Lilinah's Introduction to Magic
Focus on the Near and Middle East

Chapter 6:
**** Knot Magic ****

Knotwork in Mesopotamian Magic

Numerous descriptions of methods of string and knot magic exist in the Mesopotamian record. For exorcism, to break ensorcelment ("dispelling"), or for healing, the magician had recourse to several options. First was to tie a particular number, usually odd, of slip knots in a cord, then pull each one to unknot it at strategic points in the ritual sequence, thus releasing the victim from the problem, all the while chanting or reciting a spell, invocation, or part of a myth. Occasionally it might be considered necessary to burn the cord afterwards. Second, the magician might tie a cord around the client's head, and/or the hands and/or feet, then cut off the cord(s) to release the problem. And in certain situations, the magician would recite a curse, knotting the cord while focusing on the source of the problem and chanting a spell, then he would bury the knotted cord to keep the curse in place.

Generally, the cord was spun from goat or sheep hair especially for a particular spell. Most often the cord was of black or white wool, or sometimes a bi-colored cord was plied of a black yarn and a white yarn. Sometimes the cord was red, or red yarn could be plied with black and/or white. On some occasions the cord was multicolored, although the spells do not specify which colors, assuming that the magician would know.

Among the Greeks, knots were believed to be able to stop the flow of blood, not because they were tied tightly as a tourniquet, but by their magical properties. In many Greek myths, undoing knots on board ship can call up the wind.

The Tzîtzîth, tassel or fringe on the four corners of the Jewish Tallit or prayer shawl, may well be survival of string magic, since they are wrapped and knotted in a certain pattern involving uneven numbers, and must be spun of white virgin wool. Coincidentally, the head-scarf of the Arab, which seems to me to be cousin to the Tallit, also has knotted tassels in each of its four corners.


For references, see bibliography

1. A prescription for healing some disease or plague
After the recital of a long chant the sorcerer makes a small figure of the patient in clay, and then binds "the hair of a white goat and the hair of a black goat" round his head [either 2 cords, one black and one white, or a single bicolored cord]. The clay figure is then laid on his body, the Incantation of Ea is performed, and the patient's face is then turned to the west, and by these means the evil influence is removed."
Thompson, Semitic Magic, p. 161-162.
2. A spell of sympathetic magic in the sixth tablet of the Shurpu series
Directions for removing an inpurity from a person, by binding to his limbs a double cord of black and white threads which has been twisted on a spindle.
He hath turned his [steps?] to a Temple-woman
Ishtar hath sent her Temple-woman,
Hath seated the wise woman on a couch,
That she may spin white and black wool into a double cord,
A strong cord, a mighty cord, a two-colored cord on a spindle,
A cord to overcome the Ban:
Against the evil course of human Ban,
Against a divine curse,
A cord to overcome the Ban.
He hath bound it on the head,
On the hand and foot of this man.
Marduk, the son of Eridu, the Prince,
With his undefiled hands cutteth it off,
That the Ban - its cord -
May go forth to the desert, to a clean place,
That the evil Ban may stand aside,
And this man may be clean and undefiled,
Into the favoring hands of his god may he be commended.
3. A disease is transferred by the power of the magician's spell to the twisted thread, which is tied on the patient's limbs and then cut off and thrown away..."

4. "By tying knots and at the same time chanting some magic words a wizard or witch could cast a taboo on an enemy, as is clear from the Maqlu tablet, which ends one incantation against such malevolent beings with these words: "Her knot is loosed, her sorcery is brought to nought, And all her charms fill the desert."
ibid., p. 166.
5. A spell used by the priest for driving away a headache:
"Take the hair of a virgin kid,
Let a wise woman spin it on the right side,
And double it on the left;
Bind twice seven knots
And perform the Incantation of Eridu,
Bind (therewith) the head of the sick man,
Bind (therewith) the neck of the sick man,
Bind (therewith) his life,
Bind up his limbs;
Go round his couch, [possibly forming a magic circle by censing the patient]
Cast the water of the Incantation over him,
That the headache may ascend to heaven
Like the smoke of a peaceful homestead,
And like the lees of water poured out
It may go down into the earth."
ibid., p. 166-167.
6. A ritual against sickness:
"Bind white wool doubled in spinning on his bed, front and sides,
Bind black wool doubled in spinning on him, on his left hand,
That there may enter no evil spirit, nor evil demon,
Nor evil ghost, nor evil devil, nor evil god, nor evil fiend,
Nor hag-demon, nor ghoul, nor robber-sprite,
Nor incubus, nor succuba, nor phantom-maid,
Nor sorcery, nor witchcraft, nor magic, nor calamity,
Nor spells that are not good -
That they may not lay their head to his,
Their hand to his,
Their feet to his,
That they may not draw nigh."
ibid., p. 171.

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