A Sunday Homily
Marriages around the world have a great many traditions. One of my favorites involves The Irish Claddagh Ring, which is one of the most widely known traditions around the world. The ring incorporates a set of hands representing friendship, holding a heart which represents love, and a crown on top of the heart to represent loyalty. It originated in the Irish fishing village of Claddagh, located just outside the old city walls of Galway, now part of Galway City.
According to Irish author Colin Murphy, the way in which a Claddagh ring was worn describes the wearer’s relationship status:
- On the right hand with the point of the heart toward the fingertips, the wearer is single and may be looking for love.
- On the right hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist, the wearer is in a relationship.
- On the left hand with the point of the heart toward the fingertips, the wearer is engaged.
- On the left hand with the point of the heart toward the wrist, the wearer is married.
The first records of production put the creation of Claddagh in the 17th Century. But the ring was not named the “Claddagh ring” until after the 1840s. There are several written accounts of the origins of the ring, each associate its creation with a famous Irish jeweler. None of which are particularly romantic and only one that I’d call interesting, but still not romantic.
There are however, various oral traditions that make up for that. One of my favorites relates the story to a Duke’s daughter and an unworthy yet rich suitor. It seems a young man of considerable wealth was traveling through Claddagh when he saw the most beautiful woman and instantly fell in-love with her on first site. Learning that she was the daughter of the local Duke, the young man asked for her hand in marriage. But the Duke refused as the traveling man was not of noble birth. The young man professed his love, promised his loyalty and friendship to the beautiful woman and her family. But again his proposal was refused. He then went to the local goldsmith and had a ring crafted to his specifications. The ring is to be made of the finest gold, with a crown to proclaim my loyalty as it sits upon a heart of love and held by the never ending hands of friendship. The young man presented the ring to the Duke and once again asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Impressed by the persistence and the expensive gift, the Duke relented and the young man married his beautiful sweetheart.
Long ago, a Handfasting was traditionally a ceremony to mark an engagement in Celtic Pagan lands. It lasted 1 year and a day, at which time the couple would decide if they should marry or not. Today, a Handfasting is synonymous with wedding. It’s a favored term for modern Pagans. Prior to the Supreme Court ruling all people can marry, it was also a favored term by the LGBTQ community as well.
The Wedding Knot – A Knotting Ritual
The Wedding Knot is also a tradition that has varying names. It is known as The Wedding Knot, The Binding Ritual, Rope Bonding, Being Knotted, or A Knotting. After learning some history in my research for this article, I kind of like calling it a Knotting. It’s kind of what it is and it sounds kewl to say. In my humble opinion.
Long before rings were exchanged in these union ceremonies, couples were joined by being tied together. Clasping hands or wrists together, couples were bound by rope, leather, clothing, a sash, vines or a variety of other items to symbolize their union. But where did it start? When did it start? Who started it? And how is it used today?
The History of Tying The Knot
The history of “tying the knot” is not certain by any means. The phrase itself, to symbolize the bond of wedlock, dates early in the 13th century according to Etymology of the phrase. But being “knotted” or celebrating a “knotting” can be traced back to the 12th century. The act itself most probably goes back much further than that since mankind has been using knots and rope for centuries and long before the development of modern or even old English.
It may have come from seamanship, or building and engineering feats such as those employed in Egypt for the Pyramids in the 4th century BC. It could even come from Asia and the Samurai through their use of rope to secure prisoners without knots. There are a variety of claims about where it started and how. It would be remissive not to look at the use of rope and knots in history to discover the clues in answering these questions.
Different varieties of knots would have been widely used by primitive cultures to form snares, nets and traps for capturing food. The construction of shelters and weapons, the making of clothing, the capability to move and pull heavy loads, all would have required sturdy and trustworthy knots to have been used.
One of the most prominent publications [about knots] to date is the ‘Ashley Book Of Knots’ (ISBN 0-385-04025-3), an encyclopedia of knots first published in 1944 by artist, author, sailor, and knot expert Clifford Warren Ashley (1881-1947). The book ..is seen by many as the ultimate knot bible. – Ropebook.com
It might be interesting to note that the knot recognized today as the “wedding knot” is actually a “binding knot” called “the reef knot”, according to Mr. Ashley.
[Knot] 1204. The Reef Knot or Square Knot consists of two half knots, one left and one right, one being tied on to the other and either being tied first. Captain John Smith gives the name Reef knot in 1627. …. It is also known as the True, Hard, Flat, Common, Regular, and Ordinary knot.
The Reef Knot is unique in that it may be tied and tightened with both ends. It is universally used for parcels, rolls and bundles. At sea it is always employed in reefing and furling sails, stopping cloths for drying. But under no circumstances should it ever be tied as a bend, for if tied with two ends of unequal size, or if one end is stiffer or smoother than the other, the knot is almost bound to spill. Except for it’s true purpose of binding, it is a knot to be shunned. – Page 220
I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a knot that’s not to be used for a long term marriage. In the classification of knots, the Wedding Knot is a Bend. A bend knot is a knot used to join two lengths of rope. Although the reef knot can be used in this way, it is insecure when used as a bend and so is not classed as one.
It’s probable that the Reef Knot became popular in modern wedding ceremonies because it is much easier to tie than the true wedding knot. Which is not only more difficult, but also takes much more time to tie.
[Knot] 1513. The Wedding Knot was a … method of lashing two eyes together. Both ends of the lashing were passed in round turns through the two eyes. When sufficient lashing turns had been taken the two ends were crossed in the center of the lashing and frapping turns taken, the ground turns were led away from the center, and the riding turns back to the center where the ends were reef knotted. The two halves of rope jackstay were bent together by this method. – Page 271
Yeah, got all that? The difficulty of this knot is one of the reasons you don’t see it very often in modern wedding ceremonies. But there’s more.
There’s the True-Lover’s Knot which comes in three forms. The True-Lover’s Knot #1 (#2420), which is commonly referred to as the Fisherman’s Knot. The True-Lover’s Knot #2 (#2421) and the False Lover’s Knot (#2422), which I’m not sure counts, but it’s listed by Ashley as one of the 3 Lover’s knots.
[Knot] 2420. The True-Lover’s Knot.
Also known as the English, Englishman’s Water, Waterman’s, Fisher’s and Fisherman’s Knot or Loop. It is perhaps the least pleasing to the eye of all True-Lover’s Knots, but it has a legend attached to it that more than makes up for any lack of symmetry in the knot itself.
The story was first told to me by Mrs. E. E. du Pont, who had heard it from a boatman in Sidney, N.S. It concerned a certain bash-ful sailor who could not screw up his courage to the point of inviting his girl to marry him. After some delay he sent her a True-Lover’s Knot tied in a piece of fishline and with the two knots wide apart. It transpires that, if the knot is returned as it was sent, the sailor will be welcomed when next he comes ashore, at which time he will still be on probation. If, how-ever, the knot is returned snugly drawn together, it means that, if he can’t borrow a boat with which to row ashore, he’d better swim, for it’s high time for the banns to be published. But if his knot should be capsized and nothing remain of it. it means: “You’d better ship around Cape Horn, and you can’t do it too soon to suit me.”
But the story has it that our sailor had shilly-shallied so long that his boat sailed codfishing before his girl had time to return his gift, so we don’t know what happened when he got back, or even whether he caught his boat.
[Knot] 2421 The True-Lover’s Knot
This again consists of two inter-locked overhaxd knots which form what is actually a two-strand Matthew Walker, and makes a very nice lanyard knot.
[Knot] 2422. The False-Lover’s Knot
The two knots are interlocked reversely; otherwise it is tied as ~2419. The knot has a character of its own and, appliqued in fiat braid, will make a good frog.
– Page 387.
Long ago a handfasting and marriage unions were agreements, or promises involving an obligation that cannot be broken. Exactly what a Binding Contract is between two parties. These unions had little to do with love and much more to do with contracts over property and inheritances. A brides dowry was always part of the bargain, which could include Titles, estates, position and valuable property. A contract is a binding agreement, thus using a “binding knot” almost makes sense. And it’s understandable how the Reef Knot became so popular with couples today. Not to mention it is a good looking knot.
But if we consider the energy held in a “binding” knot for a marriage is one that lasts, the Reef Knot may not be the best choice. Consequently one of the other popular knots used today, is the simple True-Lover’s Knot #1.
Rumor has it the first real documented use of knotting for wedlock appears in The Legend of St. Katherine. A fictional narrative of a virgin martyr from the early spread of Christianity. Here it is reported as being used in Middle English as ‘cnotte’ (knot) to mean ‘the tie or bond of wedlock; the marriage or wedding knot’. This claim has been copied and spread across the internet, citing the use from 1225 as the definitive evidence of the “tying the knot” origin. Problem is, this story doesn’t hold water. Let me explain my research here.
The Katherine of Alexandria legend exemplifies one of the most popular biographies of a saint. In this case the Saint is in the form of the virgin martyr. Her story is one of the trial and execution of a beautiful Christian woman who defies all authority to uphold her faith. Like most virgin martyrs, Katherine probably never existed: although her martyrdom is set in the early 4th century, the earliest mention of her dates from the 9th century, and a full account of her passion was not composed until the 11th century, all of which were written in Latin. Subsequent narratives were written by various Christian enthusiasts and transcended through most European languages of the time. The earliest English legend to cover Katherine’s life before her martyrdom was written in the Anglo-Norman dialect of French near the middle of the 14th century. John Capgrave’s life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria is the longest and most intricate Katherine legend written during the Middle Ages. And he didn’t pen his version until the late circa 1350s. – University of Rochester – Middle English Text Series
This Middle English account reported on the internet as 1225, would have occurred 200+ years earlier than Capgrave’s rendition. Long before he was even born. So where is it? Did someone make a mistake, or was this something made up? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t hold this account as a reliable source, when other accounts of the documentation of Katherine can be traced and can’t back up the 1225 claim.
Let’s not overlook the Samurai and their use of Shibari. To be fair, it’s worth the look and it too has been put forth as the source or Knotting rituals. Originally Shibari started out as a form of incarceration in Japan from 1400 to 1700. At that time, the local police and Samurai used it as a form of imprisonment. The rope was multi-functional and was used not only for binding prisoners, but also for hanging up armor, securing a saddle or tethering a horse.
Honor and respect were and still are, a huge part of Japanese culture. As such a criminal of any kind has disrespected his or her community and deserves no respect once captured and incarcerated. Shibari binds without knots. It’s an insult to be bound so securely that you can’t escape or sometimes even move, with a rope that has absolutely no knots. It’s a beautiful art form and it’s still used today. Albeit in a different form in adult bondage.
Because the popularity of this form of rope usage wasn’t in greater practice until the 1400s, it’s not likely to be our source for Marriage unions. That takes us back to Europe and to the Norse, Celts and pagans.
Pagan Knotting Traditions
It could be that the “original” source is oral tradition. Something widely honored in Celtic (Irish, Scottish or Welsh) and Norse practices. And both of which have a long standing history with using rope or various facsimiles in rituals and ceremonies. Whither it was a common theme or another tradition the Norse brought to Celtic lands, it’s more likely this “tying the knot” practice started in these Pagan Shamanistic communities of old.
Simply because it was put down on paper in England, doesn’t make it the first occurrence or place of origin for the practice. Considering the Norse were exceptional seafarers and traveled extensively long before their counterparts in Europe, their skills with knots could be the source we’re looking for. At the very least it adds credence to the notion that the knot tying may have originated with them.
Both the Norse and Celts share some wedding ritual traditions. For instance both incorporate Jumping out into the world as a married couple. For the Norse, the bride and groom may Jump the Sword, for the Celts its Jump the Broom. The Sword signifies security and protection, which is well suited for a masculine society like the Norse. The Broom signifies the home and hearth, which is appropriate for the feminine society of the early Celts.
Binding a husband and wife together with rope is a very symbolic gesture. That too is shared by both cultures. There’s symbology in all things from a shamanistic perspective. Even before and after the Druids, the Celtic lands were primarily Shamanistic societies. The Norse certainly were and still are. It is a way to bring union between our physical lives and the spirit of the world around us. Everything is connected and intertwined.
Both the Norse and the Celtics embraced that never ending knot in their art. It’s always flowing and interlaced, never has a beginning or end. It represents unity, the ins and outs of life, ancestors and new generations, passing on the important lessons. And a whole lot more.
Knots are often seen in circles in both cultures, because the circle is a sacred symbol. Everything in nature tries to become a circle. The year, the trees, even life itself is circular. These things didn’t go unnoticed to the early pagans. Honoring these symbols and using them daily brought opportunities to tell stories, share lessons and teach the next generations the knowledge they would need to survive in the tough life that lay ahead.
Using these symbols in sacred ceremonies would be common place and especially significant. Something as simple as holding hands is an intimate gesture between family, friends and loved ones. Holding someone’s hand shows affection, trust and compassion. It can signify an agreement of love, a promise of loyalty and fidelity, and a respect of friendship.
The ancient rituals involved tying cloths together, which could have been ceremonial sleeves, belts and other connecting garments. It may have involved a rope made of hemp, leather, vines or wool, braided and wrapped around the couple, or their wrists and hands.
There are numerous variations to bind a couple’s hands together. The practice consists of a blessing or reciting vows during the knotting. Traditionally 3 strands are braided together to represent the intertwining of the two individual lives into one. The length of the braid also varies, from 3 feet to 9 in length. 3 representing Mind/Body/Spirit, the Triple Goddess, the Groom, Bride and their Union and a number of other triple symbolic meanings. 9 feet is simply another variation of the triple energy concept and is popular in Norse traditions.
Which hands were bound together also varied. As did how long the couple remained bound. Some rituals bound the right hands and wrists, others the left and still others bound the opposite hands, left to right so the couple remained side by side during after ritual festivals. In some areas, the couple remained bound until the end of the feast. In others, until they were lead to the ‘wedding chamber’ to consummate their union. And still others the couple remained bound until the next morning.
Today we have a great many options for celebrating this old tradition. You have the choice of any material you wish, from nylon or cotton rope, to leather or ribbons that match the colors of the wedding party. Some florists are offering flowered vines for this ritual, or sashes made with fake flowers that can be used and kept as a keepsake.
Traditionally the “rope” is braided. Though many people opt for a single string of whatever they’ve chosen to use. A common theme today is for the rope to be 4 to 6 feet in length, but I suggest sticking to 6 or 9 feet to honor the triple presence of energy and the old ways.
Make sure the rope tying part of the ceremony is practiced and that the person officiating the wedding knows how to tie the knot desired for the ritual. This is one part of the ceremony you don’t want to fumble over.
Additionally some couples have chosen to have their parents tie the knot. I’ve had couples ask the Bride’s dad to tie the knot to symbolize the family handing their daughter to her new husband. I’ve had couples ask both Moms to tie the knot as a symbol of joining the families together as a whole. One particular variation I liked a great deal, a couple asked the oldest member of their combined family to tie the knot, to symbolize the respect for her wisdom and extending their family to the next generation.
The knotting is typically performed at the end of the ceremony, after rings have been exchanged, to officially or symbolically bind the couple together. This may not work for everyone. So it’s ok if the couple is bound in the beginning with the blessing recited over the ritual. Or in the middle if the couple wishes to recite their vows over the binding.
When and what kind of knot you use, is up to the couple. It’s their union, they should decide where it goes in the ceremony and what it is. But practice the ritual to make sure the placement of the binding is going to work through out the ceremony.
Once the binding has been completed, many people want to save the knot in some way. There are many ways to this from elaborate to simple. I officiated over a knotting ritual where the couple had a model of their hands made in plaster. After the ceremony, they placed the binding on the model. It was very lovely. Another couple asked for a simple bow for their Knotting. When removed, they placed it around a candle, and secured it in the wax. It too was quite beautiful.
What kind of knot is used is also up for grabs. There are knots commonly used in today’s rituals, but there are also symbols that aren’t really knots that are incorporated into rituals today.
1. The Reef Knot
The simple yet elegant Reef Knot is popular and can be decorated after the ceremony is over. It has become the go to knot for many couples and can be tied alone, or tied around the clasped wrists of the wedding couple. Learn more about Tying a Reef Knot at AnimatedKnots.com
2. The True-Lover’s Knot #1
Another popular go to knot, this Fisherman’s knot has a wonderful story to go along with the knot. You can learn more about Tying a Fisherman’s Knot at AnimatedKnots.com
3. The Wedding Knot
If you really want to stick with tradition, the Wedding Knot is for you. Good luck. I haven’t been able to find an animated how to for this one. I’ll keep looking though.
4. The Simple Bow Knot
The simple Bow is the knot you may use to tie your shoes. It is always a great and simple way to create a binding. And the good thing about it, nearly everyone knows how to tie this one.
Popular Knots That Aren’t Knots
Today many people want to incorporate symbols into their service. But these symbols aren’t really knots, and they don’t appear in Ashley’s Book of Knots. They are powerful and popular symbols that couples are incorporating into their wedding and handfasting rituals.
1. Feng Shui Mystic Knot
Being a combination of six times the infinity symbol, this feng shui knot symbolizes a long and happy life full of good fortune. Mystic knot is sometimes referred to as the endless knot, because it looks like it swallows its own tail. In Buddhism, the mystic knot is one of the 8 magical auspicious objects. Used as a marriage binding, a ribbon is wrapped around the hands of a couple in an infinity shape, eight times. You can learn more about Feng Shui Mystic Knot here.
2. The God’s Knot
This is a modern product designed specifically for weddings. Also known as the Cord of Three Strands. It’s not really a knot, but rather a product that allows the bride and groom to braid the 3 strands. The purple cord represents the groom, the white represents the bride and the gold represents “God”. So to me this is a Christian themed symbol. But it can be used by anyone of course. The couple braids the cords to represent their covenant to each other with or under God. This isn’t a recommendation, but if you’re interested you can buy this cord at GodsKnot.com
3. The Infinity Knot
What’s being called the Wiccan Infinity Knot, is the symbol of infinity. The cord is wrapped across your hands, one side loops around one partners hand, crosses under the hands of both, and loops again around the other partner’s hands and meets back on top to be tied in a simple bow. Learn more this knot at GaiasHandfasting.com.
4. The Triquetra
The triquetra symbol, also known as the Trinity Knot, has been found on rune stones in Northern Europe and on early Germanic coins. It presumably had pagan religious meaning and it bears a resemblance to the Valknut, a symbol associated with Odin. It is found in numerous works of art in the Celtic lands.
But it’s important to note, that it’s not really used as a knot. It represent the triple energy of many things, the Triple Goddess (maiden, mother, crone), the energy of the world, Land, Sea and Sky, it represents the Masculine, Feminine and Spirit, and it can represent the Mind/Body/Spirit and many more triple aspects. Learn more about the Triquetra at Wikipedia.
Numerous online wedding vendors sell ready-made and custom ribbons, ropes, braids and alike items for knotting rituals. But remember there is no “right” or official “traditional” way to perform this ritual. No one can claim the original source, so no one can say what’s right or wrong. Pick what works best for you and the ritual you’re officiating, or planning for yourself. It can be as meaningful as you want it to be, or as symbolic as you desire. Good luck!
© 2015 Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. Springwolf Reflections / Springs Haven, LLC. All Rights Reserved.