Magical knots

In ancient times people knew how to secure their personal valuables by packing them in animal skins tied together with a rope and a special knot.

The knot could only be opened with a tool called a bone file. The knot and the carefully filed bone were an early, simple form of lock and key.

Knots were used as locks in early China as well. Ropes were tied together with strong knots that required a si – the tooth of a wild animal – to undo them. Knots were likely the earliest forms of locks in ancient China, making the si the earliest key.

The Gordian knot

A familiar saying
In the fourth century BC, the Phrygians in the city of Gordium in Anatolia were going to select a new king. According to legend, an oracle predicted that their new king would arrive in a cart drawn by two horses on the road up towards the Temple of Zeus. That person turned out to be Gordios (or possibly his son Midas).

The legend also included Gordios’s ox cart, which was consecrated to Zeus, king of the gods, and put on display at his temple. The yoke on the cart was tied with a sturdy rope in an intricate, magical knot, created by a divinity – it had no beginning or end. According to the Oracle, the man who could undo this knot would gain power over most of the (then) known world. Another version of the story is that the one who could undo the knot would rule the world to the east – the mighty Persian Empire.

It all started when Alexander’s army conquered the city of Gordium in the spring of 334 BC. The city was the capital of the indo-European Phrygian people in Anatolia. During the Bronze Age this region was a Hittite kingdom, and later became the Lydian Kingdom. The city was rediscovered in 1895 by archeologists, the Körte brothers, and later digs were conducted by the archeologists from University of Pennsylvania. Gordium is about 80 km southwest of modern-day Ankara.

The use of ropes made of twisted plant fibers is more than 10,000 years old. There were many types of ropes at the time when Alexander the Great arrived. There were ropes made of the fibers of date palms, linen, grass, papyrus, hemp (this idea came from China), leather and animal hair. But we can only guess at what kinds of knots existed.

In Gordium, Alexander’s two armies reunited on their eastward campaign. According to Roman authors Arrianus and Plutarch, Alexander was already aware of the legend of the magic Gordian knot, and intrigued by the challenge.

To undo a complicated knot, one first has to locate an end of the rope. But Alexander was not the type to calmly and methodically start searching for a solution among all the fibers of the rope while surrounded by his milling armies. To everyone’s astonishment, he simply chopped the knot in two with his short sword. At least that’s the story according to Arrianus and Plutarch. But there are different versions of this legend, too. In one version, Alexander struck the shaft to the yoke of the cart with the broad side of his sword, and the force of the blow undid the knot. In another version, Alexander simply pulled out a peg on the cart.

Knots as symbols

So, several thousand years ago, ropes made of fibers were used to “lock” doors and bind up walls. Legend has it that a knotted rope was a famous symbol of security. When Alexander the Great couldn’t solve the Gordian knot, he chopped it off with his sword, giving us the expression “solving the Gordian knot” as a symbol for bold, decisive measures that succeed when milder measures fail. Knots also represent love, continuity, eternity and never-ending life.

The above picture is a detail of one of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) circular wood cuttings, “Six Knots” from 1506. The pictures are based on a long study, via Leonardo da Vinci, of the symbolism of Celtic knots, arabesques, labyrinths and magnificently coiled snakes or ropes in the earliest cultures of the Middle East and India.

Dürer’s entire complex image is made up of one single unbroken thread. A knot could hardly be any more complicated.