"Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble."
Lightning flashes on Scotland's moor as Macbeth and Banquo come upon three witches who are dancing up a storm. Sings the first witch: ". . . Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet it shall be tempest-tost." "I'll give thee a wind, "sings the second." "And I another," sings the third." Dancing, the witches "untie the winds that swallow navigation up."
Belief in witches knots was common in England. In Shakespeare's play, Macbeth, the witches had power over the wind. They could tie it in a string of knots which they sold.
Wind knots were purchased from witches and wizards in the seaports of Finland, Norway, Denmark, Ireland and Scotland. In the days of sailing ships, no prudent sailor left the harbor without his witches knot stowed in his gear. Vulnerable to the forces of weather, sailors sought to control the wind with witchcraft. They believed they could carry the wind aboard ship where it would remain secured for a safe voyage. If the wind failed, the sailor untied a knot and released a wind.
A Norse myth tells how Volundr kept a supply of wind knots in his smithy. Hanging there was a long rope with knots at regular intervals. In every knot, a storm wind was bound. Each week he untied a knot. Freeing the wind, he sent it south with his mad song charged with thunder and hail. To this day, the bitter winds that sweep across the Gulf of Finland are blamed on witches.
In the "Odyssey," Aeolus, king of the wind, gave Ullyses a leather bag containing all the winds except the West Wind. After nine day, Ulysses fell asleep. When his men untied the bag, the conflicting winds burst forth, driving the ship back to Aeolus' Island, thus preventing Ulysses' escape.
Aeolus tried to control the direction of the wind. Witches of the North tried to control its strength. Witches claimed to rule the wind and sold power to control it. Sometimes using witchcraft for evil purposes, they sold contrary winds. In Lapland, in 1767, a witch confessed to raising a tempest by shutting winds in a sack. She was hanged when mariners who bought her knots lost their ship and their lives in the sea.
Knots may be man's oldest tool. Yet, knots are extremely unreliable. Knots tied in fiber or rawhide have a way of coming untied, as if by their own power. Men came to believe knots possessed magical power for good or evil. Gradually, this power shifted to those skilled in tying knots. This skill passed from one generation to the next. As witchcraft, the skill persisted through the 19th century. Today, weather forecasters predict the coming of a storm. In our scientific-oriented century, it is difficult to understand a belief in the magic of wind knots. But wind brokers, or witches who could imprison the wind in a knotted string, flourished wherever survival depended on the strength and direction of the wind.
The formula for a witch's knot was to tie three knots in a cord while repeating a magic formula. The spell was sealed by spitting on the knot as it was tied. Untying the first knot brought a gentle breeze. The second knot enclosed a stronger wind. The third contained a hurricane. It was to remain tied to insure a tempest-free voyage.
Through history, knots were an indispensable tool in the daily lives of men. Primitive man's survival depended on knots. Knots secured his adze to the shaft. Knots fastened his arrowhead, his bowstring, and his fish hook to the line. His clothing, his canoe, and the timbers of his hut were fastened with knots. To know the right knot and how to tie it became so valuable that magical power was given to both the knots and the person who knew how to tie them.
Modern man no longer depends upon knots. Work once done by knots, is now done by buttons, pins, buckles, nails, screws, rivets, bolts, glue, wire and tape. As new fastenings replaced knots, they lost their magical power. However, in certain parts of Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands, "magic" knots are still being tied every day. The people who tie them may not be called witches any more, but the knots are considered enchanted nonetheless.
Knot tying is a special skill that has passed from one person to another through the ages. Sailors everywhere still use knots of many kinds. Skill in tying knots is much admired. The knots bear fancy names, though none are called Witches Knots.
Day, Cyrus L. "Knots and Knot Lore," In Western Folklore. Vol. 9, No. 3, July 1950. Ouipus and Witches Knots: The Role of the Knot in Primitive and Ancient Cultures. Lawrence, University of Kansas Press, 1967.
Frazer, J. G. The Golden Bough. (Vol. I, "The Magic Art") Rev. ed. New York: Criterion Books, cl959.
Quotations from: The Tragedy of Macbeth, edited by Eugene M. Waith. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, c1954, pp. 5, 63-65.