TWH –Much of modern Pagan practice is barely half a century old, which means there’s only a fraction of unbroken traditions to draw upon to address life’s problems. That’s particularly relevant in the case of ending a romantic relationship via divorce of some other mechanism. The institution of marriage has changed considerably in the centuries or millennia since some Pagan and polytheist religions were last widely practiced, and how to end those arrangements must also be adapted to remain relevant.“When relationships break apart,” said Rev. Sean Harbaugh of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, “the experience is mostly traumatic. Dealing with divorce and the end of a committed relationship is like dealing with death. The emotions are the same. When there are children involved, then the pain is that much more amplified.”
Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister and high priestess of Circle Sanctuary, is called upon more often to help begin a relationship than to end one, but she believes both steps should be honored ritually.
“I do think it’s important to have some options available for those whose marriages have ended, or are ending,” she said.
“People who get married, across all traditions including Pagans, put a lot of time and attention into planning a wedding. How many people spend even part of that time and attention to plan a divorce ritually?” Fox asked. It’s important, she explained, because “often rituals are a way of deepening connections, and in divorce they can help change the relationship” for the better.
Fox’s rhetorical question is borne out by Diana Rajchel, author of Divorcing a Real Witch: for Pagans and the People Who Used to Love Them. 76% of respondents to a survey she executed did not perform a hand-parting at the end of their marriage.
“We as Druids like to ritualize as many things as we can,” said Harbaugh, and “divorce is no different. In times when we need support, our extended family — the Kindreds — are there to lend the spiritual help only they can bring. By entering into ritual and making offerings, we ask the Kindreds to lend their magic and blessings. We ask them to help show us a path out of the wilderness during troubling or dark times,” including during divorce.
According to Nicholas Ritter, a Theodish practitioner, Icelandic sagas indicate that time was spent addressing such matters.
“Divorce was not merely a private matter. Since marriage was a social contract that governed things like loyalty, inheritance, and the recognized kinship to any children that might result, divorce — as something that threatened to damage the social fabric — had to be handled through the þing, the legal assembly, in order to tie up the loose ends.
“Divorce occurred in occasions of infidelity, lack of ability or willingness to consummate the marriage, infertility, physical abuse or insult, feud between the husband’s and wife’s families, cross-dressing, or numerous other reasons for the breaking of marital frith,” Ritter explained.
In Fox’s opinion, whether or not the joining was legally binding, there are nevertheless ties that should be severed. Working with someone who has experience facilitating that process can make it much more productive, she believes.
“In some cases both people in the relationship meet with” the ritualist to plan the ceremony. In those cases, often they “are able to have communication that will aid the divorce process.” Sometimes, only one partner is interested, and meets with the facilitator alone. That might lead to a ritual where the other person is represented by a photograph only.
Perhaps it is the influence of the ancient Greeks that lead to the notion that marriage is sacred, but not so divorce. Blogger Elani Temperance is of that opinion.
“As far as I am aware, there were no rituals involved with divorce. Divorces took place, though. When a woman didn’t produce offspring for ten years, a man was forced to divorce her, and he could do so as well when she committed adultery. A woman was allowed to file for divorce herself if she could show her husband had neglected her (especially sexually). A divorce was a legal affair. There was no need to include the gods; nothing to hope or pray for was involved. If and when the people involved married again, they celebrated again.
“I suppose it’s much the same today.”
Fox is of a different mind and has given considerable thought to how divorces can be memorialized in ritual. “Another factor in rituals,” she said, is “what are the dynamics in play that have led to the divorce? Is this a case in which they have grown apart and recognize divorce is best?” In that case, the couple may remain friends after the marriage is over.
“The other end of spectrum is a couple whose marriage has died, and they are having difficulties even communicating with each other, much less plan a ceremony. Most divorce rituals I’ve helped facilitate are somewhere in the middle,” she said: some challenges communicating, but a shared recognition that some form of counseling and ritual would be helpful for healing.
Fox has developed a number of symbolic acts, which she offers as options for divorce and hand-parting rituals she’s facilitating. For example, the couple may return wedding rings to each other, or exchange something else that’s representative of the relationship ending.
They might also write letters of farewell which touch upon good, the challenging, the valuable, and the life lessons; these could be read aloud or exchanged for private review later. A wedding picture might be ritually burned, or the couple may reverse some steps of a handfasting: dropping clasped hands, turning away, and leaving in different directions.
Handfasting cords, for those who have them, are equally powerful symbols for when that relationship is ending. They may be untied or cut, with the pieces ritually buried or burned either separately or together. In contrast to returning gifts of the marriage such as rings, the couple might choose to exchange parting gifts.
Heathens who, like Ritter, try to apply the old sagas to modern practice, will find that it’s easier for a woman to get a divorce than a man, who must pursue legal action. All a woman needed do, at least in the Icelandic sagas, is “announce it at the threshold, at the marriage-bed, and at the chest wherein her dowry was kept.”
While this ritual’s significance can be debated, it does appear that when a woman did so and removed herself from the home, she took her dowry with her.
While divorce rituals in Pagan practice aren’t as common as weddings, Fox nevertheless sees Pagans as leading in this area. “[Pagans and polytheists] look at rites of passage,” she said. “In addition to birth, death, and union, we can celebrate coming of age into adulthood or elderhood . . . many Pagan traditions do have the option of a ceremonial parting of the ways for a couple getting divorced. When I’m at conferences, I often am called to share some of my spiritual experiences working on divorce, because many world religions don’t have divorce rituals.”
Fox, a clinical psychotherapist as well as minister, emphasizes the importance of working through the emotions of this transition with techniques such as counseling and journaling. Issues might arise which can be addressed in the ritual itself.
One example she gave is the fact that marriage alters one’s identity, which is sometimes reflected in a name change. A divorce ritual might include a renaming or other act to demonstrate that those who were part of the relationship now have new, individual identities.
Rajchel writes in her book, “We look at the paper informing us that a marriage has dissolved and that perhaps our name, address, and social status has changed. The wounds usually remain when the papers arrive.” The coping strategies she recommends also include writing in a journal, as well as attending support groups, meditation, and prayer.
Harbaugh agrees that an opportunity for emotional healing is important.
“In ADF we have a diverse group of priests and non-priests who can refer people to get the proper help when they are in need. We have clergy who are ready on the other end of the phone when a member needs to talk or vent. Knowing that there are people there to listen and act as a support system through this difficult process is something our members can count on in their difficult time,” he said.
The specific details of a divorce ritual depend upon the dynamics of the relationship first and foremost, but the tradition followed for the wedding or since can also factor into decisions about the style of ritual, need for an officiant, whether and which deities to invoke, who to invite, and whether it’s followed by a celebration or period of mourning. Even the most amicable partings require some level of healing, but exactly what’s necessary is intensely personal. What may be most important is that the journey is better taken in the company of counselors, clergy, community members, or deities rather than to attempt it alone.
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The work of journalist Terence P. Ward was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.