BINDING . The motif of binding is widespread in the history of religions, in both the so-called primitive religions and in the religions of both ancient and modern higher civilizations. Its many, complex transpositions, often quite original, vary according to the cultural milieu and the historical moment of which they are the expressions.
Drawing on extraordinarily rich examples taken from the most diverse civilizations, phenomenologists of religion have called attention to the enormous sacred potential that is polarized around acts of physical and symbolic binding, to the concretization of this potential in the form of knots, and to the importance of the opposing act of loosening a bond. In many traditional cultures, important mythical events are believed to be the result of the fastening or loosening of bonds. Actions of binding and loosing frequently occur at the center of rituals, both cultic rituals that involve superhuman beings, and autonomous rituals that are efficacious in themselves, such as the so-called rites of passage, rites of purification, and, above all, magic.
The agents of these actions of binding and loosing vary according to circumstances. They may be superhuman beings of the most diverse kinds, whether located at the time of origins (as, for example, the creator, the first man, the dema, the trickster, the culture hero, the totemic ancestor, and so on), or believed to be still acting in the present (as, for example, the supreme being, the earth mother, fetishes, spirits, ancestors, polytheistic gods, or the god of monotheistic religions). Or it may be ordinary mortals who bind and loose, especially those who belong to a specialized sacred group (priests, shamans, wizards, magicians, etc.). The materials with which the bond is made are extremely diverse but generally may be distinguished as either concrete or abstract. Equally numerous are the ends that the binding or loosing action is intended to serve, whether positive or negative. This variety has been well illustrated in the works of Arnold van Gennep, Gerardus van der Leeuw, and Mircea Eliade.
Scholarly interest in binding began in the first half of the nineteenth century, when scholars such as Jacob B. Listing (1847) and Peter Guthrie Tait (1879) became interested in the question of knots. It was James G. Frazer, however, who finally brought the problem to the attention of historians of religion in the first decade of the present century. In the wake of his studies of the concept of taboo and the binding action it exercised, Frazer (1911) saw the need to broaden the scope of his research to include the special type of restraint constituted by the bond as such, its varieties and its functions. Given Frazer's predominant interest in magic, it is not surprising that he interpreted bonds as magical impediments. Despite the problems involved with such an emphasis on the magical—itself inadequately conceived as prior to or even opposed to religion—Frazer's work had the merit of interpreting sacred bonds in terms of the specific historical circumstances in which they are found, showing that the significance of a bond is relative to the positive or negative nature of what it restrains. This latter aspect of Frazer's work unfortunately left little trace in the works of his successors, such as Isidor Scheftelowitz (1912) and Walter J. Dilling (1914). Today this historical dimension to the study of bonds and binding, initially opened up by the great English scholar, remains to be developed.
The less positive side of Frazer's theory, namely the emphasis on magic, has by contrast provided the direction for more recent studies. This can be seen in the case of Georges Dumézil. Dumézil's researches, carried out in the 1930s, were based upon studies of deities of the Vedic religion of ancient India, Varuṇa most especially, but also Mitra, Vṛtra, Indra, Yama, and Nirṛti. These deities were believed to possess snares or at least to be endowed with the ability to bind their enemies and ensnare evil human beings. Accepting the thesis of the magical value of binding in toto and uncritically, Dumézil identified a structure of magical binding within the royal function of ancient Indo-European culture, a function that was itself associated with magic.
Dumézil's findings were based largely on Indo-European cultures. A decade later, however, Eliade, in an elegant effort to reinterpret Dumézil's conclusions, demonstrated the presence of what he called the "binding complex" in other civilizations as well, both higher civilizations (for example, in the Semitic world) and in primitive ones, and on several different planes: cosmological, magical, religious, initiatory, metaphysical, and soteriological. Although he initially followed the Frazer-Dumézil line, Eliade soon departed from it, distancing himself from the conflicts over the presumed necessity of interpreting every binding action exclusively in terms of magic or in strict accordance with French trifunctionalism. Beyond the diverse historical forms assumed by the binding motif in the most diverse cultural surroundings, Eliade attempted to identify an archetypal form of binding that would find different realizations on an infinite variety of levels. In the process, he demonstrated that it was possible to interpret the various forms of binding in nonmagical terms. At the same time, however, his work was indicative of the problematic status that the question of binding continues to have in historical comparative studies. Although there are particular studies concerning this or that type of sacred bond that are founded on a rigorously historical basis, in general the scholarly world continues to address the issue merely on the phenomenological level, thereby leaving the question of the historical foundations of the binding motif unresolved.
On the properly historical level, however, it seems possible, and indeed necessary, to establish the precise relation between the sacred value of the bond and the type of reality that lies at the origin of this value; to explain why such a phenomenon arises, and under what circumstances.
The fact that sacred bonds are known in even the most archaic cultures suggests that we should seek an answer to these questions in primitive societies before confronting them on the level of higher civilizations, with their more abstract symbolism. To take only one example, an observation made by Raffaele Pettazzoni in his comparative study of the confession of sins contributes more to our understanding of the "snares" used by the Vedic god Varuṇa than does the sophisticated tri-functional theory of Dumézil. Pettazzoni noted how often primitive peoples try to concretize their sins in the form of knots, tied in various kinds of material (ropes, lianas, vegetable fibers, etc.). He went on to interpret the Vedic motif of binding as "the primitive idea of evil-sin as a fluid wrapping the sinner like the meshes of a net" (La confessione dei peccati, vol. 1, Bologna, 1929, p. 230).
It is characteristic of the religions of primitive peoples that sacred bonds, of whatever type they may be and whatever their function, are viewed in a way that is not at all dissimilar to the normal, concrete bonds used in the most varied circumstances of everyday life: the means by which a shaman attempts to "capture" the soul of a sick person to bring it back to the body is an ordinary lasso, of the type ordinarily used to stop a running animal or to prevent it from straying off. Similarly, among the Aranda, an ordinary rope represents the means by which the Tjimbarkna demons tie up at night men whom they want to harm. Akaanga, the lord of the dead for the Aranda inhabitants of Harvey Island, Australia, is believed to capture the deceased by means of a real net, of the kind used by fishermen. There are many such examples.
The same parallel between sacred and ordinary bonds is found in the mythologies of primitive peoples. Here the lassos, traps, nets, and so forth, with which the sun, moon, or clouds are captured, or with which one snares the spirits, are the same as those with which on other occasions poles are tied together in the construction of a hut, wild animals are captured, and fish caught. There is nothing extraordinary in these bonds, except for the increase in power that their use normally confers on the person who employs them.
These facts should lead us to reflect on the enormous importance that fibers used for weaving and spinning, ropes, lassos, nets, and other means of binding have for peoples with a technology that is still at a rudimentary level. Such simple materials and implements are needed for the capture and domestication of animals, and for making weapons, garments, utensils, containers, pottery, and so on. These are the tools and instruments by which the labor potential of homo faber can be significantly increased beyond its natural limits, so as to enable the social group to establish greater control over reality, especially over those sectors that most closely concern economic interests and that would otherwise be too difficult to master. There is nothing strange, therefore, in the constant tendency of primitive cultures to transpose the techniques and the tools used to perform a binding action onto a superhuman level. The main goal of this transposition is to strengthen their supposedly extraordinary nature and to place their beneficial effects under the care of the supernatural beings who are often believed to be the source of these marvels. In this way their use can also be protected from possible risks by means of appropriate ritual practices.
Spinning and weaving provide numerous examples of such transposition. These techniques in particular involve the activity of binding and tying (one thinks of the countless loops, weaves, and knots to be found in even a tiny piece of fabric). For example, among the Bambara of Mali, the spindle and the batten, originally the possessions of Faro, the lord of the waters, were granted by him to human beings, whom he also instructed in their use. Thus the first work of a weaver cannot be used, but must be thrown into the river in honor of the superhuman being. The Dogon, on the other hand, link the invention of spinning and weaving directly with the myth of the origin of the world. Among the Ashanti various sacred precautions are taken to protect weaving. It is usually exclusively reserved for men, or else for women who have passed menopause; the work cannot be begun or finished on Friday, the day on which, according to tradition, the use of weaving had been introduced into the land; menstruating wives of weavers must not touch the loom or speak to their husband for the entire duration of the period of impurity; and in the case of adultery with another weaver, a goat must be sacrificed on the loom. In the so-called weaving schools found among the Maori of New Zealand, the technical procedures and the sacred practices are taught at the same time. The sacred practices must be scrupulously observed throughout the work in order to increase the weaver's skill. Weavers must be initiated into the profession by a priest, and are required to follow various alimentary taboos and protect their work from the harmful gaze of strangers, in order to prevent the loss of their own inventiveness and mastery.
In addition to spinning and weaving, other specific binding actions, such as the working of fibers and wicker to produce ropes, baskets, nets, traps, and so forth, are projected onto the sacred plane. In the beginning they are the exclusive property of superhuman beings of various kinds, who decide at a certain point to transmit the practice to human beings. The Athapascan-speaking Wailaki of northwestern California relate that the culture hero Kettanagai taught people to weave ropes, baskets, and fishing nets after the flood. Among the Diegueño of southern California the art of working wicker through weaving was included in the comprehensive knowledge that exploded from the head of the primordial serpent and spread throughout the world. The Hopi, for their part, maintain that Spider Woman, a superhuman being connected for several reasons with spiders, and who had directly collaborated in creation, taught the Indians to spin and weave cotton. Among the eastern Pomo (north central California), Marunda first created men by weaving his own hair and, immediately thereafter, wicker; he then taught the art of working wicker to humanity.
The ever closer relationship that is being established by the comparative history of religions between the sphere of work and the sphere of the sacred in the explanation of the activity of binding may furnish us with the possibility of going back to quite precise and concrete historical roots, and to the corresponding economic substrata of all types of bonds, temporarily bypassing the complex and sophisticated symbolism with which they are often associated in higher civilizations. This more complex symbolism, once condemned to obscurity through the now outmoded label of "magical," may itself finally find a more fitting, definite, and substantial clarification.
Thus we may expect to find that behind the "snares" so skillfully manipulated by this or that god in the Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, or Semitic areas (zones with a pastoral economy in antiquity) in order to prevent deviations from the just order of things stand the actual snares (or lassos) with which the society of primitive stockbreeders, during their continual migrations in search of new pastures, maintained control over their herds, the almost unique source of their subsistence. Snares stood, therefore, as a precious guarantee of the proper course of reality.
For research on the extent to which binding is associated with religious activity, three works dating from the 1910s are still indispensable: James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, 3d ed., rev. & 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). Rich in examples of the use of sacred bonds are Arnold van Gennep's Les rites de passage (Paris, 1909), translated as The Rites of Passage (Chicago, 1960); Gerardus van der Leeuw's Phänomenologie der Religion (Tübingen, 1933), translated as Religion in Essence and Manifestation, rev. ed. (New York, 1963); and Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958). More detailed studies are two now-classic works of Georges Dumézil, Ouranós-Váruna (Paris, 1934) and Mitra-Varuṇa, 4th ed. (Paris, 1948), and Mircea Eliade's "The 'God Who Binds' and Symbolism of Knots," in his Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism (New York, 1961), chap. 3.
Reinterpretations of the concept of magic in rigorously historical terms can be found in Il mondo magico, by Ernesto de Martino (Turin, 1948), and in Magia: Studi di storia delle religioni in memoria di Raffaela Garosi, edited by Paolo Xella et al. (Rome, 1976). Enrico Cerulli discusses the sublimation at the sacred level of the arts of spinning and weaving in "Industrie e tecniche," in Ethnologica, vol. 2, Le opere dell'uomo, edited by Vinigi Grottanelli (Milan, 1965). On the theme of binding action and bonds, see both Raffaele Pettazzoni's Miti e leggende, 4 vols. (Turin, 1948–1963), and G. M. Mullett's Spider Woman Stories (Tucson, 1979).
Giulia Piccaluga (1987)
Translated from Italian by Roger DeGaris
bind·ing / ˈbīnding/ • n. 1. a strong covering holding the pages of a book together. ∎ fabric such as braid used for binding the edges of a piece of material. 2. (also ski binding) a mechanical device fixed to a ski to grip a ski boot, esp. either of a pair used for downhill skiing that hold the toe and heel of the boot and release it automatically in a fall. 3. the action of fastening, holding together, or being linked by chemical bonds: the binding of antibodies to cell surfaces. • adj. (of an agreement or promise) involving an obligation that cannot be broken: business agreements are intended to be legally binding.