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Heathen Marriage: Anatomy of an Oath

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Heathen Freehold Society of BC
Heathen Freehold Society of British Columbia Wedding Ceremony

 

There has been a lot of talk in North America these days about traditional marriage, and family values. That is awesome, but while people have thrown around the words, no one has really defined them, even in popular culture terms. Since we are Heathens, we do things a little differently, starting with the need to consider just what we mean by traditional marriage and family values.
Our ancestors were not renowned for flights of romantic fancy. There is a reason for this; the North punishes failure, badly. To live in a marginal environment where survival requires the collective effort, and where success requires that each person lends their particular skills and strengths to their maximum advantage, there was little drive behind flights of fancy, histrionics, or grand gestures. Practical was important, in fact, it was critical.

 

Folk flows from family, and family flows from marriage. Heathen ritual is a very interesting thing, in that its symbolic form is a very pure statement of its function. The ritual itself serves to break down all the levels of function that are present, and define each of its terms separately to be considered and individually before this most sacred covenant, and most important contract, becomes binding.

 

Marriage is a contract. There is no contract as complex as a marriage; the partnership agreements that business partners enter into contain many of the same elements, and yet cover only a fraction of what is contained in the marriage itself, without any sentiment or sacral implications at all. Oddly, the incredible number of promises implicit in marriage, the number of understandings being agreed to, implicitly or explicitly goes almost completely unnoticed by most couples today, and our divorce rates show the consequences of treating marriage as primarily a celebration of love, and not a contract negotiated between two parties about coming together into a union, as our ancestors understood it. Celebrations of love are awesome, but without honouring the elements of the contract itself, divorce leaves that love in ruins, and the potential of the union in the rubble.

 

The birth control pill broke the tie between sex and procreation. With adoption of unwanted children being an option long before our technology gave same sex couples the chance to produce their own children, the justification for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples was lost. Two male, two female, or a male/female pairings had the same choices to have children, or not have children, as their life plans dictated, not as the consequences of their sex lives demanded. That being said, the reasons for forming a marriage now lie equally across couples of whatever configuration. For simplicities sake, I am going to refer to the bride and groom, because that was the ancient form, and as a poet I just cannot write something as beautiful as a marriage with “the party of the first part” and the “party of the second part”. The ceremony works more or less the same, with differences between individual relationships mattering more than genders, so we will work off one model, with the understanding that it will be modified to suit each and every couple involved, however constituted.

The ceremony itself is below, my own commentary will occur after the >> marks.

 

ITEMS

– Groom’s Keys

– Hand-geld (To the Bride’s Family)-gift at wedding

– Brides-gift (To the groom’s family)-gift at wedding

– Morning-gift (To the Bride)-gift morning after first night as man and wife

– New Sword-given by the bride as the symbol of his duty to the hearth they will share

– Ancestral Sword-symbol of grooms duty to his ancestral hearth

-keys (actual, or big black iron symbolic)

-cord-made by couple with symbols of important events of their lives, or virtues they feel important to their union.

 

Wedding Feast

– A “Loving Cup”, a bowl or kasa (Old Norse {ON}) with handles, but a horn will also serve

– A cake of some form

-Hammer

———

Wedding Day (Or at engagement if this is done in multiple days)

– The Groom, with a party of distinguished friends, approaches the Bride and her family.

GROOM: – The Groom asks for the Bride’s hand in marriage, flattering her family, boasting of his worthiness and his gifts, and negotiating the Hand-geld and the Morning-Gift.

BRIDE: – The Bride and her Family express their satisfaction.

GROOM:

“I declare before witnesses that __(Bride’s Name)__ will bond with me in holy betrothal;

And that your pledge is to marry me in exchange for the hand geld and morning geld I have promised.

And that you will engage me to fulfil and observe the whole of the oath between us which has been said in the hearing of witnesses without wiles or cunning as a true and honest oath.”

BRIDE & GROOM: – Shake hands, and go with their respective parties which should not see each other again until meeting at the wedding enclosure.

 

>>Why do we do this? Are we buying the bride? No. This is about establishing the worth of the individuals to each other. For ancient couples, often times the marriage would be arraigned between senior family members with little or no consultation. This is not the recipe for a long and frithful marriage, so the groom does not show up and announce, “well I guess we’re stuck with each other”.

No-this is the groundwork for making a couple. The groom arrives with his close kinsmen and friends to be flyted by the brides kin. His friends will boast of his worth, and hers will challenge it. Let any questions of character or worth be settled before considering marriage. This is about showing the bride what she will be getting in the marriage; who is this that seeks her hand and why does he think himself worthy of it?

In modern times, this is an absolute blast. I have seen a groom’s female friend literally treat him like a stud bull at auction, testing his muscles, showing his teeth, the excellence of his hair, and making him demonstrate his ability to perform automotive or household repairs. Other times I have seen it be serious, where friends have laid out the kind of trust they hold for him, and the kind of partner she will be getting.

The Hand Geld: now I never understood dowry, but hand geld I understand. You come to seek the hand of your bride, you deem her to be the partner with whom you will build your life, to whom you will entrust your name, your heirs, and all that you may have or hold in this life. You have found THE ONE. How do you show this person what they mean to you? Talk is cheap, but the amount of work that is represented in a gift of great cost, and great beauty shows that not only your hard work and labour went into the giving, but great thought and consideration. This shows the commitment of the groom to honour the bride whose hand he seeks, and promises that he holds her favours highly. This matters. The reciprocal gifting relationship is important, so is the reciprocal respect. This foundation is important, so put some thought into it.

Hand Geld is to secure the acceptance of the marriage, but the morning geld, the morning gift, this is different. While the wedding itself is public, the consummation (outside of some areas of California) usually isn’t. The morning geld is a gift from groom to bride after their first night together as man and wife, it is personal and will set the tone for their relationship in those private moments. When duty is done, when it is just the two of them and such love and care as they have forged together, the little joys they give each other will renew and restore them. This is nobody’s business but their own, and likewise, no one but the couple can make sure they get this right.

 

Main Wedding:

– The Groom is prepared by his groomsmen and family members.

– The Bride is prepared by her hand-maidens and family members.

– They separately proceed to ship, where they will join the wedding party. The Bride is preceeded by a kinsman who carries the GIFT-SWORD. The Groom carries the ANCESTRAL-SWORD.

 

>>Hold your horses, what is with all the weaponry? Ah yes. At this point I should point out that the wedding feast is actually derived from funeral customs. You can make all the jokes you want about the link between weddings and funerals, but our ancestors got this right rather more often than we do now, so perhaps we should hearken to their rede in such matters.

At this time, a mother loses a son, for the duty that he bore to her ends this day. At this day a father loses a daughter, for the name that he gave her to bear at her birth she will give up, even as she takes on the name and obligations to its worth of her husband. There are ties being forged, and great gains being made and celebrated, but in order to bind to each other, each must surrender existing ties to enter into new ones.

The groom bears the ancestral sword. When he became a man, the men of his house would have girded him with that sword, admitting him to the commonwealth of the tribe, and to the family as a man. His passage from boyhood dependency, to independent manhood came with the giving of that blade. With this sword he defended the hearth and name of his mother. This sword is the groom’s commitment to the family of his birth, and he will put it aside today.

The bride’s family bears the new sword. When she rose this morning, a daughter of her mother’s hearth, she will go to bed this night mistress of a new hearth. She will accept from her husband not only his name, but the sword of his ancestors. She will take his name, and his duty to his house, and hold it until such time as she may pass it to his heirs. It is hers now to see his duty to that name is done. She grants to him the new sword, with which he will undertake to defend her hearth and name from this day forward, as she deems necessary.

 

We are modern people and don’t need to do all that!

Not so fast. We don’t generally do a lot of carving each other up with swords anymore, this is true. We don’t even always take the spouses name anymore. However, the symbolic form of the ritual shows us something we need to pay attention to. The act of marriage is a commitment from both parties that while they honour and respect their commitments to their families, and accept the duties to each others families that their marriage entails, they also publically undertake to ALWAYS PUT THE HEARTH THEY FORM TOGETHER THIS DAY FIRST.

Was I shouting with that last bit? Its important. Go back and read it again, it’s is that important.

 

GODHI: By fire I mark this sacred space, I name it Frithstead, let all who gather herein be peace holy. Mighty Thor, defender of the folk make sacred this space and protect all who gather herein. Odin Allfather, let all vows made herein be heard by the gods and our sacred ancestors. Mother Frigga, great Disir, guardian of our lines, let those who would join their lines together in this place know your blessing. Great Norns, weavers of fate, let those who entwine their lives, and join these two great houses know only joy and good fortune so long as they cleave together.

GODHI: We gather before the folk, in the sight of the gods and our sacred ancestors not to forge a bond, but to make holy a bond that has already been formed. I bring before you (Groom) and (Bride) who are bound together by love, who ask to be bound together in marriage. Marriage is forged not only of love but of Troth.

 

>>We do love. We really do love. We do love so well that we separate the oath of love from the duty to the greater families (shown with the sword exchange), and the oath to do the work of the marriage (which follows). This oath is simple, stark, and the whole reason for being here. Do you love each other? Do you love each other enough for that love to be reason enough to struggle through whatever may come?

(Groom) Do you love this woman before all others, with your whole heart, and without reservation?

GROOM: I DO

GODHI: Then give to her family the Hand-Geld, a gift in return for the great treasure you seek from them.

The Groom then gives the Hand Geld to the bridal party who show it to the crowd, and pronounce it worthy of their daughter.

GODHI:(Bride) Do you love this man before all others, with your whole heart and without reservations?

BRIDE: I DO

GODHI: Then give to them the Bride Geld, a gift in return for the strong defender you seek to win from them.

The Bride offers the gift to the Groom’s party, and they acknowledge it worthy of the son of their house.

GODHI: Before the folk and sacred ancestors, in the sight of the gods, for all time I pronounce these two houses to be joined by the loving union of these two. Let the groom now set aside the ancestral sword, and with it his duties to the hearth of his mother.

GROOM: I give to you my ancestral sword, from this day forth, it is your hearth and honour I defend.

BRIDE: I will hold your ancestral sword for our strong heirs to take up, and I give to you the new sword with which I charge you to defend our hearth, home and sacred honour.

Bride and party now gird the new sword onto the Groom, he is now her defender.

Ken and Mary Joy Wedding

GROOM: As your honour is mine to defend, so are my house, chattels and goods yours to hold. Receive now my keys, for all that I own or will possess is yours to hold, as it is mine to defend.

Grooms party ties the keys to her waist.

 

>>Bride and groom are joined in love, both families are joined by the union of the two in love. This something beautiful, precious, and fragile. It is not enough to bring a thing of beauty into existence, for this world has a hard way with beauty that is not defended, and life that is not nurtured. What came before was easy, what came before was about want. Want is enough to get you here, but it is not enough to get you through what is to come. No couple gets married with the intent to divorce, but it is almost the default end state in our lands today. Work is hard, but work is what will make a partnership successful. Our ancestors were practical and romantic. It is romantic to see love blossom and grow, it is depressing to see it die of neglect. Practically, it behooves us to make sure the work gets done that the relationship we celebrate today becomes a source of joy and strength for generations to come, not simply another momentary fancy, discarded when it was no longer fun.

GODHI: Now you are joined by love, but love alone is not enough. I speak now of Troth, of the bonds of duty and obligation. Before this day you were two, you faced the challenges of your lives alone, and grew strong and worthy in the doing. That was good, but tomorrow, it will not be enough. You have chosen to enter into marriage, to join yourself and mingle your bloodlines for all time through the gift of children. In this task you have given up all right to fail or falter. In the challenges that will come, you will grow stronger when you face them together, and bring some of your partner’s strength with you even when you stand alone. Before the gods and these good folk, I ask, will you plight to each other your troth, your pledge to face whatever comes side by side, that each challenge faced, each hardship overcome leave you both stronger and closer than before?

BRIDE AND GROOM: WE DO!

Two Wedding Rings

GODHI: From our most ancient times, the symbol of oath-taking was the ring. Perfect in form, the circle is without end, as is the strength of the oaths taken here today. (Groom) place the ring that symbolizes your oath upon your brides finger and repeat after me:

I (Groom) [repeat] do plight my troth [repeat] and give my oath [repeat] to face all challenges together [repeat] with honesty and courage [repeat] until death separates us [repeat].

GODHI: (Bride) place the ring that symbolize your oath upon your groom’s finger and repeat after me:

I (Bride) [repeat] do plight my troth [repeat] and give my oath [repeat] to face all challenges together [repeat] with honesty and courage [repeat] until death separates us [repeat].

GODHI: It is not in the power of a priest to make a marriage, it is only for a priest to stand before the folk and acknowledge what has been woven by the Norns, and forged by the love and troth of these two. As I take this cord that you have fashioned from the fabric of your separate lives, so do I show the sacred ancestors, the assembled wights and these good folk what the gods already know, you are now bound together as husband and wife.

 

>>Best symbol of being bound together is…..being bound together. Who knew? The oath rings worn stand as testimony for all time of the oaths sworn, and they will have exactly as much magic in them, as the couple puts work into the marriage. That makes the best of them potent indeed.

Godhi joins their hands with the cord to symbolise their union and raises their bound hands before the folk.

GODHI: (Groom) you may kiss your bride.

The couple then opens the wedding feast by raising the loving cup, the cup from which each will serve the other, and then the cake with which each will feed the other.

>>It is hard to do this, much laughter frequently results. You are each others sustenance, each others joy. This is new, and you will have to find new ways of doing things, but it is deeply rewarding. Bound together in joy, we can do the binding, but the joy you must bring to each other.

 

At the wedding feast, the hammer is laid in the brides lap as blessing of fertility and pledge of fidelity.

 

>>The Heathen marriage ceremony recognizes a marriage for what it is, and seperates each level of function so that it can be considered, understood, and accepted, before a marriage is complete.

Marriage is a contract entered into by two people who wish to come together in love to make a family. Each comes from a family, but they agree to put the family they make together first. Each understands that in joining to each other, they join not just themselves, but their whole families back to the most distant ancestors, and forward in time to the last of their descendents yet unborn.

Marriage is a contract in which two people who are free thinking individuals with wants, needs, desires, and the capacity to change make a solemn oath to come together and jointly strive to face what comes together. It is an act of will, as much as an act of love. Each marriage is different, as each couple is different, but the act of union creates a new thing, a new hearth, a new family just the same, whenever it is performed.

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