Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Levels Of Meaning In Knot-Work And Interlace Designs

If you’ve ever visited my humble stall and perchance listened to me waffle on you might have heard me mention that I felt the knot-work reflected the thread of life, or  a sense of connectedness, and the incorporation of animals and plants into the designs reinforces this notion. My explanations evolved with my understanding, from an instinctive reasoning after years spent carving the motifs onto stone. Sometimes such ‘notions’ have been backed up by research. 

The famous Sutton Hoo burial buckle, 7th c. AD

In twenty years of carving I've restricted my use of knot-work. This is due to a  number of factors: 

1: It’s complicated and time consuming to reproduce the type of work found in the likes of the Book of Kells, there is a lot of planning involved; laying out the design before any carving begins (although the knots I freehand onto pendants are simpler designs).

2: I feel that knots have become synonymous with Celtic art and this is not wholly true. The knot is a later development and not restricted or ‘culturally ‘owned’ by the tribes we nowadays term Celtic. If anything the knot was borrowed and later adapted from other cultures. 

3; I prefer carving pre-christian imagery and seeing as most of it was actualised by monks knot work involves a lot of Christian imagery (I prefer the Bronze Age work artistically)

Lombard knotwork
Lombard gold disc from Cividale in northern Italy, 6th c. AD

As with all ancient designs appropriated by various cultures, the symbology morphs and can be understood to reach, or rest upon, deep foundations, therefore containing meaning that works on various levels.  Many ancient cultures saw the world as a vast web, or a tapestry of threads, fates strung together (“do you know the string on which this world, and the next and all beings are strung together?” - Upanishads 3:7:1). Life was woven, but never remote, never isolated, but linked by these invisible threads.  In the distant East Tao was the chain of all creation, while the ancient Babylonian word markasu means both link/cord and, in myth, “the cosmic principle that unites all things”

In some cultures, such as the Norse, certain goddesses, or female principles were in charge of the threads of fate. In Viking myth the three Norns, Urd (from wyrd, which means fate - but the word also links with what was, or has been), Verdandi (being) and Skuld (what shall be*), sit below the World tree, Yggdrasil (itself perhaps a metaphor for the universe) is highly significant - they are the governesses of time and therefore govern all.

Norse 'Mammen' Style artwork, 10th c.  AD
Hence looking at some of these fantastic images here with the above text in mind perhaps you can sense that connectedness is rife through these designs. It is also interesting to note that this sense of place and connectivity reflected in quantum physicist David Bohm’s book, “Wholeness And The Implicate Order” - in which he likens the rush of thoughts as a river, in which there are eddies and vortexes of thought but all are connected and moving,  though our mind isolates and fragments thoughts into phenomena this isn’t actually so. In the quantum world everything is linked, nothing is separate. I suppose this too ties in with chaos theory (the two of course are interchangeable) and the famous platitude of the butterfly (whose tiny wings could kick-start hurricanes across the globe), which is only a allegory, not a truth, but I like it all the same. 

Sometimes I have the uncanny feeling that at an instinctual, intuitive level the ancient peoples, or so-called ‘primitives’, grasped  fundamental principles of existence, perhaps not fully understanding the physics behind the metaphors - but it suited their cosmologies and sense of sacredness all the same… or perhaps that is my interpretation, my fancy… a hope. Oh what tangled webs we weave! 

Indeed! Back to the Knots!

Thinking of the primary function of a knot in a  piece of twine, hempen rope or blade of grass. It binds, ties, fixes one to another. Marriage is a binding of two, legally and emotionally (and some later knots from the Highlands indeed symbolise this idea). In the past sorcerers and various cult practices bound or tied spirits or demons to their service, ‘bewitching’ was ‘to bind,' and across the globe the etymology of magical words is often linked to root words for tying/binding/chaining. Woden was bound and hung from the world tree and there is evidence of cult practices amongst ancient Germanic tribes that involved binding rituals. Indeed in one of the earliest human sculptures of a ‘goddess’ type the hands appear wrapped in a cord, possibly a hint at some ancient ritual involving ceremonial bondage (bending the will of the goddess perhaps?). Thus the knot could be used as a talisman to protect from evil spirits, much like the idea of labyrinths, in which the malign spirit becomes lost in the maze. Knots could be used both beneficially and detrimentally, they could curse as well as heal. But don’t worry, all the knots I carve are ‘happy knots’! ho-ho. 

Celtic Knotwork
Celtic interlace from Edinburgh Museum, 8th c AD

John Romilly Allen in his book, ‘Celtic Art In Pagan And Christian Times,' points out that even during the Roman occupation of Britain knots were simple plaits, that is without what he terms ‘breaks’ by which method the designs could metamorphose into the intricacies such as adorn the Book of Kells and later high crosses of Britain. He traces the change in northern Italy in the 6th Century A.D, during the Lombard invasion. He identifies what many consider ‘Celtic art’ (like the ripped off designs of all the made in Thailand silverware that fill most of Edinburgh’s tourist shops - dig, dig) to be a local mutation of the Lombardo-Byzantine style, from which fantastical creatures such as centaurs, griffons, etc are borrowed  (they hardly feature in earlier pagan mythology of the insular Celts). However the art-form flourished and developed to exquisite heights, though the imagery was overwhelmingly Christian, with mythological imagery used out of context, so that a centaur might represent a desert, or a foreign clime rather than some episode in Greek myth. This would point to pagan influence and that much is evident from the so-called Migration Period art from the 5th and 6th c. AD (that’s when the Germanic tribes get restless and move throughout Europe and beyond).

I think this notion is important in our day and age and also in relation to the symbolism;  nothing is achieved in isolation, ideas move like people move - religions, creeds, philosophies - all inspire and alter art, reflecting the evolution of perspectives. Recently Britain voted itself out of the EU, for better or worse. However it is pertinent to say that movements of peoples are evidenced by art. Ideas from Europe and further afield have always been integral to the island’s culture, and these were indeed altered, developed and adapted by these island’s inhabitants (including Ireland here too). States are fairly modern conceptions, they are the amalgamation of ancient kingdoms, peoples (themselves migrants and movers, invaders or refugees). This has always been the way of the world and no walls or frontiers can stop that. 

Islamic Knotwork from a 12th c. AD Koran

National Museum of Scotland
Celtic Christian Cross showing marriage of styles and mythological monsters. 


Romilly Allen -  Celtic Art In Pagan And Christian Times 
HR Ellis Davidson - Lost Beliefs Of Northern Europe 
Migman - Intuition

In Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe HR Ellis Davidson has Skuld as connected with debt, or something owed… as in life.

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