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Tying a Sacred Knot

Many symbols and images have held sacred meaning within religious traditions around the world and throughout time: the circle, the cross, the pillar, the pentagram. These symbols don’t necessarily mean the same thing in every tradition, and sometimes we can’t even be sure what the original significance was for each culture. One such symbol is the knot. You may be familiar with the tale of the Gordian knot from Greek and Roman mythology (the one Alexander the Great famously sliced with his sword) or the tyet of Isis from Egyptian mythology, often found in the form of amulets but also related to the knot on some Egyptian deities’ garments. But there’s another one you might not have heard of: the Minoan sacral knot. Let’s explore this symbol and see what we can discover about it.

The famed ‘snake goddess’ figurine from Knossos (in the photo at the top of this post) has an object that Sir Arthur Evans identified as a sacral knot between her breasts, at the top of the girdle that encircles her waist. A second ‘snake goddess’ figurine, also found at Knossos, has a similar, though larger, knot between the front edges of her top. I find it interesting that the snakes themselves form a large knot over her lower abdomen. I have to wonder if that has any significance. What do you think? 

 

Knossos faience snake goddess figurine

 

These two sacral knots are similar to the Egyptian tyet in that they appear to be worn as part of a priestess’ or goddess’ clothing in a sacred or ritual setting. The Egyptian tyet appears in the same position – at the front of the garment, as part of the girdle or belt, with a loop projecting upwards from the knot.  But the Minoan and Egyptian sacral knots don’t have exactly the same form. The tyet resembles the ankh, with a pillar-shaped base, a looped top and two ‘arms’ that fold down the sides. The Minoan sacral knot is simply a vertical knot, or stack of knots, with a loop at the top – no arms. It’s worth noting that the Egyptian sacral knot shown on many statues of Isis is missing those ‘arms’ and resembles the Minoan sacral knot far more than it does the tyet. We know the Egyptians and the Minoans interacted continuously for centuries and there was a great deal of cultural exchange between the two, but at this point there’s no way of knowing whether the knot began in one culture and was shared to the other or began somewhere else and was borrowed into both Egypt and Crete. There is still debate as to the true underlying meaning of the tyet, which may have changed over the centuries of Egyptian civilization. So even if the Minoan sacral knot is a close relative of the tyet, we can’t be certain of its meaning. But the ‘front-and-center’ sacral knot as part of the garments on priestess/goddess figures isn’t the only version we find in Minoan art.

 

La Parisienne fresco plus sacral knots from Knossos

 

The famed La Parisienne fresco fragment from the Camp Stool fresco, found in the temple-palace complex at Knossos, shows a large sacral knot worn on the shoulders of this lovely lady. This form of the knot, with a single loop above the knot and two ‘tails’ below, recurs throughout Minoan art. This type of knot always appears to be made from a length of fabric (like a scarf) rather than a cord, a fact that differentiates it further from the knot on the snake goddess figurines. This is the type of sacral knot we find most often in the archaeological remains of ancient Crete.  It occurs throughout the centuries of Minoan civilization and even continued on into Mycenaean times, as you can see from these examples as well as these in the National Archaeological Museum at Athens.

The Minoan sacral knot seems to have had a life of its own separate from being worn (always by women in the examples we have found so far) since it was often depicted hovering by itself in midair. Several seal rings show one or two sacral knots hanging near a bull or a stag. The images of the knot with the bulls include illustrations of men in what might be depictions of the famed bull-leaping activity, which was probably done in a sacred or ritual context.

 

Sacral knots on Minoan seal rings

 

Perhaps in these cases the knot symbolizes the presence of the goddess who was invoked during the bull-leaping rituals. This would identify the knot with the Moon-Cow aspect of the Minoan goddess, the partner of the Moon-Bull (Minotauros). The Moon-Cow is known in later mythology as Pasiphae or Europa, but we don’t know what the Minoans called her or her consort in their native language. I find it interesting that the Minoan sacral knot is shown in pairs in several instances. I have to wonder about the significance of that depiction. Is it just for emphasis or does it have some sort of specific meaning? Perhaps the goddess the knot symbolizes had two faces or functions in these rituals (Life and death? Death and rebirth? Something else entirely?).

Ultimately, we still have to guess at an awful lot when we’re dealing with the ancient Minoans. The only information we have about their mythology comes from later societies that weren’t exactly friendly toward the Minoans’ cultural values. Until some lucky archaeologist digs up a stash of Linear A tablets that contain enough text to allow us to decipher the script, we’re stuck doing our best to interpret the artwork alone. And that leaves us with more questions than answers. Are the two types of sacral knots – the ‘front-and-center’ girdle knot and the scarf-like knot – simply two different ways of depicting the same symbol/object or are they two different things altogether? Does the sacral knot specifically represent a female concept (goddess, for instance) or will we one day discover a male figure wearing it? If the knot symbolizes a goddess, which one? More than one?

From an archaeological standpoint, there’s only so far we can go with these questions. But from a spiritual perspective, we have more options. We can sit in meditation with this symbol and ask for more information about it, including how we might use it in modern Minoan Pagan practice. We can take spirit journeys (psychic archaeology) back to Minoan times in order to discover how it might have been used in ritual by the people of ancient Crete. And we can incorporate it into our spiritual practice by adding these images and even real knots to our sacred spaces. I think my first steps in this exploration will involve tying a long scarf into the sacral knot, adding it to my altar and seeing where that leads me. Where will your journey take you?

 

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Ruby
    Ruby Saturday, 06 June 2015

    When I first saw the image of the sacral knots my immediate thought is that it could be a birthing rope. Something like a rebozo used by birthing women to tie onto something up high, to hold while in a squatting position. There's many other uses, but primarily surround pregnant & birthing women. Postpartum women also wear the rebozo tied tight around their abdomen to help everything move back into it's natural position.
    I am curious if you are familiar with a birthing rebozo and your thoughts on this. The rebozo name comes from the Mexican tradition but surely women around the world would use a similar birthing tool.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Sunday, 07 June 2015

    What a great insight! Yes, I'm familiar with the rebozo as used by the women of Central America during labor and childbirth. The meditation I've done with the sacral knot associates it with the birth of Dionysos. Several times, I've gotten the impression that it stood for Dionysos' umbilical cord, and hanging it up in public was a symbol that he had been born (kind of like the way Christians put the image of the baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas morning). But I like the idea of it being a birthing tool, perhaps as another layer in the symbology. That would provide a connection between Rhea and Dionysos, and it suggests that the sacral knot indicates Winter Solstice. Maybe the bull-leaping was done as part of the Winter Solstice celebrations of Dionysos' birth.

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