There I was: flipping through my wedding album with my wife and daughter. You know how it goes – – your kids get their hands on old photos and they want to know how you and mom met and what happened at the wedding and a zillion other things that occurred before they were born. But when I got to the part about telling my future in-laws my wife and I were “tying the knot”, my daughter drew a blank stare. She did not understand the term. It dawned on me that I didn’t understand the term either. So out came the encyclopedia and we were off and runing on yet another adventure in learning.
The whole concept of “tying the knot” and how it relates to marriage has its roots in a variety of cultures. But that’s the short answer. The idea of a wedding ceremony and tying the knot, where the bride and groom exchange vows and slip a ring on each other’s finger is steeped in traditions and cultures older than probably any one can remember. Long before organized religion wielded it’s power and intimated almost as many individuals as it converted, the Wican and Pagan beliefs conducted what was known as the “handfasting ceremony” or “handfasting ritual”. And there in lies the root of the phrase “tying the knot”.
This isn’t the place to debate the merits of the Wican or Pagan way of life. They both place their faith in good ‘ol Mother Earth. And both “religions” – if we want to use the term – recognize a priestess or priest as an official who can make any ceremony legal and binding. When it comes to marriage, the handfasting ceremony or handfasting ritual is what brings the soon-to-be-husband and wife together.
Allow me to digress: try explaining all this to an 11 year old who never missed an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Witch and try doing it in a way that they understand. Or better yet try explaining all this Wican stuff and make it seem perfectly harmless. Instead of meeting in a church, in the handfasting ritual; the couple meet in a circle that is divided into four quarters. With each quarter representing one of the elements of earth, fire, water and air. An altar is placed at the north end of the circle and the couple stands before the altar and before the priestess who proceeds over the ceremony.
What is interesting in this method of tying the knot is that there are no wedding vows per se. Rather the man and woman make promises to each other to lead a good life and take care of each other. The priestess or priest then binds the couple’s right hands signifying a lasting union than never ends. And thus the term tying the knot was born! The ceremony concludes with the couple jumping over a sword or broomstick – – to represent the end of one life and the beginning of a new one. What…a kiss on the lips won’t suffice?
As I was relating all this to my daughter, it dawned on me that I kind of like this tying the knot method of matrimony. It seems like a sort of a low-cal marriage ceremony if you will. No pomp and circumstance. No rings and expensive dresses and all the other material things that tend to overshadow the main reason the man and woman decided to come together in the first place! I’m not sure if my wife shares those sentiments and I’m not about to change her mind anyway. Unfortunately, not every state recognizes the handfasting ceremony as an official one. In fact, many handfasting ceremonies are good for only one year. Meaning the “promises” the couple makes during the ceremony will be re-evaluated after one year and a day. At the end of this trial period the couple can decide to remain together or go their separate ways. This is sure a lot less painless than filing for a divorce! So technically, tying the knot then could be considered as an “untying” ceremony as well. At least after 12 months and twenty four hours!
It should come as no surprise that there are variations to this theme. In Hawaii for example, the couple has their hands bound with a garland of flowers. In the Orient it’s with a sash or ribbon, so it’s easy to see that where ever the idea of tying the knot began, it transcends an entire world and probably most of the cultures within it.
So my daughter learned a new word, learned a bit of history and lore and now understands what her father means when he refers to tying the knot. This has spurred me on to explain other slang terms in the American language – – for example, a pain in the butt, a knot on the head, and an eye for an eye just to name a few. And it wouldn’t surprise me if those phrases have variations that are known the world over as well.