My First Handfasting

by Andras Corban-Arthen

Exactly 40 years ago, in 1973, I performed my very first handfasting. I had originally learned about this traditional European marriage ceremony from my teachers, who had told me about handfastings (or “left-handed marriages,” as they were sometimes called) in Scotland, how they differed from Christian nuptials in both concept and form, and how they were still clandestinely practiced by some in Gaelic-speaking communities in the Highlands. And I had recently attended two such ceremonies, the religious weddings of pagan friends who subsequently legalized their marriages before a justice of the peace. The possibility that I might be called upon to officiate a handfasting any time soon, however, had not even crossed my mind.

Ginny was a friend from work. She had been assigned to show me around the library on my first day there, and we had taken an immediate liking to each other. We were about the same age, had a very similar sense of humor, and quickly discovered that we shared the same political views about some of the important causes of the day – the Civil Rights movement, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, and, of course, the Vietnam War. And, certainly not least, we were both diehard Red Sox fans.

Ginny was very blunt-spoken, and readily used four-letter words, a habit for which she had been reprimanded by her boss a few times. There was something very “tomboyish” about her, and I remember her telling me that one of the reasons she had applied for her job was that she wouldn’t have to wear a dress to work every day.

We started having lunch together frequently, and once in a while would go for a couple of beers after work. As we became closer, I eventually felt enough trust to confide in her about my being pagan; she thought it was odd, but interesting, and the subject would occasionally come up in our conversations.

One day, as we got together for drinks after work, we were joined by Betsy, Ginny’s roommate of several years. Ginny and Betsy had become friends in high school and attended the same college, where they originally began living together, and had continued doing so after graduation. It turned out that Ginny had told her roommate about my paganism, and Betsy had become very interested and wanted to meet me to talk about it.

Betsy and I hit it off as quickly as Ginny and I had, and we enjoyed a very pleasant but brief conversation because of time constraints. Ginny suggested that I have dinner with them at their place the following week, so we could talk some more; she mentioned that I’d be in for a treat, since Betsy was a wonderful cook.

That certainly proved to be the case, and as we talked about paganism after dinner in their tidy, plant-filled North Cambridge apartment, the two of them sat on the sofa opposite me. At some point, Ginny matter-of-factly reached over and pulled Betsy close to her, and we continued talking as the two of them snuggled on the couch. A little later, during a lull in the conversation, they casually kissed.

While that might not raise too many eyebrows nowadays, back then it was a very different story – people of the same sex simply didn’t engage in open displays of romantic affection toward each other. At that point in my life, the only times I had ever seen two women kiss on the lips were in a couple of European art films, but never in the flesh. I imagine, in retrospect, that if I had watched two women I didn’t know kissing like that in public, I might have felt somewhat uncomfortable; ­­­for all my avowed support of Gay Liberation in principle, I really didn’t have much actual experience with gay people.

But I knew Betsy and Ginny, and it was very obvious that they shared a very deep bond of love, friendship and affection, so their intimacies didn’t faze me at all – they felt natural, normal, right. If anything, I was glad that they were comfortable enough to be themselves around me.

They came out to me then, and we spent the rest of the evening talking about their lives, their love for and bond with each other, the struggles they’d had to face dealing with family and friends, and those they kept encountering with neighbors and at work.

And we talked about the pain – the pain of rejection and marginalization, of not being accepted for who they were; the pain caused by prejudice, by discrimination, by not being able to marry and live normal lives like most people; the pain of having to deny and hide their beautiful love every day of their lives. Tears flowed, we held each other, and from that moment became a lot closer; over time, I came to experience even more the depth of their love for one another, the strength of their commitment.

Months later, Ginny and Betsy told me that they had decided to get married. They knew there was no way they could legally do so, but they wanted, at the very least, to have some sort of unofficial ceremony, some spiritual affirmation and blessing of their relationship. They approached the minister of one of their family’s churches, but he turned them down. Over the next few months they tried churches of other denominations, only to meet with similar results.

They eventually pinned their hopes on the minister of a local Unitarian-Universalist congregation, someone they’d met at a friend’s wedding; they suspected he was gay, and felt that he, of all people, might be willing to marry them. He turned out, in fact, to be very sympathetic, but also apologetic – he wished he could perform the ceremony, he’d told them, but he was too afraid of losing his job if word ever got out. They were heartbroken.

Then, one day, Betsy showed up at my library at the time I usually went on coffee break, and asked if she could talk to me. She had just remembered my telling her about the pagan handfastings I’d attended, and a light bulb had gone off in her head. Could I – would I – perform a handfasting for them? She took me completely by surprise: the thought had not even occurred to me, as it obviously hadn’t to them until that moment.

After regaining my composure, I had to think a bit – I was just in my early twenties, and had only been on my path for four years, so what she was asking was a bit daunting. I finally told her that I could not remember anything in all my training that raised objections to the marriage of two people who clearly were in love and wanted to ceremonialize their commitment to each other.

And so it was that on a gloriously sunny but chilly spring morning, a small group of us gathered in a secluded part of a large public park in Brookline, surrounded by pines, to celebrate the handfasting of my two friends. It was a bittersweet event: Ginny’s mother was there, as were two of Betsy’s sisters; the rest of their families had adamantly refused to attend. Just a few close friends completed the party, twelve to fifteen people altogether, but what we lacked in size, we more than made up for in spirit.

We blessed them with mead. We blessed them with rose petals. I took the multi-colored cord they had brought and wrapped it around their joined hands. They each tied a knot while saying their vows to one another, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, the smiles on their faces more radiant than the sun. I tied the third knot on behalf of their family and friends, and pronounced them handfasted in marriage.

As the rest of us offered them our good wishes for their life ahead, I remember hoping that, one day, they would be able to renew those vows in a ceremony that would finally legitimize the marriage which took place that day; not because some legal piece of paper would make their relationship any more meaningful or real, but simply because the love which they had for each other deserved to be untainted – in any way at all – from ever being considered second-class.

I lost track of my two friends over the years, but they have been very present in my mind lately, as the U.S. Supreme Court begins to hear arguments regarding two cases that could decide the future of same-sex marriage in this country. Let us hope that the justices will put aside political and religious ideology, and rule in favor of freedom and equality under the law.

The measure of freedom lies in the ability to make choices; and whom we decide to love and share the rest of our lives with, is one of the most important choices we can ever make. In a truly free society, everyone should be able to make that choice equally, with equal rights and responsibilities – whether we choose someone of a different race or religion, or of the same sex; or whether we choose to share our lives with one other person, or with several.

I am proud to live in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages have been legal for almost a decade, the first state in the Union to take such a step. As I think of Ginny and Betsy, I can’t help but wonder if they stayed together living here throughout all these years.

I’d like to imagine that they did, and that they stood in line at the courthouse in 2004 to be among the first to take advantage of the changed law, to finally legalize their marriage. And I’d like to imagine them now, two older women sitting close to each other on the couch at their home, tightly clasping their ring-bedecked hands while gazing fondly at the thin, multicolored cord hanging over their front door, the cord that we bound together forty years ago.


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Indigenous Peoples’ Statement to the World

An Indigenous Peoples’ Statement to the World Delivered at The Parliament of the World’s Religions Convened at Melbourne, Australia on the Traditional Lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation December 9, 2009

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery  and Indigenous Peoples (l. to r.) Christopher Peters, Jake Swamp,  Oren Lyons, Steven Newcomb

        The Doctrine of Christian Discovery
                and Indigenous Peoples
   (l. to r.) Christopher Peters, Jake Swamp,
        Oren Lyons, Steven Newcomb

In keeping with the theme of this year’s Parliament, “Make a World of Difference: Hearing each other, Healing the Earth,” we, the Indigenous Peoples participating in this Parliament, hereby issue this statement:

We are Indigenous Peoples and Nations who honor our ancestors and care for our future generations by preserving our lands and cultures. For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have maintained a fundamental and sacred relationship with Mother Earth. As peoples of the land, we declare our inherent rights to our present and continuing survival within our sacred homelands and territories throughout the world;

We commend the Australian government’s recent support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted on September 13, 2007. We call on all governments to support and implement the provisions of the UN Declaration, particularly the right of self-determination;

Since time immemorial we have lived in keeping with our sacred laws, principles, and spiritual values, given by the Creator. Our ways of life are based on thousands of years of accumulated ecological knowledge, a great respect for our Mother Earth, a reverence and respect for all our Natural World relations and the survival of our languages, cultures, and traditions;

The Indigenous instructions of sharing and the responsibility of leadership to future generations are wise and enduring. As the traditional nations of our lands, we affirm the right to educate our children in our Earth-based education systems in order to maintain our Indigenous knowledge systems and cultures. These have also contributed to our spiritual, physical and mental health;

Indigenous peoples’ concept of health and survival is holistic, collective and individual. It encompasses the spiritual, the intellectual, the physical and the emotional. Expressions of culture relevant to health and survival of Indigenous Peoples include relationships, families, and kinship, social institutions, traditional laws, music, dances, songs and songlines, reindeer and caribou, ceremonies and dreamtime, our ritual performances and practices, games, sports, language, mythologies, names, lands, sea, water, every life forms, and all documented forms and aspects of culture, including burial and sacred sites, human genetic materials, ancestral remains so often stolen, and our artifacts;

Unfortunately, certain doctrines have been threatening to the survival of our cultures, our languages, and our peoples, and devastating to our ways of life. These are found in particular colonizing documents such as the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493, which called for the subjugation of non-Christian nations and peoples and “the propagation of the Christian empire.” This is the root of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery that is still interwoven into laws and policies today that must be changed. The principles of subjugation contained in this and other such documents, and in the religious texts and documents of other religions, have been and continue to be destructive to our ways of life (religions), cultures, and the survival of our Indigenous nations and peoples. This oppressive tradition is what led to the boarding schools, the residential schools, and the Stolen Generations, resulting in the trauma of Indigenous peoples being cut off from their languages and cultures, resulting in language death and loss of family integrity from the actions of churches and governments. We call on those churches and governments to put as much time, effort, energy and money into assisting with the revitalization of our languages and cultures as they put into attempting to destroy them;

The doctrines of colonization and dominion have laid the groundwork for contemporary problems of racism and dispossession. These problems include the industrial processes of resource exploitation and extraction by governments and corporations that have consistently meant the use of imposed laws to force the removal of Indigenous peoples from our traditional territories, and to desecrate and destroy our sacred sites and places. The result is a great depletion of biodiversity and the loss of our traditional ways of life, as well as the depletion and contamination of the waters of Mother Earth from mining and colonization. Such policies and practices do not take into account that water is the first law of life and a gift from the Creator for all beings. Clean, healthy, safe, and free water is necessary for the continuity and well being of all living things. The commercialization and poisoning of water is a crime against life;

The negative ethics of contemporary society, discovery, conquest, dominion, exploitation, extraction, and industrialization, have brought us to today’s crisis of global warming. Climate change is now our most urgent issue and affecting the lives of Indigenous peoples at an alarming rate. Many of our people’s lives are in crisis due to the rapid global warming. The ice melt in the north and rapid sea rise continue to accelerate, and the time for action is brief. The Earth’s resources are finite and the present global consumption levels are unsustainable and continue to affect our peoples and all peoples. Therefore, we join the other members of the Parliament in calling for prompt, immediate, and effective action at Copenhagen to combat climate change;

In July 2009, the Episcopal Church in the United States adopted a resolution at its 76th General Convention, repudiating and disavowing the dehumanizing Doctrine of Christian Discovery. By doing so, the Church took particular note of the charter issued by King Henry VII of England to John Cabot and his sons, which authorized the colonizing of North America. It was by this ‘boss over’ tradition of Christian discovery that the British crown eventually laid claim to the traditional territories of the Aboriginal nations of the continent now called Australia, under terra nullius and terra nullus. This step by the Episcopal Church was an act of conscience and moral leadership by one of the world’s major religions. Religious bodies of Quakers and Unitarians have taken similar supportive actions.

In conclusion, we appeal to all people of conscience to join with us in support of the following issues:

1) Climate change and its far-reaching impacts on our Peoples and homelands — for this we need immediate action.

2) The protection of Indigenous peoples’ significant and sacred sites within their traditional homelands and territories and working to eradicate discrimination and intolerance against Earth-based Indigenous spiritual and ceremonial traditions.

3) Protection of Sacred Places used for prayer and ceremonies. At these special places we minister to the Earth and heal her sacred soul.

4) The critical need to strengthen and continue our unique cultures and languages, particularly by bringing together elder cultural and wisdom keepers and Indigenous youth.

5) The return of the bones of our ancestors and our sacred items.

6) The immediate support and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

7) To call upon Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican to publicly acknowledge and repudiate the papal decrees that legitimized the original activities that have evolved into the dehumanizing Doctrine of Christian Discovery and dominion in laws and policies.

Partial list of Indigenous Assembly participants: Wande Abimbola, Yoruba (Nigeria) Omie Baldwin, Diné (United States) Nana Osei Boakye Yiadom, Adamorobe (Ghana) Merekaraka Caesar, Wahine Maori (New Zealand) Andras Corban-Arthen, Anamanta (Scotland/United States) Ryoko Foose, Ainu (Japan) Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Onondaga (United States) Uncle Max Harrison, Yuin (Australia) Linda Hogan, Chickasaw (United States) Robert Houndohome Hounon, Vodun Hwendo (Benin) Clarence Jackson, Tlingit (United States) Jennie R. Joe, Diné (United States) Mandaza Kandemwa, Shona (Zimbabwe) Norma Kassi, Vuntut Gwich’in (Canada) Leo Killsback, Cheyenne (United States) Tsugio Kuzuno, Ainu (Japan) Margaret Lokawua, Karimjong (Uganda) Oren Lyons, Onondaga (United States) Raúl Mamani, Kolla (Argentina) Ray Minniecon, Kabi Kabi (Australia) Lucy Mulenkei, Maasai (Kenya) Joy Murphy Wandin, Wurundjeri (Australia) Minnie Naylor, Inupiaq Eskimo (United States) Steven T. Newcomb, Shawnee Lenape (United States) Francois Paulette, Dene (Canada) Christopher Peters, Pohlik-lah/Karuk (United States) Anna Pinto, Meitei (India) Constantino Pinto, Timorese (Timor Leste) Uncle Bob Randall, Yankunytjatjara (Australia) Darlene St. Clair, Bdewakantunwan Dakota (United States) Artūras Sinkevičius, Romuva (Lithuania) Joseph Henry Suina, Cochiti Pueblo (United States) Jake Swamp, Akwesasne Mohawk (United States) Yoland Trevino, Maya (Guatemala/United States) Jonas Trinkunas, Romuva (Lithuania) Rosita Worl, Tlingit (United States)

Delivering the Indigenous Statement at the closing plenary.

Delivering the Indigenous Statement at the closing plenary.

Pagan Coalition Calls for Religious Freedom in California Case

The EarthSpirit Community is part of a coalition of national Pagan and Nature-centered religious organizations which has released a letter calling for religious freedom in a California court case. The case, which has attracted national attention, is being waged over whether California should hire prison chaplains from outside five “state approved” faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American.

In an amicus brief, the conservative Christian group WallBuilders, Inc. called on the courts to reject the case of Rev. Patrick McCollum, a Pagan chaplain and long-time EarthSpirit friend, arguing that Paganism is a “second tier” religion and therefore not subject to the protections of the First Amendment.


Our Freedom: A National Pagan Civil Rights Organization rejects the state’s claims in general and the WallBuilders, Inc. amicus in particular. Our Freedom states that Pagan inmates have requirements and needs comparable to those of the five faiths currently being served. Our Freedom stands in the promise of our nation’s Constitution and its guarantee of religious freedom.

Included in Pagan inmates’ needs are: access to paid Pagan chaplains to facilitate regularly scheduled religious services; provision of spiritual guidance and counseling support; facilitation of Pagan rites of passage and liturgical needs; and service as intermediaries between Pagan inmates and correctional administrators and staff to educate about Pagan religious needs or requirements of Pagans.

[For further information and links, see the bottom of this post.]

The following letter was sent to the Office of the Governor of California; WallBuilders, Inc.; Clerk of Court, United States District Court, Northern District of California; and Attorney Caroline Mitchell of Jones Day, Attorneys for Plaintiffs.

To Whom It May Concern:

We, the undersigned, are a widely divergent group of American citizens. We hail from varied economic strata, educational backgrounds, ethnic groups, and cultural experiences. We are taxpaying citizens of this country, and some of us have served in uniform. Members of our religious community have died in that uniform, protecting this nation, its constitution, and all that it stands for.

All of us are deeply spiritual people with sincerely held religious beliefs that have called us to service beyond our private lives. In many cases, our courage in being public about our faith has caused us persecution, harassment, and ostracism. Yet, we persevere in our spiritual traditions and in our faith. This is the testament of our sincerity to traditions that fall outside the religious mainstream and the spiritual status quo.

We are Pagans. Paganism is a collection of diverse contemporary religions rooted in indigenous traditions or deriving inspiration therefrom, characterized by a belief in the interconnection of all life, personal autonomy, and immanent divinities. Inside our spiritual traditions themselves, there is a wealth of diversity, just as within Christianity there exist different and distinct communities such as the Roman Catholic, the Presbyterian, the Lutheran, the Methodist, the Baptist, the Mennonite, and the Greek Orthodox. Although Wicca and/or Witchcraft comprise the largest sub-segment of Paganism, other sub-sections of Paganism include Druidry, the Norse Asatru, Strega, the Church of all Worlds (CAW), and numerous other traditions including modern believers in the ancient gods of Rome, Egypt, Persia, Gaul, Great Britain (England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Cornwall) and Greece.

At this time, we turn our attention to the ongoing legal struggle occurring in California, wherein prisoners and a Wiccan chaplain are seeking equal footing in the state prison system. The Pagan Plaintiffs seek the same considerations, opportunities, liberties, and equality in the exercise of their faith during imprisonment as is already available to the Catholics, the Protestants, the Jews, the Native Americans, and the Muslims. The Catholics and the Protestants are sub-sections of Christianity. Christians, Jews, and Muslims are monotheistic religions sharing a central patriarchal god.

In one amicus brief submitted by WallBuilders, Inc., the question is asked:

”The true historic meaning of ‘religion’ excludes paganism and witchcraft, and thus, does not compel a conclusion that McCollum has state taxpayer standing … paganism and witchcraft were never intended to receive the protections of the Religion Clauses. Thus, in the present case there can be no violation of those clauses … Should this Court conclude that McCollum has taxpayer standing … this Court should at least acknowledge that its conclusion is compelled by Supreme Court precedent, not by history or the intent of the Framers.”

We Pagans respond to this on three levels. First, the intent of the Framers of the Constitution of the United States is perfectly clear on the issue of religion and government in that the only mention of a “God” appears in exactly one place in the original document, and that is in the determination of the date in which the document was signed. The preamble makes it clear that it is “We the People,” and not any one particular God, who determines both the structure of government in this country and the benefits/rights which that government will provide.

Second, even if one were to conclude that it was the intent of the Framers to be exclusive in matters of religion and not inclusive, one must look at some of the other demographic classes who were excluded from the rights and privileges by the Framers in the Constitution, such as women and Africans. “We the People” clearly referred to landed white men. The truth is that no matter the work of genius worked by these great minds, they were minds of the times in which they lived. Thirty-three percent of the signers of the federal Constitution were slave holders. Thomas Jefferson himself was the master of a plantation run by slaves and sexually frequented the black women whom he held in thrall. James Madison, who actually wrote the Bill of Rights, owned slaves. The drastic error in permitting slavery to exist beyond the founding of our government was an error to be solved only in blood through the Civil War and a subsequent amendment to the Constitution.

If we were to read the Constitution only through some sort of lens in which we claimed to know the minds of these men, then we as a people and as a government could not have progressed forward into the twenty-first century, and a significant number of today’s American citizens would still be disenfranchised. It is the genius of subsequent generations in using and interpreting the Constitution as a living document which spares us from the insular thinking of the eighteenth century.

Third, the California district court would be wise not to answer the question posed in the amicus of the WallBuilders, Inc. in the affirmative. To do so would give a legal foothold to a viewpoint which is blatantly discriminatory and which flies directly in the face of decisions regarding modern Pagans and  Witches/Wiccans: decisions made by state courts, federal courts, administrative agencies such as the EEOC and state agencies such as the Missouri Tax Commission, which must surely be one of the most conservative governmental entities in this country.

Thus, we as Pagan Americans say to the Northern District Court of the State of California: Do not be fooled by the subterfuge which WallBuilders, Inc. is  attempting, and turn aside their position by answering it in the negative.

Furthermore, we as Pagan Americans say and affirm to the Northern District Court of the State of California, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, California Attorney General’s Office, and the Governor of the State of California, that Pagan inmates have similar requirements and needs comparable to those of the five faiths currently being served. Included in these needs are: access to paid Pagan chaplains to facilitate regularly scheduled religious services, provide spiritual guidance and counseling support; facilitate Pagan rites of passage and liturgical needs; and to serve as intermediaries between Pagan inmates and correctional administrators and staff to educate about Pagan religious needs or requirements of Pagans. In doing so, the state of California will continue to move forward into a system which is inclusive of religious belief.

Sincerely submitted:

OUR FREEDOM: A Pagan Civil Rights Coalition
http://www.ourfreedomcoalition.org

Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF)
Rev. Skip Ellison Archdruid

Circle Sanctuary
Rev. Jerrie Hildebrand
Minister

Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans
David Pollard
President

The EarthSpirit Community
Andras Corban-Arthen
Director

Gaia’s Womb/EarthTraditions
Rev. Angie Buchanan
Executive Director

Irminsul Aettir
Susan Granquist
Gydhia

Isis Invicta Military Mission
Rev. Rona Russell
Coordinator

Lady Liberty League
Jerrie Hildebrand
Managing Director

Order of WhiteOak
Dr. Kenneth Proefrock
President

Ozark Avalon Church of Nature
Rev. Rose Wise
High Priestess/Administrator

Pagan Educational Network
David C. Sassman
Director

Pagan Pride Project, Inc.
Maureen Duffy-Boose
Assistant Membership Director/Corporate Secretary

Sacred Well Congregation
Dr. David L. Oringderff
Executive Agent, SWC IEC

GREEN EGG
Ariel Monserrat – Editor/Publisher

Individual Members:
Cairril Adaire
Rev. Drema Baker
Charlayne Elizabeth Denney
Dana D. Eilers
Rev. Kathryn Fuller
Ellen Evert Hopman
Ariel Monserrat
Tom Donohue



For further details about this case, please see:

Beliefnet article describing particulars of McCollum appeal
Americans United piece on McCollum case
Washington Post article on WallBuilders, Inc.’s amicus brief against McCollum’s appeal
PDFs of briefs in McCollum appeal

Also note:
The EarthSpirit Community has provided supplies and resources to people incarcerated in prisons across the country for more than 30 years. In Massachusetts and in many other states, direct access to prisoners is not denied to pagans and, in fact, I correspond regularly with the MA Department of Corrections, which is often looking for pagan clergy to serve its population.

If you are interested in volunteering time to help serve that population, contact me at earthspirit@earthspirit.com.

Thanks,
Deirdre Pulgram Arthen