views updated


KNOTS . The sacred value attributed to knots throughout human history, and amid the most diverse cultures, has interested historians of religions since the nineteenth century. As products of the activity of tying or binding, knots have usually been studied in the context of the more general phenomenon of sacred bonds. It is not surprising, therefore, that research into the religious value of knots has followed the same general pattern that one finds in the study of binding. In particular, the problems have been formulated in similar terms, similar methods have been employed, and consequently the results obtained have also tended to coincide.

Thus the leading students of the religious significance of binding and bonds have also led the way in the study of knots. Scholars such as James G. Frazer, Isidor Scheftelowitz, Walter J. Dilling, Georges Dumézil, and Mircea Eliade have made important contributions in both areas. In general, these scholars have expended considerable effort on the collection of data that are then subjected to comparative-historical study. Closer examination shows, however, that several quite different methods have been employed. Some scholars have been content with a simple exposition of individual instances of knots in particular cultures (Frazer, Dilling). Others have defined their study in terms of a definite cultural area (Dumézil). Finally, there has been an attempt at a phenomenological analysis of knots aimed at the identification of an archetype of the bond (Eliade). The results obtained by these methods, from Frazer to Eliade, have generally been formulated in exclusively symbolic terms, for the most part in the context of magical beliefs and practices. What has not been adequately studied up to now is the symbolic value that knots may have in the context of everyday life and the wholly secular and functional importance of binding and knots in that context.

Beginning with the work of Frazer at the beginning of the present century, scholars have repeatedly affirmed that the sacred action of tying or untying a knot serves to establish or remove some restraint and that it has either a positive or a negative effect, depending upon the specific circumstances under which it is done and the motives of the person doing it. Countless examples of such symbolic action have been furnished, drawn from both primitive cultures and higher civilizations. Every imaginable type of bond has been analyzed, bonds both concrete (such as are made from string or rope, or again, rings and chains) and abstract. Instances have been provided of knots tied in both public and private rituals as well as in nonritual contexts. Knots are found to be tied by superhuman beings as well as by ordinary mortals, and in the latter case by those who are religiously inspired as well as by those who are not. In all of this description, however, the deeper motives behind such widespread forms of activity have not been sought.

It has long been known that the activity of binding in its various forms has the essential goal of permitting human beings to extend their control over reality. The most striking example consists of the knotted ropes used in many preliterate societies as a means of organizing and storing information. Knots tied into ropes, often of different colors, are used to represent numbers, objects, persons, situations, actions, and so forth. Such knotted ropes are useful in resolving specific problems of a practical nature, because they extend the human ability to count, inventory, register, list, and in general to organize and communicate information. The problems solved in this way are not exclusively secular problems, however. They can often have a decidedly religious aspect. The practical function of such knots, and in fact, of all types of bond, even those of a purely symbolic nature, does not preclude their having a sacred function as well. Indeed, these two functions may exist in a relation of strict comple-mentarity.

In the specific context of the ritual confession of sins, Raffaele Pettazzoni has shown how certain knots combine a symbolic value with the quite concrete purpose of restraining or fixating the sin, so that the guilt associated with it may be more effectively confronted and neutralized. Thus, for example, in preparation for their ritual journey in search of the sacred híkuri (a cactus used in a festival), the Huichol of Mexico require that each person making the trip indicate the number of his lovers by tying the appropriate number of knots in a rope, which is then destroyed by fire. A similar operation is performed by the women who remain at home. The Zapotec symbolically knot up the sins of the year by tying blades of grass together two by two, soaking them in the blood of the penitent, and then offering them to a superhuman being. In ancient Babylonia, one finds the idea of sin as a knot that has to be undone by various divinities, such as Nergal, "lord of the untying." In Vedic India, it is the god Varuna who captures the guilty with his knotted lasso. In the Shinto purification ritual, a piece of paper (katashiro ) is cut out by the penitent, bound in bundles of wicker, and thrown into the flames.

The calculation of sacred and profane time can also be managed through the use of knots tied into a rope at set intervals. A mere glance at such a rope is enough to allow a person to comprehend a situation and act appropriately. Martin P. Nilsson has shown how various primal cultures use such ropes for measuring the duration of menstrual impurity (for example, the Nauru of the Gilbert Islands), the period during which justice should be administered (the Gogo of Tanzania), the period during which intertribal dances should be prepared (the Miwok of California), or the days to be dedicated to the celebration of a great festival (the Melanesians of the Solomon Islands).

In all these cases, knots are used to control a reality that is itself abstract, fluctuating, evanescent. Guilt, time, or fate itself, by being concretized in a knot, comes under the control of the person who ties it and who thereby resolves a given situation. But it is not only determinate problems that can be resolved through the use of knots and the control they give. The complexities of an entire empire can be made manageable thanks to the use of knotted ropes. This was the case in pre-Columbian Peru, where the use of knotted ropes called quipu as instruments for keeping records was essential for the orderly functioning of the Inca Empire. The use of the quipu made it possible for the quipu-camayoc (keeper of the quipu ) to manage the enormous mass of data collected by local officials and thereby keep tabs on the complex economic and military situation of the empire.

Moreover, in every period, in the most diverse types of civilization, technology strives not only to gain control over the world but also to enhance human creativity by providing humankind with new tools with which to confront life's difficulties. The fabrication of such implements, however, involves the binding, weaving, and knotting together of the most diverse materials. It is precisely the enormous importance of the technology of binding that stands behind the transposition of all its means and forms from the mundane to the sacred. Forms of transposition that are particularly widespread include the attribution of extraordinary value and power to knots in magical rites; the creation of the type of the "god who binds," armed with ropes, lassos, and nets; and above all, the development of the majestic conception of a universe created by means of the art of weaving.

In this regard, Eliade's concept of the woven cosmos requires further development. Eliade's study of the symbolism of knots went beyond the study of knots per se to investigate those cases in which the universal order is believed to be produced by various types of tying and weaving, in much the same way as one would produce a rope, a chain, or a net. Among the Babylonians, for example, the markasu (rope) was both the cosmic principle that unites all things and the divine power or law that provides the framework for the universe. Similarly, the Vedic prāa (breath) was believed to have woven human life (Atharvaveda 10.2.13), while vayu (air) bound all beings to each other like a thread (Bhadārayaka Upaniad 3.7.2). In China, the Dao, which was the ultimate principle of the universe, was described as the chain of all creation. Now it is precisely comparisons from the history of religions that teach that a motif of this type, far from being the distillate of an extremely sophisticated philosophical thought, is in fact an image of great antiquity, sinking its roots beneath the higher civilizations into the traditional patrimony of primitive peoples.

Indeed, the conception of creation as a wholeboth the cosmic order and humanity's place within itas the product of some type of binding activity, whether of knotting, tying, twining, or weaving, is quite widespread. One finds, for instance, in the origin myths of several primal cultures the conception of the creator as a spider who weaves the universe just as a normal spider weaves its web. Similarly, specific forms of ropes or bonds are sometimes assigned cosmic functions. The rainbow, for example, can be interpreted as the belt with which the supreme being fastens his robe, as among the western Galla. Among the Witóto of Colombia, the "thread of a dream" binds together a creation that is believed to emerge out of nothingness. The Maidu of south-central California believe that a superhuman being once descended beneath the waters to procure the soil needed for creation by means of a rope woven of feathers. The Nootka of Vancouver Island and the Polynesians of Hoa Island relate that the light of the sun, having taken on the form of a basket, is lowered down to the earth by means of a rope. In a similar vein, the cosmogonic myths of various peoples of California tell of how, in a primordial epoch, the sea was put into a wicker container (the Salina), the world was sewn together like a small, tarred reed basket (the Yuki), or the entire universe took shape through the patient work of weaving as though it were a knotted mat (the Wintu).

In this cosmos, structured and woven like fabric, the creator taught human beings to tie fibers to make ropes and lassos. In this way the wild and unruly clouds were captured and humans began to exert a degree of control over the climate (the Wintu). Similarly, bindings were used to control the sun at the time of origin of the universe, when it was either too hot or too cold, and therefore threatened humans, animals, and plants. The sun, caught in a trap like a lynx (the Chipewyan), half-tied like a slipknot (the Montagnais-Naskapi, the Alonquian Cree, the Ciamba of Nigeria), and captured in snares of various types (the Pende of the Kongo and the natives of the Gazelle Peninsula, Oceania, and Melanesia, as well as others), was forced to diminish or strengthen its rays, change its course, and settle into what must henceforth be its proper path. Neither could the moon avoid being caught with a rope and receiving thereby the spots that would forever mark it (the Naskapi). As for the stars, they are so high because one day the vine woven between earth and sky was cut in two (the Boróro of the Mato Grosso).

In this universe, variously knotted, tied, and woven, the differentiation of animals and humans likewise was the result of binding. When the rope that had permitted access to the celestial sphere was broken, the animals tumbled hopelessly to earth (the Boróro). And once on earth, their existence was determined by the activity of binding. The armadillo, for example, set about weaving the "shirt" that would belong to it, and it is because it hurried too much and tied stitches of unequal size, now small and thick, now large and broad, that it looks the way it does today (the Aymara of Bolivia). The trout, for its part, while still in the hands of its creator felt drawn to its own fate so that it lamented and despaired, crying out for a net in which it could make its first appearance on earth (the Athapascan-speaking Kato).

As for human beings, bonds characterize their very existence in the details of their own body and in the countless components of the human condition. The Pomo of north-central California relate that Marunda created the first humans by weaving and knotting together his own hair, while among the Melanesians of the island of Mota this usage is associated with an archetypal woman named Ro Vilgale ("deceptive bond") who is created from twigs, branches, and leaves woven and knotted together, much like the masks of a Melanesian secret society in historical times. Alternatively, primordial man may descend to earth by means of a skein let down from the sky (the Toba Batak of Indonesia) or a rope (the Carisi of Brazil, the natives of Belau [Palau]). The breaking of this rope, sometimes due to the clumsiness of the person who wove it, brings about human mortality (the Keres of New Mexico, the natives of Belau), and the resulting fall causes the articulation of the human body into joints or knots (the Carisi). In order to cover human nakedness, the superhuman beings who preside over weaving gave these first humans cotton and taught them to spin and to weave (the Caduveo of South America, the Ifugao of the Philippines). To provide them with various necessities, they also taught them the art of weaving wicker (the Pomo).

At a certain point, however, humans themselves became capable of using bonds to improve their own economic condition by capturing superhuman beings and forcing them to yield to their demands. A myth from Namoluk Island (Micronesia) tells how certain spirits, captured with a net, taught the cultivation of taro to those who until then had lived exclusively on fish. Stories are also told among numerous cultures of humanity's rescue from various cataclysms by means of specific products of binding: the net of the spider (the Pomo), a basket (the Wiyot of Algonquin language), and so on.

From this brief survey, it should be clear that knots and other types of bonds need to be studied not only in historical perspective but also in relation to the technology of the culture in question. Behind the motif of knots is found the exaltation of homo faber, who redeems himself from the infinite miseries and multitudinous limitations of his existential condition precisely by means of his ability to bind things together. It is he who catches spirits in nets, weaves the rope that permits him to live on earth, sets snares and traps in order to capture the stars and fix them in their course, weaves the basket in which he saves himself from the floodin short, spins and weaves the mortal condition. In his full appreciation of manual ability as a creative force, in his elevation of this creativity to the cosmogonic level, and in his sublimation of his own work by means of implements and tools capable of controlling reality, humankind proves itself capable of binding and loosening the entangling and knotty problems that fill his existence: He shows himself to be the uncontested artificer of his own fate.

See Also

Binding; Labyrinth; Webs and Nets.


Three works discuss the theme of knots and the binding action central to it: James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, 3d ed., rev. and enl., vol. 3, Taboo and the Perils of the Soul (London, 1911); Isidor Scheftelowitz's Das Schlingen- und Netzmotiv im Glauben und Brauch der Völker (Giessen, 1912); and Walter J. Dilling's "Knots," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 7 (Edinburgh, 1914). More detailed approaches are taken by Georges Dumézil in Ouranos-Varuna (Paris, 1934) and Mitra-Varuna (Paris, 1940) and by Mircea Eliade in Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism (New York, 1961).

Concerning the use of knotted ropes, the Peruvian quipu and art of weaving are the subject of P. Matthey's "Gli esordi della scienze" and Enrica Cerulli's "Industrie e techniche," both in Ethnologica, vol. 2, Le opere dell'uomo, edited by Vinigi L. Grottanelli (Milan, 1965). Martin P. Nilsson discusses the measurement of time with the aid of knotted ropes in Primitive Time-Reckoning (Lund, 1920), pp. 320ff. On the use of ropes in the confession of sins, see Raffaela Pettazzoni's La confessione dei peccati, vol. 1 (1929; reprint, Bologna, 1968), and on the use of knots in divination, see William A. Lessa's "Divining by Knots in the Carolines," Journal of Polynesian Society 68 (June 1959): 188204. For a discussion of the metaphor of the universe as something woven, see Pettazzoni's well-documented study Miti e leggende, 4 vols. (Turin, 19481963).

New Sources

Dupré, Louis. Symbols of the Sacred. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2000. A study on the nature of religious symbols.

Faraone, Christopher A. Talismans and Trojan Horses. Guardian Statues in Ancient greek Myth and Ritual. New York and Oxford, 1992. Knots and knotted chords as prophylactic devices in ancient magic.

Humphrey, Caroline. Shamans and Elders. Experience, Knowledge, and Power among the Daur Mongols. Oxford, 1996. Knots in shamanic performances.

Lurker. "Knoten." In Wörterbuch der Symbolik. Stuttgart, Germany, 1983, p. 50. Bibliography.

McKenna, Megan. Praying the Rosary. New York, 2004. A theological and historical guide to symbols related to rosaries in Catholicism and various religious traditions using knots in praying.

Meuli, Karl. "Die gefesselten Götter." In Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, Basel and Stuttgart, 1975, pp. 10351081. A classic study on binding symbolism throughout ancient Mediterranean traditions.

Giulia Piccaluga (1987)

Translated from Italian by Roger DeGaris
Revised Bibliography