Since I started with songs from the 80ies as titles for my blog posts in my last one (a reference to Losing my Religion by R.E.M. – at least one reader got it) I thought I keep going with this idea and used a line from a song by the Psychedelic Furs for this one.
Recently, a post appeared on one of the pagan Facebook groups, where someone happily announced their engagement, and asked for ideas for the planned hand-fasting. They haven’t done, or participated in, one ever, and because the guests won’t be pagans either, the poster asked for ideas. What followed was a litany of lovely comments, thanks to all Gods old and new, congratulating and offering advice.
Except for one. Not that this comment was negative or berating. Just a question. “Did pagans get married in ancient times?” Someone responded they thought hand-fasting is a modern construct, and so the querent let us know that anything modern makes him ill.
I thought it would be good to shed some light and mentioned the old — pagan — Irish Brehon laws regulating marriage, and divorce (e.g. a woman could divorce a man if he was too overweight) and that there is an abundance of lore singing of the bonds of matrimony between Goddesses and Gods. Just as an example. That was laughed off.
There are two issues here.
One is something I encounter more often than I care for these days, which is people derailing a discussion by simply questioning everything. Now, I might be a bit older, but I, too, grew up learning that one should question information one gets exposed to. This is generally good advice. I even took an ethics in science class at university where I learned that the philosopher Sir Karl Popper said that a theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified.
Please do note the words “theory” and “falsified”. That means when you state something, or question someone’s statement, you need to know stuff. Just asking arbitrarily questioning something generally agreeable (like marriage in pagan times), or disagreeing without sound backup knowledge, is absolutely meaningless. It really only exposes that the one questioning didn’t do their homework. If they had done just that, they would have come across a few indicators revealing a very high likelihood that marriage was a thing in pagan times.
Such as the Irish Brehon laws I mentioned already . They were obviously only relevant for Ireland, but they did regulate marriage quite a bit. Not in a way we would consider entirely up to our ethical standards today. For example, a number of ways were mentioned how a couple becomes married. Other than the perfect version, where both, bride and groom were willing and happy to tie the knot, and their parents were, too, elopement was also a way of marriage. And weirdly enough, rape. If you did that, you were married. Not quite the deterrent one would like to see, but there were at least some consequences to be faced by the perpetrator. One would wonder, though, if that was in the best interest of the woman?
May that as it was 2,000 years ago, the fact remains that marriage was something that the pagan Irish before the Common Era were actively pursuing and regulating.
And not only they. While there may have been less developed rules and guidelines in other pagan peoples (Germans, Gaulles, Slavs to name a few), marriage had a very important societal function aside from love and making children. Through marriage, lineage was determined, and inheritance. Only children springing from marriage had a claim to title and land (if there was one to inherit). Those born out of wedlock, the bastards, didn’t. Kingship was sometimes transferred from father to the legitimate son, and in some tribes a ruler had to married to be accepted as the leader of the people.
The tale of Fionn mac Cumhail tells us of his wedding to a young woman, who leaves him for her lover right away. The Prince of Prwydd was married to Rhiannon, according to the Mabinogi. Agamemnon to Helena, and her breaking her vow caused the Trojan War. Yes, stories. But also reflections of life back then.
When it comes to what marriage meant in ancient pagan times, this institution might have been somewhat different than what we associate with it in our modern, heavily Christian-influence thinking and laws. The general approach to sex seems to have been much more relaxed, period. It wasn’t viewed as dirty, it wasn’t demonized, and people didn’t feel guilty having sex. The Irish Ulster Cycle tells us of Queen Medb (the intoxicated, if we were to defer anything from her name) of Connacht, who was married (see!) to King Ailill (amongst many others), and who (Medb) was known to be rather generous to men at her court with the “gift of her thighs.” Marriage seems to have been less about who you can and can’t have sex with, and more about land, title, property, and who inherits it.
And talking about sex brings me to the second issue: Sex.
When I see someone questioning the existence of marriage in pagan times, alarm bells go off. Because I see, behind this innocent question about the pagan history of marriage a possible attempt to seek confirmation that sex should be a free-for-all in the pagan community. Because, you know, they didn’t have any back then, so why should we have any rules now? Especially if paganism is all about not having rules, any rules, as some insist.
They had rules and laws and a moral compass, and saying otherwise is just fake-lore.
And if I haven’t heard so many accounts of young pagans being coerced into sexual acts with this fake-lore, there wouldn’t be any alarm bells. But it happened a lot in the 1960ies and 1970ies, during the “sexual revolution”, and as far as I hear, it’s still happening now. You might want to read Sarah Ann Lawless’ blog article “For Sale Neopaganism As is” and subsequent entries of hers to get a detailed picture (careful, the picture, actual images and what she describes, is rather graphic).
By all means, do go out and woo a person you find attractive, hopefully not only on the physical level. Show your best — that is honest and noble — game in hopes of the other person becoming attracted to you, too. Just never, ever use fake-lore to trick someone into becoming an object of your desires.
That’s not what “no rules in paganism, being pagan means. At all. Other words come to mind, though.