More couples tie the knot the pagan way

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 100 couples will this year opt to exchange vows of betrothal according to the pagan tradition of "handfasting", as interest in conventional marriage ceremonies declines.

Despite the fact that a pagan marriage has no legal status, couples are increasingly attracted by its emphasis on the natural world and its spiritual dimension.

Some couples who opt for a handfasting ceremony may choose to legally register their marriage separately, often for tax purposes, but others consider the ritual complete in itself as a public demonstration of commitment to a shared life.

While interest in handfasting is growing, the number of legally registered weddings has fallen by 20 per cent in the past 10 years.

In addition, since the law on civil weddings was changed to allow them to take place outside a register office, the proportion of religious ceremonies has fallen from half to 40 per cent of all marriages.

According to the Pagan Federation, the true number of pagan ceremonies taking place this year is likely to be much higher than the 100-plus it is aware of, since many couples are getting "married" within their own group.

There are no rules for the rite, though it is supposed to include the tying together of the couple's hands, a ritual from which the phrase "tying the knot" came. The untying signifies that the two will remain together of their own free will.

As befits a belief system which celebrates the sanctity of nature, the ceremony involves paying homage to the four elements of earth, fire, water and air and to the couple's chosen god or gods.

Relatives and friends gather in a circle to create a "sacred space" and the couple will usually perform a sequence of movements based on ancient fertility rites which culminate in the bride or groom plunging their dagger into their opposite number's chalice of mead to consecrate it.

While there is evidence that handfasting ceremonies were conducted in Scotland until the 19th century, the Witchcraft Act, revoked in 1951, meant they were generally secretive.

Membership of the Pagan Federation has risen from 443 in 1989 to 6,500 today and there are now between 100,000 and 200,000 pagans in the UK.

Kate West, a "white witch" and media coordinator of the Pagan Federation, says that its members come from all walks of life, though until recently the popular perception of such people as cranks made them very secretive about their beliefs.

"Paganism is about the balance between male and female, the right to contact the divine in a direct manner and the celebration of seasonal festivals," she said. The Ten Commandments of Christianity are all about "shalt-nots" whereas paganism has a more positive morality that says you can do whatever you like as long as you don't harm anybody else."