In the spring of 2003, I spent three weeks in the city of Chennai, formerly known as Madras, located in Southern India. Each morning, walking before the heat of the day, I was amazed to see intricate knot work patterns drawn out free hand with flour in front of the driveways and gates of homes. These artistic scrolls, I was told by an Indian friend, were offerings to local gods, and were part of a tradition that stretched back into the ancient past.
I have seen knot patterns in my travels throughout many parts of the world. In Islamic countries where iconography is prohibited, the mosques are heavily decorated with knot-like patterns. Stone-carved knot work motifs can be found on ruins from the Americas to the Hindu iconography of Bali, Indonesia. In Tibet, the “eternal knot” is a common symbol representing the endless cycles of existence.
The knot work most familiar in the West is from Celtic iconography. Though the Celts, before the Roman Empire, were spread throughout much of Western Europe, we’re most familiar with their designs remaining today in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. On the moors, surrounded by winding rock walls and ancient neolithic bridges, this knot work carved in stone transcends time. We know from the writings of the Romans that the Celts believed strongly in the sacredness of place. Similar to the beliefs of many in South India today, the land anchored a particular god or goddess that was meant to be honored, though we do not know whether the knot work designs were made as offerings.
The broad spectrum of knot work designs found in many cultures suggests that the motif is both universal and rooted in ancient mystery. From the most general perspective, knot work iconography can be viewed as a metaphor for our own unique tapestry of experience. On a macrocosmic level, the knots express metaphorically that life on earth is deeply interconnected, as illustrated in the Spider Women’s web or the Great Hoop of Life in Native American stories. As one Native woman told me, if you move a pebble on top of a mountain, you can change the course of a mighty river. This is also expressed slightly differently in the Biblical aphorism, “We reap what we sow,” which is similar to the Eastern understanding of karma. Even physics today speaks of a “unified field.”
Yet it is also true that individual elements of knots hold specific meaning from the perspective of sacred geometry. Look around you at different geometric forms. Why is the earth, our eyes, the trunks of trees circular instead of square? How does the circle function in the world verses the triangle and what does that mean in terms of knot work that uses circular patterns? Here are a few hints to help you with these blueprints.
We speak of a circle of friends and live in circular cycles, such as the day and the season. Native cultures throughout the world hold ceremonies in protective circles. A knot work pattern with circles or variations of circles certainly has some important keys to relationships and community.
A square knot motif concerns structure and stability, which is why buildings use the shape of a square foundation. Numerology has always played a part in ancient cultures and there are many books on the subject. The number five, for example, represents the four directions and the center point, or the five senses.
We also often see knot work shaped like an oval, which is the shape of an egg. The oval has something to do with generative creativity and birth. Planets circle the sun in an oval. And if you squeeze an oval together you get the lemniscates, the symbol for infinity which is very prevalent in knot work motifs.
Many knot work motifs also deal with vectors that travel in a certain direction. If you look at the shape of an arrow, it’s easy to understand why a triangle might connote movement.
Another common motif is the knot work depicting a trinity. In the Celtic tradition, many deities had three forms. The Mother Goddess was understood to the maiden, mother and crone. The universe was viewed as heaven, earth and otherworld. We are born, we live and we die. Certainly the trinity knot also illustrates the One being dividing off into the masculine and feminine, or the mother and son– a mystical truth contemplated in many sacred traditions.
The cross is also a symbol rich in meaning. From a simple point of view, two lines crossing symbolizing a connection or meeting which can be a point of creativity. Some mystics speak of the horizontal axis representing the earthly plain, while the vertical axis points toward the heavens.
While the above guide for understanding knot work is not necessarily based on any scholarly or anthropological text on the meaning of knots, it does provide a starting point that is based on a universal perspective. Most knot work designs are going to have some variation of these shapes. Spending time contemplating the motif may yield some insight.
Lastly, there’s an essential reason why the knot work is so prevalent, and that is beauty. I will never forget Jaisalmer, an ancient town in the desert of Rajasthan. This ancient city, where caravans used to stop and trade, is made from sandstone. Many of the buildings are carved with intricate knot work patterns. Strangers walked up to me and said, “How do you like our beautiful city?” I could see clearly how art is life-giving and the need for beauty is something fundamental. In the middle of the desert, the beautiful knot work in golden stone brings joy to the heart.