and quotes from the Wiccan Rede), but she keeps insisting that these are things all neopagans believe and do. (They aren’t.)
- There’s some good advice for interfaith couples, like making an effort not to prioritize one religion over the other and talking about how you’d like any kids to be raised before you get there. I especially like that the author talked about the importance of respecting your partner’s beliefs and not pressuring them to participate in your rituals.
- I like that the author encourages people to incorporate family traditions, cultural traditions, or even religious traditions from their childhood if they were not raised pagan. There’s a big emphasis on personalizing your ceremony.
- I enjoyed the section on themed weddings.
- I appreciated that this book had information on choosing an engagement or wedding ring stone based on its magical associations.
- The author encourages couples to pick the gods they call on in their wedding ceremony based on the outcome they want that god to bring to their union. This is a big no-no because it reduces the gods to just another list of correspondences rather than autonomous beings deserving of respect.
- This book contains A LOT of pretty major misinformation, like listing Pachamama as an Aztec deity (she’s worshiped by indigenous peoples in the Andes, which is fully on a different continent than the Aztec empire) and calling the Irish goddess Aine a moon goddess (she’s a solar goddess).
- So much cultural appropriation. So. Much.
- The author uses a lot of gendered, biological-essentialist language and insists on the importance of invoking one god and one goddess in your handfasting ceremony. There’s also a lot of penis-in-vagina sexual imagery. If you are anything but a cishet person marrying another cishet person, this is going to feel kind of icky.
- The author explicitly says that pagans need to be “model citizens” (her words) and have a responsibility to make their religion look good to outsiders. That didn’t sit right with me — I don’t think anyone should live their life based on how other people might perceive them, and I definitely don’t think my wedding needs to be an advertisement for the virtues of paganism.
- The author is weirdly, aggressively, anti-divorce? Even in cases of abuse or cheating? This is a direct quote from the book: “If we want our marriage to work out, it can. All we have to do is really want it.” Yikes! This kind of advice coming from a well-known reverend and high priestess is the type of thing that leads people to stay in unhealthy or abusive relationships because they feel guilty for “giving up” on their marriage.
- The author is also weirdly fixated on sex and, more specifically, sexual monogamy. Normally this wouldn’t bother me, because I get that most people who want to get married are monogamous. But open marriages do exist, and can be very healthy. Not only does this book ignore that, it gets downright preachy about the importance of sexual exclusivity.
Overall Rating: 1.5/5
Do I recommend it? No. This book is 40% bad advice, 40% misinformation, and 20% information that is delivered better in the Liz Williams book.
Romantic Guide to Handfasting: Rituals, Recipes, and More by Anna Franklin
(2016, Llewellyn Publications)
Again, this book is heavy on the Wiccan influences, but it’s not quite as bad as the Kendra Vaughan Hovey book — at least t his author acknowledges that not all pagans are Wiccans.
- Gay affirming! There’s even a section specifically about gay deities to invoke in your wedding.
- There’s a nice section on the history of handfasting, and on the origins of other traditions that are common in modern pagan weddings, like jumping the broom.
- I liked that there was a section on wedding clothing, including tips for choosing what to wear for your ceremony.
- The section on magical botanicals included detailed instructions for blending your own incenses and oils, which is helpful for readers who aren’t experienced with making their own blends.
- There’s a pretty lengthy section on brewing your own wine, mead, and/or beer for the wedding feast, and it actually inspired me and my partner to do this for our handfasting feast!
- I like the chapter on handparting, and I like that it includes a sample handparting ritual.
- A lot of misinformation in the deities section. For example, I don’t think most Hellenic pagans would consider Aphrodite an “Earth Mother” goddess, and as a Heathen I can definitely say that this author fully made up a new myth about Freyja, then portrayed it as an Old Norse story.
- Once again, cultural appropriation rears its ugly head.
- Uses the word “transsexual” interchangeably with transgender. This is an outdated term that is considered offensive by some, and by 2016 allies definitely knew not to use it.
- The sections on gay weddings are much shorter and less well-researched than the sections for straight weddings. This, combined with the outdated language, makes me wonder if the author originally wasn’t going to include any info for queer couples but was pressured to add it in by her publishers. It feels insincere.
- Uses the g-slur to refer to Romani people. And then suggests a [g-slur] theme as a potential wedding theme. In a book written in 2016???
Overall Rating: 2/5
Do I recommend it? No. There’s some useful info, but you can definitely find that info in other books that don’t contain multiple slurs (!!!) and copious misinformation.
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