‘To Tie the Knot’ 

The knot, representing tightly closed links, is symbolic of a sealed bargain, the underlying implication being that anything that has the power to bind the body may similarly be used to bind the spirit.  Universally, the knot has always been regarded as an emblem of love and friendship, symbolising the ties of duty and fidelity between lovers.

We speak of ‘tying the marriage knot’, a phrase which may have originated in the days when threads from a couple’s clothes, their hands or their thumbs were actually loosely tied together. The custom of literally tying the knot is found in many countries around the world and still observed in some cultures. Traditional Hindu marriage ceremonies observe the ceremonial tying of the tali, the emblem of marriage and a thread that the groom ties around the bride’s neck. In Sri Lanka, it was once customary to tie the couple’s thumbs together as part of the marriage ceremony.138 Similarly, Parsee marriage custom dictated that the groom’s hands be loosely tied with a sevenfold cord, seven being a lucky number and symbolising sanctity. The Moriori natives of the South Pacific Islands traditionally tied a grass rope around the shoulders of the couple to be married, knotting the rope several times as a symbol of matrimony. In Fiji, the public tying and knotting of a short skirt, considered the symbol of womanhood, once formed part of the traditional marriage ceremony. In all the examples, publicly tying and knotting was considered legally binding as any official document.

Ancient Greek marriage custom required the bride to wear a girdle of sheep’s wool fastened around the waist in a large knot, popularly known as the nodus Herculanus, which her husband was to loosen – not to tie. Roman marriage custom equally required the bridegroom to untie an intricately formed knot in the bride’s girdle during the marriage ceremony. These two examples form an interesting parallel to the popular English phrase of ‘loosening the virgin zone’, or girdle, to indicate matrimony.

Among the northern nations of Europe, the knot pointed especially to an indissoluble tie of affection and duty. Thus, many of the ancient runic inscriptions are in the form of knots. Various Germanic peoples pledged their betrothal by joining hands or having them tied together in a symbolic gesture. The groom’s right hand was joined to the bride’s right hand, and the same procedure was repeated with the left hands so that if viewed from above this looked like an infinity symbol. 

Another knot specifically linked with matrimony was traditional amongst the English and Scots. Known as the true-love knot, it was a popular present given mutually between lovers. The so-called bride favours, or top-knots – knots or rosettes of ribbons that were freely distributed in England at weddings of all social classes – derive from the true-love knot. In England, these knotted ribbons of various colours were worn on a gentleman’s hat, and in France, they were worn on the arm. In modern times, the custom has gone out of fashion, replaced by the wearing of white carnations in buttonholes. (See Chapter II, ‘All tied up in a Knot’).


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