ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: Knots
   The archaeological evidence
   Knot types
   The magic of the knot

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Knots

Late Period noose     The making of thread, string and rope were among the earliest cultural achievements of mankind, but without a way of making them fast their usefulness would be limited.

Papyrus rope noose, tied together with a thinner rope
Late Period
Petrie Museum UC30842

    The knot in its simplest forms must have predated the manufacture of cordage,[21] but it was because of the varying needs that new forms of knots were developed, some designed for rapid application, others not to unravel. Given that string and rope, like all manufactured products, were relatively expensive, one would expect the Egyptians to have untied knots and reused the rope as long as it was substantially sound and discarded it only when its usefulness had come to an end.

The archaeological evidence

    Being made of perishable plant matter, ropes have mostly disappeared and with them the knots. But basketry and rope-making had a great stylistic influence on pottery and stone carving, and many clay and stone vessels were decorated with rope motifs.

Pottery handle imitating three ropes knotted together Pottery handle imitating three ropes knotted together
18th dynasty
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC24642

    From the pre-dynastic period dates a stone vessel carved like a basket which shows details such as the string tying the twining strands together at both ends of the basket and the knots fastening them.[1]
    The threads with which pieces of cloth were stitched together were knotted at the end to prevent the seam from coming apart,[2] just as rope ends were at times knotted to prevent unraveling.[3] When embroidering various kinds of stitches were applied, but also isolated knots.[4]
    The strands of hair making up the wig of Merit at Deir el Median (TT 8) were knotted to a plait which formed a parting along the middle of the crown.[5]

Early Roman period perfume jar in the shape of Isis nursing Bes, wearing a himation knotted between her naked breasts. Perfume jar in the shape of Isis nursing Bes, wearing a himation knotted between her naked breasts.
Memphis, early Roman period
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC47606

    Half knots were often sufficient to tie things together, above all if they would not be moved around a lot or if the material used for tying was stiff, such as twigs used in basketry coffins tying together lengths of papyrus reed bundles.[6]
    Knots holding together clothing are mostly known from statuary and depictions. Tailoring was on the whole very primitive in antiquity. Most clothes were simple, often rectangular sheets of fabric draped around the body. They were held in place by belts, which were, like the belt of Raherka for instance tied together with a reef knot, or were, as the kilts often were, wrapped around the body and tied with a half-knot at the front.[7] Similarly, other garments, such as himations, were also often worn knotted.
    The wearing of clothes held together by knotted belts was seen as an important step of the child to adulthood. At Deir el-Gebrawi a sixth dynasty official recorded in his mortuary chapel:
I was a youth who tied his belt under his majesty the king of Upper and Lower Egypt
Tomb of Ibi at Deir el-Gebrawi, Old Kingdom [8]

Knot types

Relief with square knot tied by two Nile gods, uniting the land, Ramses ii temple at Luxor

Square knot from smA tAwy-scene at Karnak
New Kingdom

    Not many kinds of knots have been identified among them are the half knot, the square knot, a sturdy knot shown in depictions of the Upper and Lower Egyptian Hapi tying sedge and papyrus, symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt, together, in similar reliefs it is Seth and Horus uniting the land.[9]

Leather cords attached to stick-sinker hitch, UC5058 Leather cords knotted to a stick
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC5058

the sinker hitch, very sturdy, as long as both ends of the rope remain taut

Sehna knot technique Sehne knots
1st dynasty
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC38055

the sehna or Persian knot, still used in the manufacture of carpets

Middle Kingdom netting from Lahun Netting
Probably Middle Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC7512

fishing knots (reef knots, mesh knots and half knots)[23] still seen all over the world, wherever people use nets for catching fish [10][11] –a caption in the mastaba of Niankh-khnum and Khnumhotep reads:
Knotting of the net by a fisherman of the funerary foundation.[22]
Seti I with lasso and running knots which make lassoes and nooses possible.

Seti I with lasso
Temple of Sei I at Abydos
Source: Wikimedia, Author: Charlesdrakew
License: Public domain

Cartouche of Maatmenre, Abydos Kingslist     The shen (and the elongated cartouche which is derived from it) appears to be an abstraction of a noose, where a length of rope is coiled into a circle and tied together with a string, the rope ends remaining visible. The unbroken oval of the cartouche may have symbolized the rule of the pharaoh over all of creation,[12] or may have afforded the king's name–and thus the king–all-around protection.[13]

Cartouche of Menmaatre, Abydos Kings list
Author: Ochmann-HH, Wikimedia
GNU Free Documentation License

The magic of the knot

    Early on knots took on a magical importance and were part of many charms, easily made and affordable for everybody.
Words to speak over a [thread] of the seam of an jttw-cloth, will be made into two knots and fastened to the right hand of the patient.
Middle Kingdom snake charm [14]
    Children were especially vulnerable to the evil influence of daemons and needed more protection than adults. The following charm accompanied an amulet placed around a child's neck to protect it against fever:
Spell for a knot
for a child, a fledgling:
Are you hot in the nest?
Are you burning in the bush?
Your mother is not with you?
There is no sister there <to> fan you?
There is no nurse to offer protection?
Let there be brought to me a pellet of gold,
Forty beads, a cornelian seal-stone,
(with) a crocodile and hand (on it),
to fell, to drive off this Demon of Desire, to warm the limbs,
to fell these male and female enemies from the West.
You shall break out! This is a protection.
 
One shall say this spell over the pellet of gold, the forty beads, and the cornelian seal-stone (with) the crocodile and the hand, to be strung on a strip of fine linen made into an amulet; placed on the neck of the child.
Good
Knot spell [15]
Tiyet amulet, uc55171     Sometimes the number of knots that had to be tied into a string, a hair of the patient or a piece of linen was exactly defined.[16][17]

A wooden tyet (Isis knot) amulet
New Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC55171

    The Tyet, the so-called Isis-knot or Isis-girdle, an amulet associated with menstrual flow, often resembles the knot many deities tied their girdles with. Its original meaning is unknown. Since the New Kingdom it has been closely associated with Isis.[20] Since then it may have been thought of as representing the tampon used by Isis when she was pregnant with Horus and under attack from Seth, to prevent bleeding which was often followed by a miscarriage,[18] a remedy based on a mistaking of the effect for the cause. It gained popularity during the New Kingdom and was frequently displayed with the Ankh, from which it has been suggested to have derived,[19] and the Djed.[20]

 


Bibliography:
Raymond O. Faulkner, Dr. Ogden Goelet, Carol Andrews, James Wasserman, The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day, Chronicle Books, 2008
Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, Routledge, 2006
Alfred Lucas, John Richard Harris, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, Dover Publications, 1999
Manfred Lurker, Lexikon der Götter und Symbole der alten Ägypter, Scherz 1998
Gay Robins, Women in ancient Egypt, Harvard University Press, 1993
John Rose, The sons of Re: cartouches of the kings of Egypt, JR-T, 1985
Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press 1995
Ian Shaw, Paul T. Nicholson, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge University Press, 2000,
Herman te Velde, Jacobus van Dijk, Essays on ancient Egypt in honour of Herman te Velde, BRILL, 1997
Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
 
Footnotes:
[1] Shaw & Nicholson 2000, p.263
[2] Shaw & Nicholson 2000, p.283
[3] Petrie Museum website, UC30471
[4] Shaw & Nicholson 2000, p.280
[5] Shaw & Nicholson 2000, p.497
[6] Shaw & Nicholson 2000, p.258
[7] Shaw & Nicholson 2000, p.287
[8] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Deir el-Gebrawi => Südhang => Grab des Ibi => Opferkapelle => Ostwand grosse Inschrift (links)
[9] Kemp 2006, p.71
[10] Lucas & Harris 1999, p. 136
[11] http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/textil/other.html#4, accessed November 2009
[12] Rose 1985, p.9
[13] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.62
[14] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Projekt "Digital-Heka" (Leipzig) => Texte DigitalHeka => Schlangenzauber Mittleres Reich => Ramesseumspapyri => pRamesseum X => 1,1-2,2
[15] Robbins 1993, p.86
[16] Robbins 1993, p.86
[17] te Velde & van Dijk 1997, p.280
[18] Robins 1993, p.81
[19] Faulkner et al. 2008, p.156
[20] Lurker 1998, p.109
[21] cf. the way farmers tied reaped flax plants into bundles for transportation.
[22] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Sakkara => Unas-Friedhof => Mastaba des Nianch-Chnum und Chnum-hotep => Torraum => Südwand => Szene 13
[23] Veldmeijer, André J., 2009, "Cordage Production" in Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. http://repositories.cdlib.org/nelc/uee/1059

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