Wedding Ceremonies in Heathenry, Asatru and Norse Paganism
This entry is adapted from Our Troth Volume 3 and generously donated by the Publisher for the education and enjoyment of all Heathens. For the unedited and uncut version, buy the book!
So you want to tie the knot, huh? Looking for some resources for your wedding day? We're here to help, but here are a few caveats.
One, there is "no one right and true Pagan way to get married." The right way to get married is the way that makes you and your future spouse and your guests feel welcome, special and connected. Toward that end, we wanted to give you this excerpt from Our Troth Volume 3 generously donated by the author.
This version has been heavily edited and condensed for easier reading, so if you want to see the original (with even MORE sources) check out the book.
And check out the Blog for other examples of weddings in Asatru.
Do Norse Pagans call it a Hand-Fasting or a wedding?
Hand-Fasting is something you hear a lot in the more general Pagan community, and sometimes in Asatru and Heathenry as well--usually people who come from a Wiccan-influenced tradition. Yes, you'll sometimes hear it called "hand-fasting" but you're also just as likely if not more likely just to hear it called a marriage or a wedding.
Historical Sources for Norse Pagan weddings
For all the depiction of complex wedding negotiations in the sagas, actual depictions of wedding ceremonies are few.
Most accounts of weddings focus on the wedding feasts. As public recognitions of the union, these may have been more important than any purely religious observances would have been. Wedding feasts could be quite lavish. It is probably significant that the Old Norse phrase for celebrating a wedding is drekka brúðhlaup, literally “to drink the wedding.”
We may assume that ale and mead flowed as freely as the resources of the families would permit.
At a famous wedding at Reykjahólar in the year 1119, described in Sturlunga saga (ed. Guðbrandur Vigfússon, vol. 1, p. 19), the feasting lasted for seven days, and
Þar var nú glaumr ok gleði mikil ok skemtan góð, ok margs-konar leikar, bæði dansleikar, glímur ok sagnaskemmtan—“Now there was merriment and much celebration and good entertainment, and many sorts of games, both dances, wrestling, and saga-telling.”
The wedding feasts of high-status families in the kings’ sagas and legendary sagas usually end with the couple sending every guest home with gifts, a custom called leysa út með gjǫfum, “to dismiss with gifts.” Thus there’s nothing un-Heathen about throwing a big reception with an open bar, a good band, a dance floor, party games (preferably ones that are actually fun), and nice favors for the guests to take home, if the couple wants to do this, and most importantly, can afford to do it. There was more to the drinking than simple enjoyment.
Continental sources mention that a betrothal was made official when the woman bore a drink to the man, which he would take from her hand. Paul the Deacon, in his History of the Langobards, tells how King Authari of the Langobards sought the hand of Theudelinda, daughter of King Garibald of the Bavarians. After successful negotiations through envoys, Authari visited Garibald disguised as one of the envoys, and said to Garibald
“Since we see that the person of your daughter is such that we may properly wish her to become our queen, we would like it if it please your mightiness, to take a cup of wine from her hand, as she will offer it to us hereafter.” When she does this and he touches her hand, she is embarrassed, but her nurse explains that this must be the man chosen to be her husband (History of the Langobards III.30, transl. Foulke, pp. 137-139)
When did Heathens get married?
The sagas say little about when the actual wedding feasts were held, but we have some guidance from folk customs. In southern and western Norway, the first half of the lunar month of Gjø (the fifth lunar month of the winter, falling roughly in February), when the moon was waxing, was a good time for young men to court women and call on the women’s parents to discuss a possible betrothal—but the waning moon was an unlucky time (Olrik and Ellekilde, Nordens Gudeverden, p. 1117).
Olaus Magnus mentioned that betrothals in 16th century Sweden were often made at the end of the grain harvest season in August (History of the Northern Peoples XIII.8, transl. Fisher and Higgens, vol. 2, p. 625-626), but Midsummer was the preferred time for weddings themselves: “Weddings are enhanced by splendid surroundings, a delightful season of the year, and a natural mildness of earth and sky, which seem almost to have been created for joining in marriage” (XIV.10, vol. 2, p. 695).
In German custom, weddings were best held on Friday, which as Frigg’s Day seems suitable. It was said that good weather for the wedding was assured if the cat was fed and treated well, which suggests that Freyja could bless the wedding as well (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, vol. 1, p. 305).
On the other hand, English tradition had it that Wednesday was best (Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England, p. 139). English tradition also has it that marriage in May is unlucky—the old saying is “marry in May, rue for aye” [regret forever]. A folk rhyme from Norfolk has it that marriage during the harvest season is also a bad idea: “They that wive / Between sickle and scythe / Shall 406 never thrive” (Northall, English Folk-Rhymes, p. 500)—probably because the harvest season is the busiest time of the year, when there is no time to spare for a celebration. (And since the previous year’s stores of grain are at their lowest, it would have been hard to brew enough ale for a proper wedding.)
What was a Heathen wedding ceremony like?
The clues we have to the actual ceremony include hallowing the bride with a Hammer, as is done in Þrymskviða 30 (although the bride at the wedding is Thor).
Þá kvað þat Þrymr, þursa dróttinn: “Berið inn hamar brúði at vígja, leggið Mjǫllni í meyjar kné, vígið okkr saman Várar hendi.
”Then Thrym said, lord of thurses: “Bring in the hammer to hallow the bride, lay Mjolnir in the maiden’s lap, let Vár’s hands hallow us together.”
Vár is one of Frigg’s maidens who is specifically said to hear oaths and also arrangements between men and women, and to punish those who break them (Gylfaginning 35). She, and probably other gods, were presumably invoked at weddings and asked to witness the vows.
The Gift of Keys to the Bride
In Rígsþula 23, the archetypal free farmer Karl marries Snœr (“Daughter-In-Law”), who is called hanginlukla, “hung with keys.” As discussed in Our Troth volume 2, chapter 6, keys were the sign of a woman’s ownership of the household; they gave her control of the supplies and treasures that were kept in locked rooms and boxes. Early medieval English women wore bunches of keys and other household implements, hanging from the belt or suspended from chains called chatelaines.
Some of the implements, now called “girdle-hangers,” were not made for practical use and seem to have been symbolic (Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 66-71).
A Swedish betrothal formula that dates from the 1100s, originally spoken by the bride’s father as he gives her to the groom, refers specifically to the bride’s keys. The oldest version, in alliterative verse that may well go back to oral tradition, appears in the Upplandslagen (Uppland Laws), attributed to King Erik IX, who was credited with codifying Swedish law around the year 1150 (Carlsson, “Nyckeln som Rättslig Symbol,” p. 86)
A version recorded by Olaus Magnus in 1555 translates as
“I give you my daughter to honour as your wife, to possess half your bed, your doors, keys and a whole third part of your wealth in movable and immovable goods, together with every lawful right that Uppland holds from St. Erik and which St. Erik himself gave” (History of the Northern Peoples XIV.9, transl. Fisher and Higgens, vol. 2, p. 693).
Olaus’s version makes clear what is not entirely clear in the original: the woman has clear legal rights in the marriage, including economic rights shown by the keys she will wear.
Should we still continue this in our weddings today?
Modern Heathens might not appreciate the old custom of the father “giving away the bride” to the husband, and so these words might not be appreciated in a modern ceremony.
Nonetheless, they show the importance of the keys and locks as badges of ownership.
It might be fitting for the bride to be ritually given copies of the keys to the couples’ house, the car, etc. as part of the wedding ritual, even if she already has them. Or perhaps the ritual should be made more egalitarian, and both partners may exchange copies of their keys, showing that they will freely share their resources and trust each other to use them responsibly.
The Gift of Swords at the Wedding
As noted, Tacitus claimed that a German husband and wife exchanged gifts of weapons (Germania 18). H. R. Ellis Davidson has noted examples of marriage oaths being sworn on swords in medieval German literature, as well as a Frisian custom of using a “marriage sword” (æftswird, glossed as gladium nuptialem) to temporarily block the bride from entering the groom’s home (“The Sword at the Wedding,” pp. 1-3).
In some cases, marriage oaths may have been sworn on swords for the same reason that other oaths were: with the implication that the sword would betray or kill whoever violated the oath (see Chapter 12).
Swords at weddings may also have been seen as phallic symbols and thus emblems of fertility, or they might be seen as tokens of the groom’s willingness and ability to defend his family. However, HRE Davidson has pointed out that swords are often symbols or embodiments of a family lineage.
How would we do something like this today?
Thus a wedding today could involve the exchange of heirloom swords, if the couple wants to make use of this symbolism. Like Asta in Grettis saga, the parents may hold the swords in trust for the eldest child upon coming of age. If the families don’t happen to own heirloom swords, they might purchase them and then be given them in ritual. If you choose to do this, plan it in advance; high-quality replica swords take time to craft and can be expensive. It’s better to use a sword that you could actually fight with if you had to, one that will hold an edge and withstand a shock, than to use a stainless steel SLO (“SwordLike Object”) that may look terribly impressive but that would shatter or fall apart if you ever actually had to strike with it.
Alternately, other weapons or heirlooms could be exchanged; a bride might find it more meaningful to give her husband her grandfather’s .22 rifle or prized hunting knife than to purchase a replica Viking sword. As always, the details will depend on the families and their means.
The important thing is to understand the spirit of the old customs, and bring that spirit into the modern day in a meaningful way.
An outline for a typical Heathen wedding today might go something like this
- Guests Enter
- Hallowing of the Rite
- Witnesses to the Character of the wedding parties
- Invocation of the Gods
- The Speaking of Oaths
- The Giving of Gifts
- The Blessing of Thor
- The Announcement of the Couple
- Begin the Feast!
- The Honeymoon (after the ceremony)
The guests enter the area, whether an outdoors enclosure or the interior of a hall. The couple processes in.
In the old days, a woman passed from being under her father’s protection (mund) to her husband’s protection, and a remnant of this survives in the modern custom of the father walking the bride down the aisle and “giving the bride away.” Some people today find this unnecessary, especially because women today often live independently for years before getting married and are no longer legally required to be under a man’s protection at all times. There is no need to maintain this custom unless the couple wants to.
The ceremony may begin in whatever way is fitting for hallowing a rite
The leader announces the purpose of the ceremony (“We are gathered here today. . .”)
The leader asks friends and family of the couple to step forward and speak of the couple’s good qualities and suitability for marriage.
At this point, documentation of things like gainful employment, insurance, savings, etc. may be brought out to show that the couple can and will support each other. As we have stated, this may sound unromantic, but it was very much a part of our forebears’ thinking. (Hopefully, this will all have been discussed well beforehand, so there should be no surprises here.)
Invocation of the Gods
The leader invokes the gods, and the couple’s ancestors, to hear the marriage oaths and bless the marriage. Vár should certainly be invoked, and probably Frigg herself. The gods that the couple are closest to may also be called on to witness.
The Speaking of Oaths
If this was not done earlier at a betrothal ceremony, the woman might bring a horn of drink to the man, who may drink it, take her hand, and swear his oath over the horn. To make things more egalitarian, each member of the couple might bring a horn to the other; then each may drink, join hands, speak their oaths over the horn, and pour the remaining drink into a common bowl, which may be offered to the gods.
The Giving of Gifts
We don’t know whether rings were exchanged in pre-Christian weddings, but the traditional plain gold wedding bands may certainly be used here, perhaps thought of as smaller versions of oath rings. Olaus Magnus (History of the Northern 413 Peoples XIV.9, transl. Fisher and Higgens, vol. 2, p. 694) claims that at the moment the rings were exchanged, it was customary for the witnesses to slap each other on the back, a custom called festedunth (“confirmation blow;” modern Swedish fästedunt). Be careful if you do this today. If the couple wants to follow the custom described in Germania of exchanging weapons, now is the time to do it. The couple might also exchange bunches of keys, as a tangible sign that both partners will share their resources with the other.
The Blessing of Thor
In Þrymskviða, Thor's Hammer, Mjollnir, was laid in the bride’s lap to hallow the marriage (and probably to serve as a phallic symbol). If this is not appropriate, the Hammer may be held above the couple, with the officiant asking Thor to hallow their bond and lend his strength to the couple in the inevitable difficulties they will face.
Pronounce the Couple as Married
You're married now!
Begin the Feast!
There’s an old custom in which the men and women race from the site of the ceremony to the feasting-hall, with the losers required to serve the winners drink. This may be the origin of Scandinavian words for a wedding feast, bryllup in Danish or bröllop in Swedish: from Old Norse brúðhlaup, “bride’s run.” Olaus Magnus (History of the Northern Peoples XIV.4, transl. Fisher and Higgens, vol. 2, p. 687) claims that at the end of a Swedish wedding, a spear was thrown out of the window of the building where the wedding was held, “as a token of mutual covenant and a sign that they will always live together.”
Please be careful if you do this; skewering innocent passers-by is considered to be poor form by most modern wedding planners.
The word “honeymoon” originally just meant the first month of a marriage, a time when life should be sweet. Only in the late 19th century did it become usual for newlyweds to take a trip together. The word was once claimed to come from an old custom that a newly married couple should drink plenty of mead together for the first month of their mar- 414 riage. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be historically true (Monger, Marriage Customs of the World, vol. 1, pp. 352-354). But if a couple wishes to drink plenty of mead, who are we to interfere?
Donate to Help Support our Work
If you found this article useful and want to donate to support the educational work that we do, please consider making a contribution to our general funding or support our mission by joining The Troth today. As a member, along with supporting our mission to promote our faith, you will also get access to more community resources, events and a vote in our elections.