I’ve written before about fairy magic involving intricate hand gestures. Here I want to pursue that general idea.
In Ben Jonson’s masque of 1610, Oberon the Fairy Prince, two satyrs discuss celebrations organised by Oberon. One asks if they shall “Tie about our tawny wrists/ Bracelets of the fairy twists?” What is this referring to? What on earth does it imply?
It seems that knots and twists are something intimately linked to fairies. They will, of course, twist animal and human hair. The faeries like to take and ride human horses at night, at the same time tightly knotting their manes into ‘pixy locks.’ These knots seem to function in part as stirrups and bridles, but they also seem to be a sign of fairy control. For example, a Perthshire man who was taken from his garden by the faeries was returned three days later with his hair all in knots- visible, physical evidence of his abduction. The knots have a practical function, therefore, but they appear to represent more than that.
Knot Magic & Healing
Scottish fairies are reported to dance around a fire at Halloween, throwing knotted blue ribbons over their left shoulders with their left hands. Those who then pick up the ribbons will fall into the fairies’ power and may be abducted by them at any moment.
These actions are plainly some sort of magic spell. The tying and releasing of knots is a long-established means of binding sickness to a person, or of freeing them from it. It is seen very often in folk medicine and in witchcraft and the Scottish witch trials of the seventeenth century supply several examples.
Jonet Morrison of the Isle of Bute, who was tried in 1662, cured a sick baby by tying a knotted and beaded string around it for forty-eight hours, which was then removed and placed on a cat. The cat instantly died, proving that the illness had been transferred from the child to it. The power of knots for protecting or cursing is revealed most powerfully in the account of a woman condemned as a witch at St Andrews in 1572. She faced the usual punishment for such an offence- strangling at the stake and burning- but she had betrayed no fear or alarm about her fate until her jailers removed from her a white cloth “like a collore craig [a collar or neck cloth] with stringes, whair on was mony knottes.” After this was taken away, she despaired. We may compare the fact that accused witch, Isobel Haldane, from Orkney, had been found to have “thrie grassis bound in a knot” in her home, a circumstance that only added to the weight of evidence against her.
Isobel Gowdie, of Auldearn near Nairn, was investigated for witchcraft in 1662. She gave a fulsome and lengthy confession that included a couple of uses of knotted threads. To steal milk from sheep and cows, she told her inquisitors that she and the other witches in her coven would take their tethers and “pull the tow and twyn it and plait it in the wrong way… and we draw the tedder (sua maid) [so made] in betwixt the cowes hinder foot and owt between the cowes forder foot and thereby take the milk.”
Secondly, the witches interfered with the dyeing vats of Alexander Cummings of Auldearn. They took “a thread of each cullor of yairne… and did cast thrie knots on each thread… and did put the threidis in the fatt, withersones abowt in the fatt [stirring anti-clockwise] and thairby took the heall strength of the fatt away, that it could litt [dye] nothing bot onlie blak, according to the culor of the Divell.”
These practices made their way into Scots verse as well. Alexander Montgomerie composed the Flyting of Polwart in the early 1580s as a ritualised mocking of Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth. The latter was extravagantly insulted, amongst other things being accused of being born of an elf and then abandoned. His baptism proceeded in this manner, with the child being bound to Hecate:
“Syne bare-foot and bare-leg’d to babtize that bairne
Till a water they went be a wood side,
They fand the shit all beshitten in his awin shearne [faeces],
On three headed Hecatus to heir them they cryde
As we have found in the field this fundling forfairne,
First his faith he forsakes in thee to confyde,
Be vertue of thir words and this raw yearne,
And whill this thrise thretty knots on this blew threed byd…”
Another verse was provoked by the trial of accused witch Alison Peirson in 1588. She was discovered to have treated the Bishop of St Andrews, amongst other sick persons, and poet Robert Sempill subsequently attacked the bishop for his ungodly conduct, accusing him of “sorcerie and incantationes,” amongst which were spells involving “south rinning wellis” and “knottis of strease [straws].”
Curing with Hoops
What I regard as a related curing practice involved passing people through loops of yarn; the idea of release seems to be shared between the two. Janet Trall, of Blackruthen, admitted in 1623 that she had cured a man called Robert Soutar in such a way. She passed him through a “hesp of yarn, and afterwards cut it in nine parts, and buried it in three lords’ lands.” Janet had learned these skills from the fairies, she said. Thomas Geace from Fife also passed patients through yarn, in one case burning the thread afterwards.
There are plenty of other Scottish examples. Andro Man from Aberdeen would administer cures by passing patients nine times through “ane hespe of unvatterit [undyed] yarn” and by then passing a cat nine times through in the opposite direction. Once again, the illness passes to the unfortunate cat, which promptly dies. A number of Edinburgh women, tried as witches in 1597, had treated patients by passing them through garlands made of green woodbine. Some did this three times, others nine times. One woman went through three times on three occasions twenty-four hours apart; in another instance the garland was cut up into nine pieces and burned after the ritual.
Knots & Knowledge
We have previously discussed the fairies’ power of seeing what is to come and to tell fortunes, and there is also a little evidence that knots and threads were used to foretell the future. In this there must be a strong echo, or imitation, of the Greek Fates. Whatever the exact source, in Alexander Montgomerie’s mocking poem, The Flyting of Polwart, his target or victim Polwart is alleged to have been raised by the hag Nicneven, who:
“With chairmes from Cathness and Chanrie of Ross,
Whais [whose] cunning consistis in casting a clew…”
‘Casting a clew’ seems to refer to reading the future in threads.
Lastly, knotted threads could inflict or transfer harm, but they could also guard against it. In the Scottish Highlands, threads called snaithean were used to protect children and livestock from attack by fairies or witches. Lengths of wool, coloured either red or black, would be tied around the neck or a beast’s tail accompanied by a prayer and a charm that invoked aid from the trinity, Mary and various saints.
Much of this seems to come together in the ballad Willy’s Lady:
“Oh wha has loosed the nine witch knots
That was amo that ladie’s locks?
‘And wha has taen out the kaims [combs] of care
That hangs amo that ladie’s hair?
‘And wha’s taen down the bush o’ woodbine
That hang atween her bower and mine?…
O Willie has loosed the nine witch knots
That was amo that ladie’s locks.
And Willie’s taen out the kaims o care
That hang amo that ladie’s hair.
And Willie’s taen down the bush o’ woodbine
That hang atween her bower and thine…
And now he’s gotten a bonny young son,
And mickle grace be him upon.”
(Child Ballad no.6; see my Fairy Ballads & Rhymes)