The knotted rope is an ancient Masonic Symbol commonly associated with the Tessellated Border[I], which in modern times is represented by a series of contiguous equilateral triangles extending around the perimeter of the Lodge floor[II]. Mackey[III], speaking on the Tessellated Border states:
“The French call it “la houpe dentelee,” which is literally the “indented tessel”; and they describe it as “a cord forming true-lovers’ knots, which surrounds the tracing-board.”
“The Germans call it “die Schnur von starken Faden,” or the “cord of strong threads”, and define it as a border surrounding the tracing-board of an Entered Apprentice, consisting of a cord tied in lovers’ knots, with two tassels attached to the ends.”
“The idea prevalent in America, and derived from a misapprehension of the plate in the Monitor of Cross, that the tessellated border was a decorated part of the Mosaic pavement …does not seem to be supported by these definitions. They all indicate that the “tessellated border” was a cord.”
The story of the transformation of the tessellated border from wavy knotted rope used as a frame for the Tressel Board to its modern configuration as a skirt for the Lodge Floor appears to be shrouded in the mists of time and is mired in conjecture. The generally accepted explanation is that the modern configuration may be attributed to errors in translation, or even illiteracy. In depictions of the knotted rope version of the Tessellated Border, the Masonic “Love Knot” or “Infinity Knot” is the type of knot employed. Also called the “Figure Eight” knot, examples of this knot have been found in Egyptian Middle Kingdom Burial sites[IV] incorporated into anklets and bracelets.
It is the premise of this paper that there may be another explanation for the change in form of the knotted rope from the Tressel Board to the Lodge floor skirt which is based upon esoteric symbolism and associated rationale. This paper will deal with this symbolism and will examine the esoteric characteristics and uses of the knotted rope both in non-Masonic traditions as well as in Masonic tradition. It will conclude with speculation that the reconfiguration (if such a change indeed did occur) of the Tessellated Border from Tressel Board frame to Lodge Floor Skirt may have been due to its perceived or intended esoteric purpose.
Knotted ropes and cords have been used for centuries for pragmatic applications such as counting[V], measurement[VI], as memory aids for prayer recitation[VII], and for simple binding and tying. It could easily be said that knot tying may have been one of the major developments in the advancement of mankind, perhaps even overshadowing the invention of the wheel in terms of its impact. Anthropologists theorize[VIII] that during the period in which man was learning to domesticate animals the rope became the very symbol of his mastery of brute nature. Consequently, the rope, or cord, came to acquire very early symbolic and mystical meaning.
Since early antiquity, knotted cords have been used for magical purposes; primarily purposes associated with the binding capability of knots. In this regard knots were viewed to hold the power to bind or store spells and enchantments until they were released through the act of untying. An example includes the magical “wind knots” used by sailors[IX]. Wind knots were normally tied in groups of three, and were used to bind winds which could later be called upon when needed. Release of the first knot was believed to activate a moderate breeze, release of the second, a strong breeze, and release of the third knot caused a heavy wind. Other variously cited and beneficial uses of Knot Magic include the curing of fever, alleviation of diseases of the groin, prevention of scarlet fever, and keeping a person out of harm’s way.
Because of their association with binding, knots were often viewed to restrict, impede, or constrain certain events such as childbirth, marriage, and death. It is
recorded[X] that in 1705, two persons were condemned to death in Scotland for stealing charmed knots which were subsequently used to interfere with the marriage of Spalding of Ashintilly. In 1718 the parliament of Bordeaux sentenced a person to death by burning for having spread desolation through an entire family by the use of knotted cords. Knot magic was also used for other malevolent purposes; such as causing impotence in men, or to surreptitiously prevent a desired pregnancy.
In the tradition of the religion of Islam, there is a story that the Prophet was bewitched and was rendered very ill by a man whose daughters tied a spell into a cord using 11 knots. God sent the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet[XI] carrying two Chapters containing 11 verses and revealed where the Prophet could find the cord. The Prophet recited the 11 verses of the two Chapters over the knots and at the end of each recital one knot was untied by powers unknown. As soon as all eleven knots were untied the prophet was cured of his bewitchment. Magical Knot tying in Islam is a serious offense. Even in Christianity, Priests and Ministers wear collars, but eschew ties, a tradition ostensibly based upon an aversion to Knot Magic. In the Hebrew religion[XII] the “tallith”, or prayer shawl contains eight tassels, each tied with five knots. Using the system of Kabalistic Gematria, 8 + 5 sums to 13; the numerical Gematria value of the word “tzitzit”, which is the collective term for the eight tassels is 600. The sum of 13 + 600 is 613, the total number of precepts in the Torah. Nearly every major religion in the world can be shown to have practices or traditions relating in some way to knot magic.
The Masonic Love Knot
The Love Knot, Knot of Hercules, Infinity Knot, or Figure of Eight Knot is described[XIII] as a continuous knot having the form of a figure-eight which originated as a healing charm in ancient Egypt. It well known for it’s use in ancient Greece and Rome as a protective amulet or as a wedding symbol. Other sources identify the Love Knot to be an adaptation of one of the eight Buddhist symbols having origin in Tibet. Various interlocking Celtic knots also bear a striking resemblance to the Love Knot. Figure 1 illustrates the form of the Masonic Love Knot. The crossing strands in a love knot are viewed[XIV] in Celtic lore to depict the spiritual meaning of life. The symbolism of the knot has survived well beyond its ancient origins, and was a very common symbol in medieval and Renaissance love tokens.
Knotted Ropes and Cords
In Freemasonry there is a very strong parallel between the Love Knot and the “Chain of Union” According to Bro. Carlo Martinez Jr.
“This ‘chain’, is actually a rope, which, circumvests the inner walls of the Masonic Temple in its upper part. Its “elevated location” gives it a celestial connotation, confirmed by the twelve knots that appear at intervals all along said rope, and, which, symbolize the twelve signs of the zodiac. These knots also correspond to the twelve columns that, except in the East side, surround the Inner Sanctum of our Temples in its entirety. Five of these columns are situated in the North, the other five in the South, and the remaining two, “Jachin” and “Boaz”, in the West.”
Bro. Martinez Jr. further states (regarding the Chain of Union):
This emblem is, indeed, the “celestial frame” which limits, separates, and protects “The World of Light” from “The World of Darkness”; the Sacred from the Profane.
The reader will recognize that the form taken during the Chain of Union is one in which the crossed arms and grasped hands of the participants form a series of connected love knots. Brother Shawn Eyer in his Paper on the Mosaic Pavement[XVI] also notes the astrological associations of the knotted rope in the Emulation Rite, which developed following the 1813 union of the Antients and the Moderns. He writes:
“The indented or Tessellated border refers us to the planets, which in their various revolutions form a beautiful border or skirtwork round that grand luminary, the Sun, as the Other does round that of a Freemason’s Lodge.,,”
Brother Albert Pike also made allusion to the knotted rope and it’s parallel to the Chain of Union when he wrote:
“…a man’s intellect is all his own, held direct from God, an inalienable fief… if the stream be but bright and strong, it will sweep like a spring-tide to the popular heart. Not in word only, but in intellectual act lies the fascination. It is the homage to the Invisible. This power, knotted with Love, is the golden chain let down into the well of Truth, or the invisible chain that binds the ranks of mankind together.”
No description of an esoteric function served by the Masonic Love Knot (other than the mentioned astrological association) is to be found in Masonic literature; however the exoteric explanation is that the knots represent the bond of love between brothers. It is the Author’s view that the esoteric value of the knots as symbols of unity, strength, and infinite love are self-evident.
The Masonic Knotted Rope
Falconer[XVII] reports that the earliest recorded use of a Masonic Knotted rope may have been that of an 81 knot Rope dated August 23, 1773. However, during research for this paper a story[XVIII] was located in which a Clockmaker in1986 discovered and restored a rare Neuchâtel Masonic clock dated by Josué Robert as being circa 1749. This clock was adorned with a Knotted Rope along with other symbols such as a skull & bones and Square & Compasses. Further research identified a Tapestry entitled “The Hunt of the Unicorn”, one of seven Tapestries of similar theme, often referred to as the “Unicorn Tapestries”. This tapestry, dating from 1495–1505, and currently on display at The Cloisters shows a group of noblemen and hunters in pursuit of a unicorn.. An analysis of these Tapestries[XIX] reveals significant Masonic symbolism, including that of the Knotted Rope.
The form of the Tassellated Border applied as a Tressel Board Frame is illustrated in Figure 2. Brother Gabriel Vasile Oltean provided an excellent description of the Knotted Cord used as a border within a Lodge Room in a recent article[XX] in Masonic Forum magazine. He wrote:
“A red cord with 12 knots in the shape of a recumbent 8 (the symbol of the infinite), called the knots of love, surrounds the temple and ends above the two Pillars upon the entrance (Boaz and Jachin), in laced tassels. The twelve knots of the cord remind us of the twelve Gates of Jerusalem, the cubic city where each side measured 144 cubits (12 X 12). The text of the Apocalypse states that this number is a Number of Man and, by this very reason, a Number of Angel.”
A similar description of the knotted rope discovered during a visitation to a Masonic Lodge in Portugal[XXI] is provided by Brother Norman Ryder. Brother Ryder writes:
“A large rope (about 5/8 inch) was on the wall around the lodge with knots in it every so far. They also wear ties with a rope and knot configuration but I do not know the story behind the knots …”
It is notable that image of the wavy cord containing love knots was at one time prominently assocciated with Masonic Symbolism, as is evident from Figure 3, which shows the use of the Knotted Rope as artwork on a record album cover for Brother Mozart’s Masonic Music, produced between 1964 and 1968 when Peter Maag served as chief conductor at the Volksoper in Vienna.
Knotted cords and ropes find extensive use in both folk magic and various forms of ceremonial magic as a protective ward or boundary against evil, especially during sacred rites. I believe the Masonic knotted rope Tessellated border serves in this capacity. While there is controversy concerning the Masonic origin and evolution of the Tessellated border, there are a number of authoritative references which suggest that its original purpose was to serve as a protective instrument. The MacBride Ritual[XXII] for example states:
“You will see that our carpet has a tessellated border, which represents the divine protection encircling humanity…”
In The Master Key[XXIII], a scholarly paper reputed to present the form for the prestigious Prestonian Lectures, Dr. John I. Browne states (concerning the Tessellated Border) that it is:
“…the kind care of Providence which so cheerfully surrounds us and keeps us within its protection …”
In its capacity as a protective bounding device the Tessellated Border also exhibits certain parallels to the “Point Within a Circle”, within the boundary of which no Mason is able to error.
Given the historical esoteric significance of knotted ropes it is not surprising that our Tessellated Border ended up being used on the Lodge Floor as a protective boundary between the profane world and our sacred rites. I would submit to the reader that a reconfiguration of the Tessellated Border did not occur because of a misinterpretation of the word “Tassellated”; rather the Border was, and always had been, intended as a protective enclosure for the Lodge room.
In closing I remind the reader that if you wake up with knots in your hair, it’s said that the fairies have played with your hair.
[I] Falconer, Donald H.B. (2003). The Four Tassels. Chapter 24 in The Square and Compasses – In Search of Freemasonry. Retreived March 15, 2012 from Pietre-Stones Review of Freemasonry at www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/don13.html.
[II] Bromwell, Henry P.H. (1909). Restorations of Masonic Geometry and Symbolry: Being a Dissertation of the Lost Knowledges of the Lodge. Denver: The H.P.H. Bromwell Masonic Publishing Company.
[III] Mackey, Albert Gallatin. (1929). Mackey’s Revised Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and Kindred Sciences. Masonic History Company. ASIN: B001LOY03C.
[IV] Webster, Richard. (2005). Gabriel: Communicating With The Archangel For Inspiration & Reconciliation. Llewellen.
[V] Urton, Gary (1998). From Knots to Narratives: Reconstructing the Art of Historical Record Keeping in the Andes from Spanish Transcriptions of Inka Khipus. Ethnohistory. Vol. 45, No. 3 (Summer, 1998). Duke University Press.
[VI] Zenner, Marie-Thérèse (Ed.). (2004). Villard’s Legacy: Studies in Medieval Technology, Science, and Art in Memory of Jean Gimpel. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing. ISBN: 0-7546-0929-4.
[VII] Day, Cyrus L. Knots and Knot Lore: Quipus and Other Menmonic Knots. In Western Folklore Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1957), pp. 8-26. Western States Folklore Society.
[VIII] Taylor, Henry. The Cable Tow. in The Builder, November 1923. Volume IX – Number 11.
[IX] Gordon, Stuart. (1993). The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends. London: Headline.
[X] Frazer, James George. (1947). The Golden Bough: A Study In Magic And Religion: A detailed examination of the forms of occult practice across the world and the ages. Supernatural Beliefs and Mysticism , Magic Spells & Practice , Ancient Deities , Witches & Witchcraft , Fairies , Demons , Human Sacrifice , the Druids , etc., etc. New York: MacMillan Company.
[XI] Mayer, Toby (Trans). Arabic/English. (2009). Keys to Arcana: Shahrastani’s Esoteric Commentary on the Qur’an. Oxford University Press. ISBN-10:199533652; ISBN-13:9780199533657.
[XII] Hastings, James (Ed.) (2004). A Dictionary of the Bible. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.
[XIII] Love Knot. Symbols Dictionary. A Visual Glossary. Retrieved March 14, 2012 from http://symboldictionary.net/?p=3030.
[XIV] Parwani, Kritika (2011).Celtic Love Knot Meaning. Retrieved March 24, 2012 from http://www.buzzle.com/articles/celtic-love-knot-meaning.html.
[XV] Martinez Jr., Carlos, Antonio. The Chain of Union: Another Omitted Essential Part of Our Ritual. Northern California Research Lodge. Retrieved March 21, 2012 from http://calodges.org/ncrl/union.html.
[XVI] Eyer, Shawn. The Mystery of the Mosaic Pavement. Philalethes. Fall 2009. No. 93. Retrieved March 10, 2012 from http://academialodge.org/pdf/eyer_mystery_of_the_mosaic_pavement.pdf
[XVII] Op. cit. Falconer, Donald H.B. (2003). The Four Tassels.
[XVIII] Baillod, Gil. ( 2011). Conversation About a Masonic Clock. Watch Around. Retrieved March 24, 2012 from http://www.watch-around.com/en/subscribers-zone/magazine/article/les-memes-gestes-depuis-des-siecles.html.
[XIX] Comeau, Howard. Freemasonry and the Hunt of the Unicorn. Retrieved March 16, 32012 from http://www.premiumorange.com/tapisseries-licornes/CHASSE/01j-%20Free-Masonnery.htm.
[XX] Oltean, Gabriel Vasile (2008). The Masonic Chain. in Masonic Forum magazine No. 33 Spring AL 6008. retrieved March 22, 2012 from http://www.masonicforum.ro/archive/en/nr33/oltean.html.
[XXI] Ryder, Norman. A Visit to Portugal: Would You Meet the Criteria to Become a Mason in Portugal ? The Newsletter of the Committee on Masonic Education, The Grand Lodge of Canada in the Province of Ontario. Vol. 19, No.2.
[XXII] MacBride, Andrew Sommerville. (2008). The MacBride Ritual: The Complete Ritual of Andrew S. MacBride. Masonic Publishing Company. ISBN-10: 095442686X; ISBN-13: 978-0954426866.
[XXIII] Brown, John I. (2010). The Master-Key Through All the Degrees of a Free-mason’s Lodge; to Which Are Added, Eulogiums and Illustrations, Upon Free-masonry; Theology; Astronomy; Geometry; Architecture; Arts; Sciences. Gale ECCO. ISBN-13: 9781170988213.