Another look at the Knot

Did you ever wonder where they expression ‘tying the knot’ came from?  I thought I’d take a good closer look at the ancient ritual that inspired the well-known phrase.

There are a few different explanations of this Celtic ritual, also called handfasting. The basic action is simply using rope, cloth, or ribbons, to wrap (sometimes tied and knotted) around the joined hands or wrists of the couple. A clear symbol of unity.

Conveniently we forget the history that tells us handfasting was originally used for an engagement, not marriage. But it really does make an excellent wedding ritual, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Photo Credit: The Pros

Back to the history. When we look at the origins of this, we are looking at pre-Christian traditions that fall into many categories: Pagan, Wiccan, Goddess, and Nature-inspired worship and practices. Don’t let that be a stumbling block if you like the symbolism. The reason most couples like this today is because it comes from the ancient Celtic people, who lived in the area that is now Ireland (and parts beyond). For this reason we can call it an Irish tradition. It has become more mainstream and can certainly be performed for Christian couples who might otherwise be put-off by those Pagan roots. Prince William and Kate Middleton were handfasted at their wedding in Westminster Abbey so I think we’re good to go!

My research about the original intent, the engagement ritual, points to the idea of two people being ‘bound’ in a union to last for a year and a day. Sounds like a trial marriage, which seems like a good idea, if you ask me. It gave the couple the chance to see if they could survive marriage. After the year, the couple could either split up, as if they had never been married, or could decide to enter permanently into marriage.

Photo Credit: Garth Woods

Today it has definitely become a wedding ritual. And, if you are a practicing Wiccan or Pagan, it can be the actual legal action of marriage. Depending on the state where the handfasting is performed, and whether or not the officiant is a legally recognized minister (or Wiccan priest) the ceremony itself may be legally binding, or couples may choose to make it legal by also having a civil ceremony. Because of the beauty of our Constitution we all have the right to practice any religion we want, so if it truly is your religious belief, it is then a legal act. But please, people, do the legal license!

There are countless variations to this ritualistic action. Usually after the declaration of intent, the “I do” party, the couple joins hands, sometimes crossing their own hands at the wrists, and then holding hands with one another (making the sign of infinity). Some traditions say to only join your right hands together. Once the cloth is gently wrapped or loosely tied some words are said. When I do a modern version of this I often have the couple take their vows while handfasted, and then unwrap the cloth.

For actual Wiccan ceremonies, the four elements of the earth are incorporated into the handfasting. There are many sources to find ancient wording if that is what you’re looking for, but most often I want to have a modern spin.

The rope or cloth you choose can be anything you like, and it can wrapped by the officiant, or a special person or person of your choice. I love that because it’s another great way to get others involved in the ceremony. I once had both mothers of the couples do the honors.

Photo Credit: Garth Woods

The most important advice I can give a couple is to make sure family will be ok with this. If you love the ritual but it would offend family, please skip it. There are many other wonderful rituals to honor Irish heritage. A marriage always is about more than just the couple – it is about families as well.

Now, when you tie the knot, you’ll now know a little more about it.

 

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  • Blog Author

    Lois Heckman

    Lois Heckman is a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant who officiates at weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies in the Poconos and beyond. She has performed hundreds of ceremonies and brings a wealth of knowledge to her work. Visit her website: ... Read Full
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