How to Tie Knots That Have Tales to Tell

Learning how to tie knots is one of the OG summer camp arts and crafts activities, and was likely part of the very first American summer camp experience. We asked Atlas Obscura Course Instructor John Bucher, a mythologist and storyteller, to share two easy-to-learn knots that are practical and have fascinating backstories.

Knots have been used since prehistoric times for tasks ranging from basic survival—think building shelters and catching food—to aesthetics, such as clothing and ritual traditions. Early humans likely used natural materials like vines, animal sinews, and plant fibers to tie knots. While most people have only one or two knots in their repertoire, knowing how to tie a knot that’s not just for securing your shoelaces can be helpful when braving the Great Outdoors. Here are a couple of knots that can come in handy but also have classic mythic stories tied up in their history.

The Mythology of the Heracles Knot

Also known as the square knot, the reef knot, or the love knot, the Heracles knot has been used in art and sculpture as a symbol of commitment and sometimes marriage in a number of different cultures. The ancient Greeks believed Heracles himself used it to complete one of his Twelve Labors. His Ninth Labor was to retrieve the girdle of Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons. In one version of the myth, the girdle was tied with the Heracles knot, and his knowledge of the knot allowed him to untie it and obtain the girdle, further cementing its association with the hero and his legendary exploits. Greek brides later sometimes also wore girdles tied with the knot, which the groom would untie as a symbol of consummation and the beginning of their life together.

Curiously, the Greek word for knot can also be translated as spell or charm. The Heracles knot was believed by some to possess magical properties that provided protection and strength. It was commonly used in amulets and jewelry to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the wearer. The knot’s association with Heracles, a figure of legendary strength, made it a powerful symbol of protection.

The Heracles knot—or the Hercules knot, if you prefer the hero’s name Latinized—can be used for fishing, hunting, and carrying supplies.

How to Tie a Heracles Knot

You can tie a Heracles knot with a single strand of rope or cord, but it’s often done using two strands, which I’ll share here.

Start with the two ropes in front of you, ends facing each other. Take the left rope end (let’s call it End A) and place it over the right rope end (End B) and then under it, intertwining the two ropes like snakes. End A is now on your right, and wrapped around End B, which is on the left.

Take End A and wrap it around End B again. End A will be back on the left, and End B on the right; you’ve essentially created two intertwined loops.

Finally, pull on all four pieces (both parts of each loop) to tighten and create a square-shaped knot.

Both Krishna and Shiva are sometimes depicted wielding a rope tied in a pasha knot, which is associated with binding souls—and the occasional demon or evil spirit.
Both Krishna and Shiva are sometimes depicted wielding a rope tied in a pasha knot, which is associated with binding souls—and the occasional demon or evil spirit.

The Mythology of the Pasha Knot

In Hinduism, knot tying was sometimes associated with the death gods. When someone was dying, it was once a common practice to untie all the knots in their room so as to not keep the dying person bound to life and suffering. Perhaps the most discussed knot in Hindu mythology is the pasha knot, also known as the noose knot, which was used by the gods to bind and even extract souls from the body at death.

The god Krishna is sometimes depicted as using a lasso tied with a pasha knot to capture and subdue evil spirits and demons. One story about Krishna involves a divine creature called Kaliya, who was half-human and half-snake. According to the ancient text Bhagavata Purana, Krishna confronted Kaliya, who was poisoning the Yamuna River. Krishna danced on the hoods of Kaliya’s many serpent heads and then subdued him with a pasha knot.

Shiva is also sometimes depicted carrying a trident and a noose made with a pasha knot, a symbol of his ability to bind and release the soul. In one story, a sage named Markandeya is destined to die at the age of 16. When Yama, the god of death, comes to claim him, Markandeya clings to a statue of Shiva and is caught in a pasha knot that Shiva had placed there. Shiva appears and defeats Yama, thus sparing Markandeya’s life.

The pasha knot can be used for securing supplies, creating traps, or any other outdoor activities where adjustable loops come in handy.

How to Tie a Pasha Knot

You can tie a pasha knot with a single strand of rope or cord.

First, take the length of rope and lay it out in an “S” shape in front of you, giving plenty of rope to the front formation of the S—we’ll call this the working end.

Push the three strands of the “S” together forming three parallel lines.

Pinch those three sections of rope together in the center and bring the working end of the rope under and over them there, making a tight loop around the rest of the ropes. Continue to wind the working end of the rope around, making at least three, but preferably four or five tight loops, coiled in succession right next to each other.

You’ll now have the coils in the middle, and a loop on either side, with the working end of the rope pointing toward one of the loops. Pull the working end through that loop, and then pull the other loop to tighten, securing the working end and creating the adjustable pasha knot.

The pasha should slide easily along the standing, or coiled, part of the rope when pulled, allowing you to adjust the size of the loop as needed.

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