Magic of Knots

tying threads
everyday magic

The Magic of Tying

Sometimes magical beliefs and practices are only visible in seemingly small material shapes. Let’s have a look at an act we all perform on a daily basis: tying a knot in something. Beyond the directly utilitarian, the act of tying a knot is often highly meaningful, but after a while all we are left with is the material component of ritual: a simple knot.

Knots and spells

Knots are an ambivalent symbol; said to have curative properties they are also said to restrain, bind and strangle. Even in everyday language, the mention of knotting and untying is often used as a reference to having or solving problems: in Cairo for example, the question ‘Did you get untied?’ actually means ‘Did you solve your problems?’ [1] This power attached to knots dates back deep in in history. Babylonian cuneiform texts from as far back as the eighth century BC reveal spells using knots [2], and in ancient Egypt, the hieroglyph denoting protection depicts a series of knots in a rope. In ancient Rome, the Hercules knot was regarded as a powerful talismanic symbol. In contemporary Egypt, a wool cord with seven knots, called an ‘uqad,is used to combat fever. The knots are tied by a ritual practitioner who subsequently blows on them, a practice also mentioned in sura 113 of the Qur’an. Knots are rarely encountered in traditional jewellery, but their symbolism in the region is powerful nonetheless. In Syria, both bride and groom take care not to have anything knotted in or on their wedding costume in order to ensure fertility and health. A Palestine lullaby sings ‘Oh our moon, oh sleepy one, loosen your girth and go to sleep’: the loosening of the girdle brings about a state of relaxedness and comfort. [3] The importance of knots in transition stages is illustrated by a death ritual of the Mandeans in Iraq and Iran. When a sick person is dying, he is washed and clothed in new clothes, but the knot of his girdle is left unfinished. Upon the moment of actual passing, the knot is completed, and after death the last, final knot is tied and the girdle arranged properly. [4] 

Knots as protection

Intricate knots are often present in amulets: their goal is to utterly confuse the evil eye in order to distract its attention from the wearer or inhabitant of the house. Knot patterns on engraved seals serve the same purpose, besides their wonderful ornamental value, and mark the end of Quranic verses on written amulets. [5] Written spells are sometimes seen encircled by a border of knots or braids [6], another example of the way these intricate motifs helped to keep evil out and thus enhance the power of the spell. Tying a knot in your hair was also considered an effective way against spirit possession in Sudan: if you had been previously possessed and were to attend a possession ritual for someone else, tying a knot into your hair would ensure you would not be bothered by a spirit. [7] 

Knotting textiles

Related to tying knots is the use of textile scraps in places that carry significance. Trees near shrines, graves, tombs and (surprisingly often) ancient ruins sometimes carry worn and bleached pieces of textile in their branches. These are tied there on behalf of sick people, hoping the saint, deceased or spirit of the place will heal the owner. That this practice is still very much alive is for example seen in the visitor regulations of the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum complex in Samarkand: the rules clearly state that tying a knot is forbidden.

You see how a seemingly mundane object, the knot, may represent so much more than just a utilitarian aspect of life. Although these materials remnants of magic are inconspicuous and often do not survive in the archaeological record [8], they are among the most used forms of everyday magic and can be seen everywhere if you realize where to look!

This post is partly based on the chapter ‘The Evil Eye and Other Problems’ on magic and jewellery in my book Desert Silver.

References

[1] Early, E. 1993. Baladi women of Cairo: playing with an egg and a stone. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, p. 127

[2] Day, C. 1950. Knots and Knot Lore, in: Western Folklore, Vol 9, no. 3

[3] Masterman. E.W.G. 1901. Dress and Personal Adornment in Modern Palestine, in: The Biblical World, Vol. 18 No. 3

[4] Drower, E.S. 1937, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, p. 260

[5] An example is seen in V. Porter, 2017. Arabic and Persian Seals and Amulets in the British Museum, p. 179

[6] Nünlist, T, 2019. Enzauberte Amulettrollen, in: Günther, S. and D. Pielow (eds), Die Geheimnisse der Oberen und Unteren Welt: Magie im Islam zwischen Glaube und Wissenschaft, Brill, Leiden, p. 252

[7] Zvenkovsky, S. 1950. Zar and Tambura as practiced by the women of Omdurman, in: Sudan Notes and Records Vol. 31, no. 1, p. 81

[8] Like noted for example by Cameron Moffett, 2019, in The Amulets of Roman Wroxeter: Evidence for Everyday magic, in: Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Historical Society 94, p. 46