Weddings hold a place of sacred importance in many spiritual traditions. They are rites of passage, marking a new chapter in a person's life.
In contemporary paganism, which contains myriad branches and traditions, many couples symbolically weave their lives together with a wedding ceremony called a “handfasting,” derived from an Old English term for “betrothal." The term more broadly signifies a contract or agreement -- like a firm handshake. In that vein, couples getting handfasted ceremonially tie their hands to solemnize their bond to one another.
Selena Fox, high priestess of the pagan Circle Sanctuary church and nature preserve, has officiated handfasting ceremonies for both heterosexual and same sex couples for more than 40 years.
"Pagan handfastings celebrate the joining of a couple's lives, souls and support networks of family and friends together," Fox told The Huffington Post.
The weddings Fox officiates typically take place outdoors, she said, though some have been in homes, churches or other venues.
During the ceremony, the couple receives “blessings” from the elements -- air, fire, water and earth, as well as the fifth metaphoric element of spirit -- as a demonstration of the deep reverence pagans have for nature. Specific gods and goddesses may be invoked in the ceremony, as well, to bless the marriage and act as silent witnesses for the union.
In Fox's tradition of pagan nature spirituality, each element is associated with a different direction and has its own unique qualities. Earth, she said, is associated with the north and aspects of the body; air relates to the east and aspects of the mind and communication. Fire is associated with the south and the realm of action and passion, while water relates to the west and our emotions. The final element, spirit, resides at the center of a ritual circle and oversees the spiritual realm.
"In many ceremonies, the couple faces each associated direction as I do the blessing, concluding with being at the altar for the blessing of Spirit," Fox said.
When Wiccan priestess and author Courtney Weber married her partner in October, the pair used five cords during their handfasting to represent the five sacred elements during the ceremonial joining of their hands. Each cord symbolized their dedication to a different value, like good communication, passion and faith.
“The use of the elementals encourages a balanced, healthy relationship,” Weber told The Huffington Post. “When all parts are working together -- earth, air, fire, water, and spirit -- they created a holistic world that allows the couple to breathe, move, function and grow together.”
Pagan couples also exchange vows before their friends, family and otherworldly guests, including elements, deities and ancestors. Weber, who is licensed to perform weddings and has officiated several legal handfastings in the New York area, said couple’s vows “should be honest, but reasonable.”
“The best vows I've heard encourage compassion and forgiveness, and a commitment to work through difficulties when they arise,” Weber said. “They should focus not just on feelings, but on tasks such as listening [and] honoring one another's family as their own.”
When the ceremony is complete and the marriage solidified, the couple then joins hands and jumps over a broomstick together, which Fox said symbolizes that they are “entering married life together."