Knot magic, or the magic or invocation which is accompanied by the tying or undoing of a knot is known from many cultures and religions. In basic terms, the tying of a knot captures, binds or retains something, the undoing of it releases. A particular intention or desire is captured as the knot is tied, usually by the practice of speaking the purpose aloud so that the breath passes through the loop of the knot as it is pulled tight, sealing the intention inside the knot and trapping it within.
In historical reference, the Romans used knot tying to tie images of lovers to keep a couple together, solemn oaths were made to deities whilst tying a knot to symbolise that oath and the binding of an individual to it. In Norse, Roman and Greek mythology there are groups of characters who weave, cut and knot the threads of the lives of mortal beings, to bind them into a tapestry of life. The Gordian Knot was cut by Alexander the Great, as a symbol of the establishment of a new rule (Lynn E. Roller, “Midas and the Gordian Knot”, Classical Antiquity 3.2 (October 1984:256-271))
Knots are prevalent in wedding lore, where the uniting of two individuals is called ‘tying the knot’. From the Dark Ages to the 18th Century, it was forbidden to tie a knot on someone’s wedding day, as it would prevent a true union between a bride and groom. The most frequent knot magics were used by sailors. “Wind knots” were three knots made in a string, rope, or rag and sold to sailors. If a sailor were to untie one knot, he would get a moderate wind. If he should untie 2 knots, the wind would blow half a gale. To untie all 3 knots would have caused a hurricane.( JG Frazer 1963 The Golden Bough Collier Books)
In Russia, knot magic was once very common. There are written accounts of the many types of knot spells including an 8 double-knot curse to use against an enemy in which wool yarn was used. As each double-knot was made, these words were spoken:
“1. I go out onto the road, 2. I throw into the open field, 3. into the distance, 4. between the homesteads, 5. into the fields, 6. into the seas, 7. into the forest, 8. into the quaking bag.”
This cord was then left in a place where its intended victim would step on it. (WF Ryan 1999 The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic In Russia. The Pennsylvania State University Press)
The Egyptians also had uses for knot magic. One of the primary symbols of the Egyptian religion, the buckle of the girdle of Isis, is in the shape of a knot. It represented the preserving and protective power of the words and the blood of Isis, goddess of magic, and was used to bind evil. In the shape of an amulet, it was hung around the neck of the dead inscribed with the words: “The blood of Isis, and the strength of Isis, and the words of power of Isis shall be mighty to act as powers to protect this great and divine being, and to guard him from him that would do unto him anything that he holds in abomination.” (E. A. Wallis Budge, 2003 Egyptian Magic Kessinger Publishing). The symbol is also known as the ‘Knot of Isis’ which represeted feminine fertility. As an amulet it was often made from red glass or red stone and worn by women.
Cornelius Agrippa made several references to the classical lore of knot magic in his series called Occult Philosophy. In Book I, Chapter 41, he wrote about a witch who was mentioned by the Roman writer Apuleius (2nd century AD) in his novel The Golden Ass. The witch attempted to attract the love of a young man by tying what she believed to be his hair into knots and burning it: “she ties those hairs into knots, and lays them on the fire, with divers odours to be burnt…”
In Book I, Chapter 73, Agrippa makes reference to the Roman poet Virgil: “I walk around/ First with these threads, in number which three are, /’Bout the altars thrice I shall thy image bear.” On the same subject, he quoted again from Virgil: “Knots, Amaryllis, tie! of colours three/ Then say, these bonds I knot, for Venus be.” The references are to Virgil’s eighth Ecologue. Virgil wrote: “Amaryllis, in three knots three colours weave; weave them, Amaryllis, pray, and say these words; ‘Venus bands I weave.'”
In Scotland, ‘venus bands’ are mentioned in the words of Gavin Douglas as a binding placed on King Harts men by ‘fair invaders’:
While “in ane studie starand still they stude,” these gentle knights are encountered by one of Queen Hart’s maids of honour, Fair Calling, who
———both thair reynes cleikit in hir hands;
Syn to her castell raid, as she war woide,
And festinit up thir folkis in Venus’ bands.
King Hart sends out two more parties on the same errand; but, these also being bewitched and led away by the fair invaders, the king himself “up starts in proper ire and tein,”
And baldlie bad his folk all with him ryce.
This “courtlie king” and his “comlie ost” sally forth;
And out thai blew with brag and mekle bost,
That lady and hir lynnage suld he lost.
(DH Radcliffe (Ed.) 1821 – 1822 Lives of Scottish Poets, T Boys, London)
Modern mathematicians still study knots, with a single circular loop being known as an unknot. If you take a cord and knot it before linking the ends together, you get a true knot in which the cord loops and crosses itself. The simplest possible knot, called a trefoil, has three crossings.
Mathematicians started to describe all the different kinds of knots more than 100 years ago. They now know there are exactly 1,701,936 knots with 16 or fewer crossings. Along the way, however, they were fooled again and again. Sometimes two knots looked different, but were really the same. Other times, something that looked like a knot was really an unknot. To keep from getting fooled, mathematicians looked for formulas that would serve as shortcuts for telling a knot from an unknot and one knot from another. They’re still looking for a single formula that covers all possible knots. There’s a good article on Matter, Knots and Magic in the 1870‘s Here
But happily out of mathematics and back to the pagan practical applications: the most traditional cord or knot words that I have come across are the ones below, there are some variations:
By this knot of one the spell has begun.
By this knot of two it comes true.
By this knot of three it must be.
By this knot of four it’s empowered more.
By this knot of five the power thrives.
By this knot of six this spell I fix.
By this knot of seven ’tis manna from heaven.
By this knot of eight it is my fate.
By this knot of nine my desire is mine
Once you have finished tying, you can either untie one knot for the nine consecutive days afterwards, cut each knot, throw the whole cord into moving water, burn or bury it. If you do bury it or release it into water, have consideration that you choose a degradable material to work with.
Theres a good chapter on knot magic here , from the book Earth Power: techniques of natural magic by Scott Cunningham.
The Fortean Times has recently published an article on plaits, or knots appearing in horses manes overnight. (FT259 march 2010) There’s also a news article about it here . The police are now understanding the widespread phenomena not to be a marker for future horse thievery but as part of a benign pagan ritual, they did consult a pagan witch on the subject, who said in the FT article “Some people play at Satanism and this may be related to people messing about, but it is worrying if people think it is related to paganism – we have a bad enough press as it is”. The FT article mentions a Southern American diminutive folklore figure called El Duende who in the course of his temporary horse thievery for the night, plaits the mane “to make a stirrup for his foot”. (Unknown Hominids and new World Legends) . Closer to home, Shakespeare would have been in no doubt who was responsible:
“This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes”
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, scene iii, lines 88-89)
So if you do happen across one, resist the temptation to undo it…