Long ago, when sailors navigated by the stars, when seabirds carried the spirits of sailors lost at sea, and when everyone knew that the bust of a naked woman on the bow of a ship could calm rough waters, a sailor would carry a cord with three knots. Bound in each was the wind itself.
As a writer, I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” After three historical romance novels, a novella, a play, and several print and online magazine articles, I’ve learned to recognize the fertile soil where ideas grow. Several years ago, when one of my couples, Chelsea and Bill, told me they loved sailing and that their ceremony would be held on the waterfront of the historic seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, I got an idea.
Thanks to another project I’m working on, I have a small library of books on maritime lore. With a little research, I selected the knots I wanted to use in the wedding. I watched videos on YouTube to learn how to tie them. The first two were easy. The knot in the shape of a heart proved more challenging.
I practiced with ribbon, clothesline rope, and shoelaces. Finally, with a rustic heart in hand, I went to Home Depot. I explained my situation to one of the clerks. He enlisted help from another. Together, they found the perfect rope — flexible with a white pearl finish appropriate for a wedding.
On the day of the wedding, I met with the three people Chelsea and Bill had selected to participate in the ritual. I gave each a pre-fashioned knot and a card with a corresponding blessing for the bride and groom.
Here’s how I introduced the ritual during the ceremony:
Here in Mystic Seaport, the history and lore of sailing surrounds us. Knots are a big part of that world. We associate knots with sailors, but they aren’t the only people known for tying knots. Knots are a part of our lives, too. We tie ribbons in hair, cord on packages, and laces on shoes. Some knots are for utility, some for beauty.
It was the same in the Old World, too. Back then, when a sailor put out to sea, he carried a knot he had tied on a windy day. Should he veer from the Tradewinds and get stuck on the doldrums without wind to fill his sails, he would untie the knot and free the wind.
When sailors embarked on ocean voyages that kept them away from home for years, many of them carried a sea bag for what they called “fancy work.” With findings from exotic ports of call, they would string shells, carve wood, and etch whalebone. When the voyage ended and the sailors returned to their home port, they had belts and bracelets, rings and hair ornaments — gifts for family and friends, particularly for a sweetheart. When a wedding followed, there would be more gifts.
In fact, for as long as couples have gotten married, friends and family have shown their support by giving gifts. Couples today might receive anything from a kitchen blender to a crystal bowl. In earlier times, wedding gifts symbolized qualities desired in a marriage. Harkening back to those days, and in honor of our groom’s love of boating and our bride’s love of the beach, I now invite the presentation of three special gifts, three special knots.
As with all of the gifting rituals I’ve created, this is when the presenters come forward, one at a time, and present their gifts. In this ritual, each presenter held the knot so the guests could see it, read the blessing, then placed the knot on a small table in the ceremony space. Here are the three knots and their corresponding blessings:
First, the Arbor Knot. The Arbor Knot is used to tie new line to the reel. As you begin your new life as a married couple, the arbor knot is the first knot you need to learn. It’s made of two ordinary, everyday, overhand knots. It’s easy to learn and doesn’t have to be fancy to work. May this knot always hold your hearts with love.
Second, the Lovers’ Knot. The Lovers’ Knot holds two halves together equally and prevents either one of them from fraying. May this knot always hold your hearts with love.
Finally, the Marriage Knot. The Celtic Marriage Knot creates a weave of several paths into the shape of a heart. The pattern represents the idea that when two people independent and whole unto themselves are joined by love, the weave they create makes them stronger and more beautiful together than either was before. May this knot always hold your hearts with love.
If the couple wanted to add a fourth knot, they could use the Double Fisherman’s Knot, sometimes called a Grapevine Knot. The blessing could say, This knot is often used in search-and-rescue missions, making it ideal for the inevitable times in a long marriage when one spouse rescues the other in some way. May this knot always hold your hearts with love.
Another option is the Sailor’s Breastplate. It’s the ideal knot for joining two lines that are too big or too stiff to be shaped into other, more common, knots. The beauty of the Sailor’s Breastplate is that even when carrying a heavy load, even after being soaked in water, it won’t jam. That makes it the ideal knot for a couple marrying later in life, when both are set in their ways. The knot is also good for a couple of whatever age carrying a particularly heavy burden of some kind.
When presenting a knot in a wedding ritual, the goal isn’t to give a lecture. The goal is to express symbolism for a wedding. Look for aspects of the knot that suggest joining, symmetry, strength, and trust.
Knots for a New Business Partnership
The symbolism I’ve talked about for the arbor knot (simplicity), the lovers’ knot (fidelity), the marriage knot (beauty), the double fisherman’s knot (rescue), and the sailor’s breastplate (strength) make these knots ideal to ritualize a business partnership or other cooperative venture.
A ritual is simply a visible act performed with invisible intent. If you’re starting a new project — a book, a painting, a journey, bind your invisible commitment into a visible knot.
The mindful use of knots goes back through time and can be found all over the world. Common in many tales of folk magic is the belief that energy can be bound by tying a knot, and released by untying a knot.
Some cultures tied knots for love spells. Some believed that tying knots would prevent pregnancy and that untying the knots would make it easier to conceive. Disclaimer. I can’t vouch for either of those claims!
Weavers would knot their fringe to confuse evil spirits fond of unbound threads. I suspect that temptation of the unbound was also behind the mandates in some cultures and religions forbidding women to cut their hair, yet insisting it be bound in braids or buns.
Knots, Sex, and Responsibility
We’ve all seen the movies in which a woman unbraids her hair, or removes pins and combs to let her hair fall freely. That’s often the sign that sex or danger or both are coming next.
Imagine a man living in a strict, sexually repressed society. He sees a woman letting down her hair. He becomes aroused and acts on his desire in some way. When guilt and remorse follow, he blames the woman. If she hadn’t unbound her hair, he wouldn’t have been seduced into acting as he did. She released the storm that overpowered him. His actions are her fault. That storyline could be contemporary or historical.
Magical Knots and Sailors
In historical times, such thinking also made it easy for a sailor to believe that a woman, a magic woman, had the power to snare the wind and bind it into a knot.
Such a woman might be eager to sell a cord with three powerful knots to a desperate sailor about to go to sea for the first time. She’d make the first knot to free a gentle zephyr, the second to release a strong gale, and the third to unchain a tempest.
Postponing Your Wedding?
A special note for couples postponing their wedding because of Covid-19. My Life-Cycle Celebrant colleague, Karla Combres, has written a blog post about the why and how couples should mark their postponed wedding date with ritual. You can find it here.
Divorce and Untying Knots
Finally, I’m working on a podcast episode featuring a ritual for divorce. The ritual taps into the power that is released when a knot is untied. To be sure you don’t miss it, simply subscribe to Ritual Recipes wherever you get your podcasts.
In the meantime, you can contact me by phone: (860-402-4231) or email: Zita@RitualRecipes.net