'Tying the Knot', The Ancient Celtic Custom of Handfasting

I was at a wedding in Co Cork recently, it was truly a lovely ceremony and was made extra special with this ancient Celtic custom of handfasting. I had heard of handfasting before, but this was the first wedding ceremony I was at that this custom was actually performed and I was intrigued to learn that the phrase 'tying the knot' came from this ancient Celtic tradition. 

When Ireland was ruled under Brehon law (7th to 17th century) hand-fasting was the official ceremony of marriage, during which the couple’s hands were bound together, hence ‘tying the knot’.

The hand-fasting ceremony was the couple’s first pledge of their commitment to each other (we know it as engagement).  However, the couple initially committed only to a temporary trial marriage, which would last one year and a day, at which stage if the couple were not getting along they would agree to just go their separate ways, but if they were happy together then they would proceed with the marriage.

During the ceremony of hand-fasting, the man and woman grasped hands together with wrists crossed over, right hand to right hand and left hand to left hand, replicating the symbol of infinity, i.e. the infinity of their love.

A rope was draped and tied in a knot over the couple’s wrists and hands and then they pledged their vows to each other.

In Ireland the custom of hand-fasting started to die out following English occupation and with the introduction of the English Common Law.  Hand-fasting is now seeing a revival, but as part of the wedding ceremony rather than the engagement and usually takes place towards the end of the ceremony. While in ancient times a piece of rope or cord would have been used, now up to 13 colourful ribbons are often used. Each colour ribbon symbolises a different element of the couples’ future lives together and their commitment to one another, their personalities and the bond between the couple. One by one chosen family and friends tie a ribbon around the couples’ wrists and hands and at the end of the hand-fasting ceremony the chief bridesmaid unties the knots.


The different colour ribbon symbolises:

  • Red -> passion, strength, lust, fertility
  • Orange -> encouragement, attraction, kindness, plenty
  • Yellow-> charm, confidence, joy, balance
  • Green-> finances, fertility, charity, prosperity, health
  • Blue -> tranquility, patience, devotion, sincerity
  • Purple-> Power, piety, sanctity, sentimentality
  • Black-> strength, wisdom, vision, success
  • White -> purity, concentration, peace
  • Gray -> neutrality, canceling, balance
  • Pink-> unity, honor, truth, romance, happiness
  • Brown-> earth, grounding, talent, telepathy, home
  • Silver-> treasure, values, creativity, inspiration
  • Gold-> energy, wealth, intelligence, longevity

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Tags: crafts, customs, gifts, marriage rites, weddings

Comment by Patrick J. O'Leary on May 20, 2019 at 11:08am

This  I  found  quite interesting !!  Little known  fact  as  to how  ' tying  the  knot '  came  about !!


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