Asking for Her Hand in Marriage, Tying the Knot, and Handfasting

A typical wedding ceremony with handfasting, consisting of tying the hands of the bride and groom together.I was thinking yesterday that there might be more to the common saying “asking for her hand in marriage.”  Doing a few searches and I found that some believe it comes from a medieval ritual known as handfasting.  Today it has been adopted by certain Neopagan groups as part of their engagement or marriage rituals, but it has a history which dates back to the Middle Ages in the Christian context, and is certainly much more ancient still1.  Apparently this practice has fallen out of usage and been lost among most of mainstream Christianity, except in Eastern Orthodoxy.

The modern handfasting ritual typically consists of tying the right hands of the couple to be betrothed or wed with a ribbon or cord while the couples exchange their vows.  This is also probably the origin of the common phrase, “tying the knot.”  In some cases, all four hands are tied together to make a figure 8 when viewed from above, the symbol of infinity or eternity (as in the photo on the right)2.

There is a good treatment on the history of Medieval handfasting on MedievalScotland.org, in which the author quotes from A.E. Anton:

Among the people who came to inhabit Northumbria and the Lothians, as well as among other Germanic peoples, the nuptials were completed in two distinct phases. There was first the betrothal ceremony and later the giving-away of the wife to the husband. The betrothal ceremony was called the beweddung in Anglo-Saxon because in it the future husband gave weds or sureties to the woman’s relatives, initially for payment to them of a suitable price for his bride but later for payment to her of suitable dower and morning-gift. The parties plighted their troth and the contract was sealed, like any other contract, by a hand-shake. This joining of hands was called a handfæstung in Anglo-Saxon, and the same word is found in different forms in the German, Swedish and Danish languages. In each it means a pledge by the giving of the hand. ….  

…After the consents had been exchanged ‘the curate with the consent of both parties with their hands joined betrothed the said David and Janet who took oath as is the custom of the Church‘. In fact, the ceremony of joining hands became so closely associated with betrothals in medieval times that in Scotland, and apparently the north of England, the ordinary term for a betrothal was a handfasting. The use of the term in this sense persisted in Elgin as late as 1635.3

This practice is much more widespread than just the U.K.  Such joining of the hands also occurs in Eastern Orthodox weddings.  In fact, several details of their wedding ritual are interesting from an LDS standpoint.  S.Faux over at Mormon Insights has taken note that in the Orthodox ceremony the bride and groom are quite literally crowned king and queen within their sub-kingdom in the kingdom of God, quoting from WeddingDetails.com:

The Greek Orthodox wedding Ceremony consists of two parts: The Betrothal and the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. It is a Christian ceremony.

In the Betrothal service, the Priest blesses the rings of the Bride and Groom, then places them on their right hands. The sponsor then exchanges the rings between them three times signifying that their lives are intertwined forever. …

The Marriage Ceremony begins immediately thereafter culminating in the crowning [with physical crowns]. It begins with the Priest giving the Bride and Groom lighted candles, which they hold throughout the service. The candles … indicate that Christ, the Light of the World, will light the way of their new life together.

Following a series of petitions and prayers with special reference to well known couples of the Old Testament, such as Abraham and Sarah [an allusion to the Abrahamic convenant], the Priest will join the right hands of the couple. This is an ancient symbol of marriage in which the Priest prays for God to “unite your servants, and crown them in one flesh…”

The Priest will then lead the couple around the wedding table or altar table three times. He holds the Bible in his hand, reminds the Bride and Groom that the Word of God should lead them through life. The circle represents eternal marriage, for a circle has neither a beginning or and end.

The ceremony ends with a benediction and prayer. The Priest uses the Bible to uncouple the hands of the Bride and Groom signifying that only god can come between them.4

An excellent example of such a wedding service can be seen in this 10-minute long YouTube video (many other fine examples can be found on YouTube).  You can clearly see the elements of crowning, joining of the hands, tying the hands together (handfasting), and circling the altar.  Circling the altar also has some interesting relationships that I’ve written about before here in the ancient round dance.

These wedding elements can even be seen in such popular films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the actors are crowned with thin wreaths, join right hands, and circle the altar with the priest.

That this practice is very archaic is evident in my post on the Ancient Sacred Handclasp, referencing an article by Stephen Ricks at BYU.

Notes:
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handfasting []
  2. http://www.religioustolerance.org/mar_hand.htm []
  3. Qtd. on http://www.medievalscotland.org/history/handfasting.shtml; See also Anton, A. E. “‘Handfasting’ in Scotland.The Scottish Historical Review 37, no. 124 (October 1958): 89-102. []
  4. http://mormoninsights.blogspot.com/2008/06/eternal-marriage-and-exaltation.html []

8 Comments

  1. Posted July 9, 2008 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Bryce:

    Thank you very much for the citation. The Eastern Orthodox wedding ceremony is absolutely beautiful and awe inspiring. Its origins need deep study, as there are relationships to the LDS marriage ceremony. You have been seeking suggestions, and maybe that is my suggestion for your future research. There are “ritual cognates” here that need to be researched and examined. You clearly have a talent for getting to the root of issues.

    Also, the Eastern Orthodox have deep connections to the doctrine of theosis. I believe there are evolutionary relationships here as well. But, this would be a PhD dissertation.

    Paul was worried those Corinthians, and so who knows what happened in later years to the Greeks, but the Eastern/Greek Orthodox are a worthy topic of examination for LDS researchers.

  2. Posted July 9, 2008 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I am surprised there is not more commonly known about this tying of knots topic. This is a fascinating topic that I have only just started to see pieces here and there. I did post a couple post on this topic recently; HERE and HERE.

    -David

  3. Mark Greene
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    In regard to marriage traditions and the temple marriage ceremony, an excellent study is Donna Nielsen’s Beloved Bridegroom (Finding Christ in Ancient Jewish Marriage and Family Customs). Donna states in her book that during the betrothal period,

    “swaddling bands were also to be embroidered with symbols indicating family history and genealogy. According to ancient and modern custom, the embroidery, to be acceptable, must be exactly the same on both sides. This was a type showing that the outward life and the inner life were the same–they were never to have a “wrong side” to their character. Under the wedding canopy, these decorated bands would be tied around the clasped right hands of the bride and the groom; hence the saying, “They tied the knot”. These bands would later be used to fasten the swaddling clothes of their children.”

  4. Posted July 9, 2008 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting insights. Thank you all!

    Elder Russell M. Nelson gave a talk at BYU a few years back in which he talked about the significance of the swaddling clothes of the Christ child:

    Why was reference made twice in Luke 2 to His being wrapped in swaddling clothes? What is the meaning of those five words “wrapped him in swaddling clothes”? I sense a significance beyond the use of an ordinary diaper and receiving blanket. Instead of those five words in the English text, only one word is needed in the Greek New Testament. That word is sparganoo, which means to envelop a newborn child with special cloth, strips of which were passed from side to side. The cloth would probably bear unique family identification. That procedure was especially applicable to the birth of a firstborn son.

    You remember the announcement of an angel at the birth of Jesus:

    “This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” His wrappings surely would have been distinctive.

    I think that such a concept of a cloth with family markings might also have been relevant when Joseph, son of Israel, became the birthright son and received the unique cloth coat of many colors–a fabric symbolic of the birthright. (Russel M. Nelson, “Christ the Savior is Born,” BYU Devotional, 10 December 2002, http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=506 )

    Elder Nelson talks in detail about several other components of the Nativity in the same talk, which is very interesting.

  5. Posted July 10, 2008 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Fascinating, especially the part about Eastern Orthodoxy. I served in Bulgaria and my wife and I were married there. I was loosely tied to some Orthodox weddings there and my wife still has an old home video of her cousin’s Orthodox wedding. Unfortunately, Bulgarian liturgy is archaic and almost no one can understand it.

    I always wondered why Orthodox people wore rings on the right hand. In fact, we wore our on our right hands until we were sealed a few months later. Perhaps, then, it is symbolic of the rights hands being used in the ceremony? To this day, my friend wears his ring on the left hand and his wife (Russian) on her right.

  6. Posted July 17, 2008 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Not wanting to make connections where they don’r exist, I see at least a simularity of several customs.

    The giving of swaddling clothes with the knots being ties (sign of covenants), the ties containing the family linage seems to have a resembelance to “giving a name and a blessing.”

    Let’s take this a little further still. This seems to be simular to curcumcision. It is a sign of the covenant (Abrahamic, which is the temple covenant), and an association with family.

    None of these practices are required for salvation. Curcumcision was a “special covenant-token beginning with Abraham. Baptism, however, began with Adam, as we have seen, and is to exist for all men at all times.”

    Perhaps they are not really related, but they do seem to be a simular practice in purpose.

    -David

  7. Justin Martyr Jr
    Posted January 28, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Early biblical Christianity is filled with references to hand & wrist grasping as being part of the early Christian “mysteries.” “For this cause shall a man leave his father & mother, & shall be joined unto his wife, & they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ & the church” Eph.5:30-2. This mystery, depicted in thousands of art works throughout historic Christianity, includes hand & wrist grasping. Plus, hand clasping wedding rings, where two separate rings, with two separate hands, are made to be able to join together to become one ring, that shows the traditional hand clasp of Christian marriage. In other cases, rings depicting two hands clasping, often right hand to right hand, on rings that are not being able to come apart, this symbolizes: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Mark 10:7–9. Rings, being circles are also symbolic of “eternity,” in that it’s hoped that the male & female, being thus “joined together,” their love for each other will continue forever. That this traditional aspect of the earlier Christian mysteries should be pasted down into later centuries to modern Christian wedding ceremonies is a testimony to how deeply rooted it became in historic Christianity.

    A few in many sources:

    Françoise Robin, Docteur ès lettres, La Cour d’ Anjou-Provence, La vie artistique sous le règne de René, (Picard Editeur, 1985), fig, 124. Ibidem fol. 182: Mariage d’Emilie et de Palamon. Shows the religious leader grasping the wrist of the couple to bring their right hands together to make the clasp.

    The George A. Hearn Collection of Carved Ivories, 1908, p. 125, fig. 97. Triptych. The Marriage of Joseph & Mary. In this ivory carving, the religious leader grasps the wrist of the bride to bring her right hand together with the right hand of the groom.

    Jahrbuch Der Berliner Museen, Jahrbuch der Preußischen Kunstsammlungen Neue Folge, Elfter Band 1969, (Verlagsort, Berlin: Im Gemeinschaftsverlag G. Grote’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung KG – Gebr. Mann), page 129, Abb. 49—50. Bible moralisée; Oxford, Bodl, 270 b. fol. 152 und 154. Marriage ceremony, with the one performing it grasping, with both hands, the right wrists of the couple in order to bring them together for the right hand clasp of marriage.

    Ignace Vandevivere, Professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, and Catheline Perier-d’ Ieteren, Photos by Hugues Boucher, Renaissance Art In Belgium, Architecture, Monumental Art, (Brussels: Marc Vokaer Publishers, 1973), pp. 81, 86-87. Hal, Church of St. Martin, reredos of Jean Mone. Part of a depiction of the 7 sacraments. Refined Italian style. Right hands in marriage clasp.

    Kurt Weitzmann, Editor, Age of Spirituality, Late Antique and Early Christian Art, 3rd to 7th Century, (New York: The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhibited November 19, 1977– February 12, 1978), p. 413, no. 371. Place of origin, unknown, about 300-310 marble depiction, among other things, of Adam and Eve clasping right hands in marriage, the official marriage gesture. Velletri, Museo Civico, 171. (Reekmans, 1958, p. 65. L’union dans le péché). And: Page 283, fig. 261. 4th century, on a circular work, a couple grasps each others’ right wrists in marriage. Above the joined hands is a large wreathed crown, and there is also an inscription that reads VIVATIS IN DEO, a formula used since the days of Clement of Alexandria in Christian wedding ceremonies. See bibliography in Age of Spirituality: Morey, 1959, p. 72, pl. 36, fig. 447; Craven, 1975, p. 234, fig. 11.

    David Talbot Rice, The Art of Byzantium, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1959), pp. 306, number 73. 610–629, on a silver dish, is a Byzantium work that shows a couple clasping each others’ right hand in marriage. Leningrad. The Hermitage Museum. The marriage of David. A.D. 610-629. Nicosia. The Archaeological Museum.

    André Grabar, The Golden age of JUSTINIAN, From the Death of Theodosius to the Rise of Islam, (New York: Odyssey Press, 1967; Translated by Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons), p. 306, fig. 352. Constantinople. Sliver Plate showing the Marriage of David to his bride, making the right hand grip. Museum of Antiquities, Nicosia. Seventh or eighth century A.D.

    Anna Ward, John Cherry, Charlotte Gere, Barbara Cartlidge, Rings Through the Ages, (Rizzoli International Publishers, Inc., English Edition, 1981), fig. 7, p. 54. A medieval drawing of a ring shows two right hand clasped together.

    Anna Ward, John Cherry, Charlotte Gere, Barbara Cartlidge, Rings Through the Ages, (Rizzoli International Publishers, Inc., English Edition, 1981), plate 114, p. 60. 12th century, English, a silver ring has two right hands clasped together, symbolizing a sign of faithfulness, especially in love and marriage. The ring, along with many others, was deposited about A.D. 1180, and later found at Lark Hill near Worcester, England, in 1854.

    George Frederick Kunz, Ph.D., Sc. D., A.M., Rings For the Finger, (New York, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1973, originally published in East Washington Square, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1917), p. 220, see also hand clasping ring drawings; p. 218 & 219; 272.

    William Tegg, The “Knot Tied,” (Singing Tree Press, 1877, 1970), pp. 97–129.

    Diane Warner, Complete Book of Wedding Vows, (Franklin Lakes, New Jersey: Career Press, 1996), pp. 29, 30, 32 & 34.

    To name just a few.

  8. Posted March 16, 2010 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    See this book for numerous examples of hand clasping marriages in ancient times:

    Preferred Citation: Hall, Edwin. The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1994 1994. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft1d5nb0d9/

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  1. [...] One of the most well-known of the ritualistic uses of the dance is in the Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony.  First, the couple are crowned with flowered crowns, then the priest joins their right hands together, and later the bride, groom, and priest perform a dance procession around the altar, circling precisely three times[7]. [...]

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