‘All Tied up in a Knot’

Throughout the ages, great emphasis has been placed on the magical power of knots. This is reflected in the traditions of many cultures. The ancients believed in a world swarming with evil forces, continuously desirous to harm living beings. Specifically, knots were believed to entangle malignant forces, hence keep them at bay. 

The custom of protecting oneself against illness and misfortune with knots, strings, and cords, worn as amulets, is widespread and ancient. About four thousand years ago, the Babylonians believed that seven knots tied thrice on a three-fold cord and wound around the head, cured a headache. The ancient Egyptians considered an amulet depicting a human hand as effective protection for their children, and Egyptian mothers suspended this from a knotted cord around their baby’s neck. A knot was required to be tied every morning and another every evening, until there were seven knots. On each occasion, a formula was repeated over the knot to ensure maximum protection from forces responsible for disease, accident, or hardship.

Amongst the Parsees in India, young initiates into the Zoroastrian religion are girded with the kushti, a knotted cord which must be untied and re-knotted several times a day to the accompaniment of prayers in order to express the devotees’ determination to defeat the powers of evil as well as his dedication to God.

A common emblem of folk magic in Europe is the witch’s knot, a symbolic representation of knot magic allegedly practised by witches during the Middle Ages. Under the laws of sympathetic magic, the symbol of the witch’s knot, scratched above doorways and entrances, was frequently used as a charm to protect against witchcraft. As late as the early nineteen hundreds, it was still customary in many countries in Europe to wear knots tied on a long piece of string around certain affected body parts. The knots were believed to cure many ailments, from whooping cough to warts and sprains.

The tightly bound folds making up a knot were symbolic of a sealed bargain, the underlying implication being that anything with the power to bind the body could also be used to bind the spirit. Hence, we still speak of ‘tying the marriage knot’, a phrase which might have originated in the days when threads from the couples’ clothes were used to bind together their hands, thumbs, or shoulders.

The power thought to reside in every act of binding or tying could be either positive or negative. Hence, knots were thought to cause illness, but also to cure or drive it away. Similarly, knots were used to bewitch, but also to protect against bewitchment; they were used to hinder childbirth or facilitate it; cause death or prevent it. Ambivalence of this kind is found in all magico-religious uses of knots and bonds. In Europe, knot and string magic were used in nuptial rites to protect the young couple, though at the same time, knots could be used to imperil consummation of the marriage and therefore implicate great disappointment in the nuptial bed.

Knots were also believed to hinder conception when specifically tied by an ill-wisher. To tie three knots in a handkerchief or string during the benediction of the marriage ceremony was thought to render a couple childless. The bridegroom, however, could stave off any such possible ill luck by leaving his shoelaces untied or one of his shoe buckles undone when standing before the altar. Immediately before the marriage ceremony, every knot on the bride and groom was to be carefully loosened. In parts of Scotland, it was considered sufficient for the groom’s shoe to be without a buckle or latchet ‘to prevent witches from depriving him of the power of loosening the virgin zone’.46 

Universally, knots feature strongly in superstitious beliefs concerned with birth and death. A woman giving birth was to ensure that all knots in her clothing were undone. Similarly, it was also required to untie all knots in the clothing of someone in the process of dying, as this was believed to allow the soul an unencumbered passing. The belief that specifically tied knots could actually prevent death is aptly illustrated by the following account: ‘When, at St. Andrew’s, Scotland, in 1572, a woman was led to the stake to be burned as a witch, there was taken away from her a white cloth, on the strings of which were many knots. As it was removed she said: Now I have no hope of myself’.47 The custom of untying knots before a birth or when death was in progress, is still observed in some parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. 

The custom of tying a knot in one’s handkerchief to remind one of something specific is the variation of a superstition going back to the Middle Ages. Any knot was believed to be a charm to ward off unwanted forces, as the knot was considered able to entangle or preoccupy these forces, and thereby keep them at bay. The intricacy of a knot was believed to totally confuse, intrigue, and beguile the evil influences, bent on distracting someone from whatever they were trying to remember – hence, the knot in a handkerchief reminded a person of something not to be forgotten. 

A derogatory phrase still in use is telling someone to ‘get knotted’, an abusive and dismissive term meaning to ‘get lost’. Another expression concerning knots stems from ancient Greek mythology and is still in modern use – ‘To cut the Gordian Knot’ describes solving a problem by quick, decisive action. 


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