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:
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handfasting [↩]
- http://www.religioustolerance.org/mar_hand.htm [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- http://mormoninsights.blogspot.com/2008/06/eternal-marriage-and-exaltation.html [↩]