The Symbolism of Knots: to Knot or not to Knot … that is the Question

The Mizuhiki knot (Photo: Wikimedia Commons) See this photo gallery for more ornate forms of mizuhiki

In Japan, the tradition of knotting is well known and remains much alive especially in wedding customs, gift-giving and wrappings, festive occasions, shrine and temple ritual contexts, agricultural practices. Children are still taught how to tie mizuhiki though it is no longer as well practised as the cat’s cradle.

The most well known form of Japanese knotwork may well be the mizuhiki which is most often seen accompanying the wedding invitation. Wikipedia gives a mizuhiki definition as follows:

Mizuhiki is an ancient Japanese art form that uses a special cord. The cord is created from rice paper, that is tightly wound, starched to give it stiffness, and then colored. The ways of coloring include brightly colored Mylar (a very thin plastic), thin strands of silk, or simply painted. The art form was used to tie up the hair of the samurai.

Currently there are several forms. The traditional decoration, given away at Japanese occasions, such as weddings, births, and funerals take the forms of animals or boats. Different animals are created for different meanings, including cranes, frogs, fish, dragons, and turtles are among the most popular. The other traditional way the art is done is in decorating cards with little colored knots, similarly to how people in western cultures use a ribbon and bow. A third way is being developed that uses the ancient art for a more modern purpose, jewelry.

It is popularly transmitted that the history of the mizuhiki knotting tradition began thus:

In 607 AD, a Japanese delegate returned from China with a gift for the Japanese emperor. The gift was decorated with a red and white twine knot symbolizing “safe journey” for the delegate. The Japanese began recreating the knot from washi, starting a tradition of presenting a gift box with a twine or Mizuhiki knot.

Although the history of Japanese knotting is often attributed to Chinese contacts, knotting is known from earlier prehistoric Kofun (kurgan burial mound) times when patterns of intricate knots were carved on ritual rocks or funerary ceramic haniwa stands, suggesting a magical ritual and mythological context.

Some customs dating back to ancient Japan and at least proto-historic Japan include:

musubi-matsu — the ritual of tying the branches of a pine tree (matsu) together in order to ensure the safe return of a group or individual embarking on a journey.

tama-musubi — was the ritual action intended to “bind” the spirit of the deceased to a specific site or object.  Combs were common grave objects for females in prehistoric Japan. Traditional ornaments called tama-musubi are still known:  “Various Tama-musubi was attached to the comb. The ornamental hairpin(Kanzashi) which imitated the shuttlecock of a Japanese battledore(Hagoita) and was made. They can be attached to hair in the time of any dresses. ” — Mrs NH



From Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority” by David T. Bialock, comes an understanding of the origin of the “chinkon” and tama “cloudsoul” concept and the rites, and the purpose behind it and the cosmological framework that surrounded it:

Although Nihon shoki’s entry on Temmu’s rite is regarded as the earliest extant mention of the chinkon (spirit pacification), the graphs glossed as “mitama-furi” in the text are actually shokon, also read tama-yobai (“soul-summoning”). The conventional chinkon reading of the passage together with its vernacular gloss “mitama-furi” probably dates from a commentarial tradition transmitted by the Urabe lineage. Thus, according to a secret kun-reading given in the twenty-first scroll of the Shaku nihongi, the graphs were intended to be read “mitama-furi,” a ritual elsewhere represented in Shaku nihongi by the graphs chinkonsia. This eading of the graphs, now well established, was also argued for by Ban Nobutomo in his classic study Chinkon den, where he noted that the phrase “should be recorded as , but one can surmise that it was written in conformance with the usual Chinese practice.”51
… turn to some descriptions of the chinkon rite in the law codes and their commentaries, which have been the basis for most attempts to construct its ancient ritual function. These include the Taiho Code o 701 (extant only fragmentarily in the later Yoro Code), the Ryo no shuge (selected in 833), and the Ryo no guge (selected prior to 868). According to the Taiho Code , the chinkonsai was held in midwinter in the Eleventh Month on a tora no hi (days o f the tiger), and followed by the daijosai on a u no hi (day of the rabbit), a period that coincided with the winter solstice. In Chinese yin-yang five agents thought, both of these days were identified with the agent wood (the beginning of the cycle), which corresponded to the direction east and the season spring. Both the month and days were a time when the positive yang pneumas were believed to mount upward and all things were held to be in a state of movement. It was thus an ideal time for intiating activities such as royal accessions. 52
turning to some actual definitions of the chinkon rite, we find the following explanation in the Ryo no gige under the heading chinkon: “The graph means to pacify. A person’s yang spirit (yoki) is called soul (tama). The tama moves about, meaning one summons back the tama that wanders about in a state of separation and pacifies it inside the body (literally “bowels”.] Therefore it is named “chinkon” (to pacify the soul), another definition from the Ryo no shuge contains some additional details: A person’s yang spirit is called ‘kon’ it moves about. A person’s yin spirit is called ‘haku’ it is white. Therefore one calls back the white soul wandering about in a state of separation and causes it to be pacified inside the bowels. Therefore it is called chinkon.
The exact source for the ideas contained in these descriptions remains uncertain, but the language recalls ancient Chinese ideas about the fate of the soul after death. According to the Li ji: the yang qi of the “cloudsoul” (hun) rises up to the sky (tian) after death, whereas the yin or dark elements associated with the body or “whitesoul” (po) return to the earth. 55 Another passage in the Li Ji , on the rites of mourning , speaks of summoning back the cloudsoul and returning it to the body (po)56. It was under the influence of such commentaries, according to Watanabe Katsuyoshi, that modern scholars developed the idea of a “soul that wanders about in separation from its body” and interpreted chinkon as a rite primarily aimed at preventing such separation by placating the “tama” and thereby obviating the illness and death that were held to result from such separation57.
The yin-yang five agents principles and the related concept of “qi” which informed the ritual setting (temporal and geomantic) of the chinkonsai and the descriptive language of the law doctors, were fundamental, of course to Chinese philosophical thought. In Daoism, the induction of qi into the body and its proper regulation became one of the basic practices for achieving longevity, a central concern of later Daoist literature, as in Xiang’er’s commentary on the Daodejing, which also functioned as a guide to the enlightened ruler.58 thus in Bokenkamp’s paraphrase of one Xiang’er passage “the pneumas of morning and evening should be caused to descend into the human body , where they should be mixed with the body’s own pneumas so that they are evenly distributed throughout.” On the other hand, this time citing directly from the Xiang’er “When the heart produced ill-omened and evil conduct, the Dao departs, leaving the sack (belly) empty. Once it is empty, deviance enters, killing the person.”60 As these citations make clear, teh principle of balacning and harmonizeing qu was of paramoutn importanecce; deviancce” (xie) on the other hand, arose from a a failure ot achieve a proper balance or mixing o pnemas resulting in illlness and death. … The emphasis in the Xiang’er passage on the belly, for example, recalls what Watanabe characterizes as the peculiar language of the law commentaries where the aim of the rite was to draw the erring “tama” back into the “bowel”. A related notion found in the Chuxue ji, a Tang period encyclopedia compiled at the order of Emperor Xuangzong (r. 712-756), states that on the winter solstice the yang qi is restored to the belly and hot things placed in qi are easily digested.61 If this Daoist medical advice offers a parallel to the ideas of the law doctors in their attempts to describe the chinkon rite, recipes for the production of immortality elixirs provide a suggestive context for understanding the relationship between the medicinal herb and Temmu’s spirit-summoning rite. An entry from scroll seventy-seven on “elixirs” in Yunqi qiqian (Seven Lots from the Satchel of the Clouds), an encyclopedia of older Daoist texts and extracts compiled under the Northern Song, describes a life-extending elixir called lingwan that allows one to “pacify the cloud souls, coagulate the white souls, and fly off into the seventy-four directions,” and in another passage “to sport about on the Five Mountain Peaks.” Not least interesting here is the combination of graphs chinkon, “pacify the cloud souls”) the same two graphs that are used for the Japanese chinkon or “mitama-furi” rite. Another entry from the Inner Transmission of the Purple Sun Master (Ziyang zhenren neichuan, 399), collected in scroll 106 of the Yunji qiqian, relates that the consumption of zhu over a period of five years–the same medicinal herb ingested by Temmu–produces a glow in the body, gives one a vision that can see right through to the five viscera, and enables one to become an immortal.


 The history of knots in different cultures

More broadly, knots in cords, ropes, scarves were tied to bind magical power, and untied to release it, the actions accompanied by the chanting of spells while releasing the knots. Knots could be used to bind love towards someone or to prevent the affection from forming.

Egypt and Turkey:

The Egyptians had elaborate love and antilove knotting charms. Source: The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy, p. 162 by Rosemary Guiley

“Isis was the Egyptian goddess associated with the magick of knots. It was believed that the priestesses could control the weather by braiding or unbraiding their hair as well as tying or blowing on knots. Isis could also have an influence in someone’s life by using knot magick.”The Knotted Cord

Even in Christian times, under the reign of Constantine, a certain Sopater suffered death at Constantinople on a charge of binding the winds by magic, because it happened that the corn-ships of Egypt and Syria were detained afar off by calms or head-winds, to the rage and disappointment of the hungry Byzantine rabble. Finnish wizards used to sell wind to storm-stayed mariners. The wind was enclosed in three knots; if they undid the first knot, a moderate wind sprang up; if the second, it blew half a gale; if the third, a hurricane….The art of tying up the wind in three knots, so that the more knots are loosed the stronger will blow the wind, has been attributed to wizards in Lappland and to witches in Shetland, Lewis, and the Isle of Man. Shetland seamen still buy winds in the shape of knotted handkerchiefs or threads from old women who claim to rule the storms. There are said to be ancient crones in Lerwick now who live by selling wind. Source: The Golden Bough “The  Magical Control of the Weather by James Frazer (at pp. 62a,b)

India, Tibet, China

Knots are used in India and Thibet as Talismans for Longevity and to avert the Evil Eye (see Illustration No. 27, Plate II), the Knot being considered potent to bind that which is good and precious, and to prove an obstacle or hindrance to that which is evil; for instance, at the time of marriage knots are lucky, and the ceremonies connected with a Chinese marriage include knotted red and green ribbons, which are held by the newly wedded pair, the bride holding the green ribbon whilst the bridegroom seizes the red; and in our own country the true-lover’s knot is frequently used in the decoration of the wedding dress; but at childbirth and death, there must be no knots about the person to hamper the coming or going of the spirit.

        Chapter IV The Book of Talismans, Amulets and Zodiacal Gems, by William Thomas and Kate Pavitt, [1922], at

From Knot Magic a Brief History

In Hinduism, knot tying is often associated with the death gods. Buddhists refer to the untying of knots as a “process of liberation.”

When someone was dying, it was once a common practice to untie all knots within the room so as to not keep the dying person bound to life and suffering.

Middle East

The Jewish tradition, like many others, also has a long history of the use of knots in the marriage ceremony. The Wilmingtonian And Delaware Advertiser, January 1826, reported this item under the banner of ‘Miss Rothchild’s Marriage’:

“At an early hour on Monday morning, Stomford Hill, the country residence of N. M. Rothschild, Esq. was in a great state of bustle, and most of its inhabitants were on qui vive, waiting the approaching hour when Hymen was to tie the knot of a son and daughter of the house ot Judah.”

Source: “Tie the knot” Phrase Dictionary

In the Koran, the prophet Mohammed believed that evil women knotted cords and blew on them, and according to folklore he had been the target of an evil bewitchment spell by the daughters of a man who had knotted 11 knots in a cord, and then thrown the cord down a well. To break the spell he spoke surahs over the cord, whereupon they untied themselves. Source: The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy, p. 162 by Rosemary Guiley

Mesopotamia, Near East

In Sumeria:

The Knot of Inanna is sacred to the Goddess. The image of this knot was the first written form of the Goddess’s name. The Knot of Inanna often appears as the top of a tall pole. This symbol of the Goddess’s authority was probably the original archetype of the much later crosier, which is carried by Christian bishops and abbots.   The Knot of Inanna is a sacred symbol. — The Knot of Inanna

In Egypt:

Knots have great antiquity in the region, “In fact, as far back ancient Mesopotamia, there are references to knots created and used for magickal purposes in both art and literature. It was common, during the age of sailing ships, that a wind cord would be created, in which several knots would have the power of favorable winds stored in them. A ship stranded without a wind, a knot would be undone to bring one along to save the ship and her crew.” — Knots and Cord Magick 

The Egyptians had an amulet with a knot in the middle of it, called the tiet or tyet, its function is described as follows:


“The standard form of the amulet was an open loop of material, tied with a sash that hung down below the loop on two sides. The tiet looks similar to the ankh, the hieroglyph for “life,” except that its crossbar is folded down. In fact, the tiet may be related to the ankh, for the tiet sign is often translated as “life” or “welfare.’

The origins of the amulet are unknown. As a knot, however, its symbolism revolves around the idea of binding and releasing, the joining of opposites, and, since a knot secures things, protection. Knot magic was well known in Egypt from an early period; an inscription in one of the pyramids states, “Isis and Nephthys work magic on Thee (Osiris) with knotted cords.” The Book of Coming Forth by Day gives several examples of the magical power of the knot. In this one, knots are tied around the deceased to help her come into the presence of the Deities; “The four knots are tied about me by the guardian of the sky . . .the knot was tied about me by Nut, when I first saw Maat, when the gods and the sacred images had not yet been born. I am heaven born, I am in the presence of the Great Gods.” In addition to these four knots, there were seven knots, or tesut, that were tied about the decreased to protect him or her.
The tiet appears in Egyptian iconography in the third dynasty. It was frequently used in association with the djed pillar of Osiris, and so became almost exclusively associated with Isis. Used together, the two symbols could refer to the power of the Goddess and God to engender Life.
Because of this, the symbols may also be seen as sexual symbols — the pillar referring to the phallus of the god and the knot to the vulva and womb of the Goddess. Once born, the new or renewed life would have to be protected—an apt job for the protective properties of the magical knot. In the Book of Coming Forth by Day, the Knot of Isis not only helps protect, but also raises up the deceased. The formula says, “The Knot of Isis amulet has laid her hands on me,” and by doing so sets the deceased in the place of rebirth, the eastern sky, where he says, “I have appeared in glory. I have been initiated, I have been ennobled as a god.””

The Phoenician so-called “sign of Tanit” found aplenty at Punic Carthage, is said to be clearly related to the tiet and ankh symbols of Egypt — see “The Sign of Tanit, Interpretations of a symbol”:

“It is impossible to support the view that a number of the symbols erroneously called the “sign of Tanit” do not incorporate the ankh sign, which was known to the Carthaginians at that time. it cannot be positively stated that the sign does not represent a votary, when a cippus which I excavated myself, dating back at least to the fifth century B.C., proves the contrary. It cannot be denied that several versions of the symbol, probably by association with the knot of Isis’s girdle, are simply female fertility symbols

The lower half of the symbol, with its lateral appendages representing incense-burners, unquestionably represents an altar, since this is proved by an altar-cippus of fifth century date from the sanctuary, although it has a baetylic column on top instead of a disc. It cannot be argued that the astral baetyl, which probably never had anything to do with the female symbol, is not interchangeable with the baetylic column. Another altar-cippus of similar shape and date actually shows the symbol itself with an astral baetyl on top. Carved in detail on the stone (unlike some examples, which are finished with little more than the bare outline of a simple contour), this specimen is one of the richest, if not the earliest, sources of information for an enquiry into the components of the “sign of Tanit”. On the slab of one altar a whole temple is shown. The incense-burners on each side are in this case the fire-altars in 7 front of the entrance, just as they appear on another cippus from the sanctuary which, precisely, reproduces a temple, and on some of the stelae from Sousse. In other cases they take the form of acroteria at the ends, thus forming a horned altar. The steps on the back are those of the stair by which the image of the deity, in the baetylic form of a bottle, a column or a disc, is approached. Finally, to call this symbol the “sign of Tanit” is a fundamental error. In the sanctuary at Constantine, which, judging by the number of votive inscriptions, was dedicated to Baal Addir and Baal Hammon, the symbol appears just as frequently. It is regularly seen on stelae dedicated to these gods alone, and on the other hand is frequently absent from stelae happening to invoke Tanit. The sanctuary at Carthage itself, according to indisputable epigraphic evidence, was originally dedicated to Baal Hammon. At the top of one of the earliest examples of the famous sign17 the written word “Baal” is actually engraved on the stone instead of the astral disc. It was not until the fifth century that Tanit, who appears to be the result of an ill-defined Punic syncretism, infiltrated (timidly at first) into the sanctuary, and succeeded in a remarkably short time in asserting her own undisputed supremacy there — a development which was not apparent anywhere else. In defense of those who are responsible for naming this diagram the “sign of Tanit”, it must be admitted that this intrusion occurred at a time when a parallel syncretism was clearly taking place in the realm of symbolic imagery.” — Pierre Cintas

 Gordian Knot (according to Wikipedia):

“At one time the Phrygians were without a king. An oracle at Telmissus (the ancient capital of Phrygia) decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. A peasant farmer named Gordias drove into town on an ox-cart. His position had also been predicted earlier by an eagle landing on his cart, a sign to him from the gods, and on entering the city Gordias was declared king by the priests. Out of gratitude, his son Midas dedicated the ox-cart[1] to the Phrygian god Sabazios (whom the Greeks identified with Zeus) and either tied it to a post or tied its shaft with an intricate knot of cornel (Cornus mas) bark. “

According to the Penn Museum in The Gordion knot, “For the site of ancient Gordion, however, this account owes its interest not only to the connection with Alexander, but also to the explanatory legend attached to it, one that describes the reason for the existence of the knot and the wagon, and its dedication in the Temple of Zeus.”

The ritual context and great ancient origins of the Gordion knot (known from Hittite texts) out of Anatolia is explained in B.W. Burke, “Anatolian Origins of the Gordian Knot Legend,” 2002 Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 42, 255-261. ‘Mitti’or ‘mita’ means red twisted cords or threads and Gordios was a Phrygian king according to the book. Loops of red, black and white wool are mentioned and the rituals are tied to the Zeus Temple and Indo-European or Aryan storm god. The Phrygian dynasts had a ritual based on a Hittite predecessors’. The ultimate origin of the story is from the period of the Hittite kings of central Turkey.

Click here to read The story of the Gordion knot 


The witches garland is a rope tied into a garland that is used for casting curses.With every knot that is tied, a curse is repeated and a black feather stuck into the garland. For best effect, the garland was to be put beneath the victim’s mattress.


The Greek goddess Circe was also associated with knot magick. She is more commonly known as the goddess of agriculture, which is why she adorns the dome of the Vermont State Capitol building. Circe controlled the forces of creation and destruction by placing knots and braids in her hair in a similar fashion to the priestesses of the Egyptian goddess Isis.–The Knotted Cord 

Knot weather gods were believed to tie or bind the winds.

“In ancient Greek times, sorcerers used knotted cords to bind the winds to provide fair weather … One, two or three knots are tied in the cord to mark the first, second, and third… ” .  New Encyclopedia of the Occult

…the Triple Goddesses of Fate are constantly weaving the Destinies of Humans and others! The art of weaving can be seen as the symbolic action of dealing with the endless possibilities giving a certain form to what was previously just a cord, thus deciding which will be the fate who mates with each one of us. By practicing Knot-Magic we try to add or maybe alter what the Fates have already decided for us. …Moirae (and Norns) while also the Goddess Athena (Minerva in Latin – the greatest Weaver of all) are Patrons of Knot Magic. The Totem Archetype animals which can be invoked to guide us through knot magic is the Owl and the Spider.–Knot Magic


Scandinavian sorcerers used knotted cords to control the weather at sea – the cords contained three knots. To gain good weather with a breeze – they would untie one knot, two knots to procure a violent wind and three, a tempest. Source: Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy

Fate Goddesses who where associated with the magickal tying and loosening of knots. The Triple Fate Goddesses of the Norse and the Norns are fate goddesses as well. These goddesses were able to use knots to tie up or release energy.

Special cords are sometimes presented to initiates for use in ceremonies and magick. These cords are worn around the waist until needed during a ritual. Some groups weave these cords temporarily together during a ritual for spell work. However, most cord and knot magick is done with smaller, more flexible cords or thread.

Knot magick is also used to store magickal power to use at a later time. For example, full moon magick is knotted into a cord and released during a spell during new moon days and vise versa. Source: The Knotted Cord

A well known funerary knot was the Walknot and its variants — the trefoil knot and Boromean triangles and Boromean links.  Also known as Odin’s triangle’, ‘Walknot’ held the meaning of the knot of the slain.

detail of stone decoration

Left: ca 9th C. Stone stele from Gotland island, Sweden, now in the collection of the Museum of National Antiquities (Historiska Museet) in Stockholm. Right: Magnified segment of the stone  including the Walknot near the top. Photos: University of Pittsburgh 

For more on the significance and meaning of the Walknot, see Blood & Honour – the Death Knot.

All around the border, of the above depicted Gotland stone stele, is a different kind of elaborate knotwork. It is called the “glain” and a part of the World Cosmic Serpent and Egg myth:

Mother Night, the Great Goddess of darkness, first birthed the World Egg which was identified with the moon. The ‘Druid’s egg’ or ‘serpent’s egg’ or ‘snake stone’, was an object which had powerful mystical properties. On St. John’s Eve, it was said that the snakes twisted and writhed in a tangled knot, creating the “glain”. The egg emerging from the ball of vipers, floated mysteriously upward into the air, to be caught by the priests while in the act of falling. It was said that the Druid who found himself the fortunate possessor of this invaluable treasure would quickly make his escape by leaping upon a horse, not stopping until he had got to the other side of the first running water. His pursuers were stopped by the stream; they could follow him no farther. Immense magical power and wisdom were believed to be gained by the possessor of the Druid’s egg, although few have ever seen one. The Serpent’s egg is the Philosopher’s Stone sought by the alchemists, and the Grail quested for by the Chivalric knights. — Jen Delyth

A Gaelic Dictionary explains that the serpent’s egg is not really an egg, but…

“A vast number of serpents are twisted together in summer, and coiled up  in an artificial knot by their slime and saliva. And this is called the serpent’s egg”

The border knotwork conjures up the  elaborate spiral motifs of Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of Romania! Moldova and the Ukraine where the whorls and spirals that swirl and criss-cross over elliptical “eggs”  which have been interpreted by Marijas Gimbutas and others to be cosmic serpents around eggs and representative of their “primordial deity was female, and their culture developed rich and complex artistic symbols rooted in their religious beliefs based on the Great Goddess and her various aspects as Giver-of-Life, Wielder of Death, and Regeneratrix”…  “In the fourth millenium B.C., the conjunction of the egg, double-egg, lens, crescent, snake and spiral motifs on vases of the Cucuteni civilization reached a rare level of exquisite design. In the abstract and composite desingns, dictated by mythical thinking, a harmonious combination of germ cell, cosmic snakes and and fawns is apparent. The sign of a sectioned “double-egg” as an ideogram of the Great Goddess persisted into Mycaenaen-Minoan times…”

1272696P36_7 (1)Cucuteni4

Pottery motifs seen on Cucuteni-Trypillian vases and funerary urns. Photo: Gov. of Ukraine Far right photo: Library thinkquest

These motifs are common in Japan on tumuli wall murals and on funerary earthen stands called  haniwa of the Kofun burial mound period, and as well as etched carvings on large sacred rock.

On the origin of expression “to tie the knot”

In Pagan Roman times:

Couples would tie a knot while make solemn vows to each other and their gods during their wedding ceremony, which is where we get the phrase ‘tying the knot’. Source: Knots and Cord Magick

Anglo-saxon and germanic traditions of the British Isles:

“… the Winding Path, a specific length of rope, tied with three knots in specific places, is used when marking a specific space for magickal works. It’s a rather practical aspect of knots in magickal work, but it’s one of the ways we’ve incorporated them into our way of doing things. We also use Wet Knots, which as you might guess from the name, are used to store some of the power of rain storms in case of a particularly dry period. …

Source: Knots and Cord Magick

To Bind the Wind: The old witches would tie the winds up with a length of rope, pulling the knots tight to tie up the wind, and releasing them when the wind is required. Undoing the first know would give a light breeze, the second a strong wind, and the third a gale” Source: Air Faeries

In Russia, knot magick was once very common. There are written accounts of the many types of knot spells including an 8 double-knot curse to use against an enemy in which wool yarn was used. Source: Knot Magick A Brief history

Traditional weather witching speaks of the quaint practice of selling wind and wind cord or knot charms:

Regardless of the method you choose to call the wind, make sure your hair is unbound and loose; binding and knotting are ways to capture the wind, not call it. 

In a woodcut (right) housed in the collections of the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, you can see a male witch selling a wind charm to sailors. This was a common and well-known practice in West Country Craft (pre-gardnerian witchcraft found in west England, Wales, and Cornwall). According to Cecil Williamson “There were well known sea witches selling the wind in each of the following places: Sennen, St.Ives, Appledore, Lee, Lynton and Porlock, where one found Mother Leaky still trying to flog her wind strings with their knots, right up to the mid 1939’s.”{3}

These charms are made by going to a high-windswept place, and tying a certain sailor’s knot into a stout piece of rope to capture the wind. Winds from different directions or of varying forces may be captured using this method. Three such knots are tied in the charm, often with each containing a wind of varying strength. Traditionally this charm is then sold to sailors, but good luck getting a sailor, fisherman, or navy man to buy it nowadays.”

From the Phrase Dictionary:

There is a suggestion that this expression derives from the nets of knotted string which supported beds prior to the introduction of metal-sprung bedframes. The theory goes that, in order to make a marriage bed, you needed to ‘tie the knot’. Like many such folk-etymological explanations, there’s not a shred of evidence to support this idea.

It isn’t clear whether this expression derives from an actual knot used in marriage ceremonies or whether the knot is merely symbolic of a lasting unity. Knots have a place in the folklore of many cultures and usually symbolize unbreakable pledges. Actual knots have certainly been used in marriage ceremonies for some time and the tradition of trying the wrists of the bride and groom with twine continues today in marriages in the use of sashes which are placed over the principal’s wrists. The word ‘knot’, although not in the phrase ‘tie the knot’, has been associated with marriage since at least the 13th century. The Legend of St. Katherine, circa 1225 used the Middle English ‘cnotte’, i.e. ‘knot’, to mean ‘the tie or bond of wedlock; the marriage or wedding knot’:

“Swa ye cnotte is icnut bituhhen unc tweien.”

E. and M. A. Radford’s The Encyclopedia of Superstitions has it that:

“In the seventeenth century, one or two of the bride-favours were always blue. These were knots of coloured ribbons loosely stitched on to the wedding gown, which were plucked off by the guests at the wedding feast, and worn as luck-bringers in the young men’s hats.”

The expression was recorded in 1717 by the English poet and diplomat, Matthew Prior. In his humourous poem, Alma; or, The Progress of the Mind he includes:

“So to the priest their case they tell: He ties the knot.”

Francis Grose, in his 1811 edition of The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue listed the ‘knot tied with the tongue’ with specific reference to marriage.

“He has tied a knot with his tongue, that he cannot untie with his teeth: i.e. he is married.”

To knot or not to knot … that is the question

Undoing knots was especially important in Childbirth and protecting children

“During a woman’s labor it was custom in many cultures worldwide to undo all knots within the house. In black magic, knots can be used to hinder or stop the birth of a child, killing both the mother and infant. It was also believed that a knot can cause a painful and difficult delivery.

Red wool thread with nine knots was sometimes worn by children to protect them from fever.

A cord with 40 knots might be kept as an amulet for protection against thieves.

Knots were also believed to be a repository of magical power or power of the gods.

The Celtic Trinity Knot, or the Triquetra, is one of the most common of the knot ilk. The term Triquetra comes from Latin, and it means “three-cornered.” … The Celtic knot symbol, is also referred to as the mystic knot, or the endless knot. The more esoteric or spiritual meaning of this symbol eludes to beginnings and endings….Celtic knot can represent an uninterrupted life cycle. Some may use this symbol as a charm of sorts – warding against sickness or setbacks that might interfere with an otherwise calm and stable life … In today’s world, knot magic continues to have its place. Examples of this would be in the dream catchers made by the Lakota’s, the “Eye of God”, and shell decorated nets that are hung in homes and businesses. In ancient times, gifts adorned with mystic knots would be given with best wishes of longevity, or luck with new endeavors.”   Source: the Celtic Knot

Further reading:

Roller, L. E. 1984. “Midas and the Gordian Knot,” Classical Antiquity 3, 258-271.

The Knotted Cord

The Golden Bough “The  Magical Control of the Weather by James Frazer (at pp. 62a,b)

The Knot of Isis – Tiet

The Celtic Knot


Gimbutas, Marijas “The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe: 7000 to 3500 BC Myths, Legends and Cult Images

7000 year old origins of the Supreme Ultimate

2 thoughts on “The Symbolism of Knots: to Knot or not to Knot … that is the Question

  1. Dana says:

    The Cucuteni culture is not of Ukraine but of Romania. The name of this civilization was conventionally established by archaeologists, according to the villages of Cucuteni (in Romania, near Iaşi) and Trypillia (in Ukraine, near Kiev), where, by the end of the 19th century, where there were for the first time discovered painted ceramics and fired clay statuettes – categories of items which became symbols of this ancient civilization. The Trypillia culture is from Ukraine. Romania and Ukraine are two different countries.

    • While I can understand modern-day countries wanting to “own” the associated artifacts and finds, hence the need for more precise terms, I mean, however, to apply them to the traits, symbols and iconography common to the broad cultural swathe that has been identified as the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture encompassing all three countries, Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine, and which has offered up as such by anthropologists and scholars as such… Also the photos are attributed to the gov. Of Ukraine. It is beyond the scope of this article to examine in depth distinctions between the different countries, but suffice to note a possible early and ancient connection and movement or diffusion of these traits and influences from the Ukraine (nearest point) via the steppe lands eastwards towards East Asia. We have also noted elsewhere other similarities such as the use of cross-finials in roof architecture of shrines in common between Japan and C-T culture, as suggested by the ceramic shrine models (also relic styles in Lithuanian roofing-architecture).

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