Sunday, 18 September 2016

Solomon’s Knot

My last post ‘Visions, demons, graffiti’ included reference to Timothy Easton’s ‘spiritual middens’ and Matthew Champion’s ‘spirit traps’.  This post continues with and expands on the discussion.

Easton’s spiritual dumping grounds exist, there are numerous incidences of his ‘middens’ within antique buildings. However, there is no evidence that spirits or anything else are trapped within them, or that objects within these dumps functioned as “a lure for unwanted spirits” [1]. The fact that many of these concealed dumps contain leather shoes (leather being of animal origin) and animal remains identifies them as almost certainly parallel to the foundation deposit, a practice in which offerings were concealed for luck during the construction of a building. These were offerings to spirits or gods, not traps or intentional lures for invisible agencies or indeed anything else.

Easton has also borrowed a motif from Amerindian culture to help ground his thesis on antique superstitions, specifically here mark-making in British architecture.  On page 55 of ‘Physical Evidence’ [2] he suggests that incised grid patterns found in old buildings may have functioned as “a net of entrapment, such as the web of a ‘dream catcher’.” But the classic dream catcher from Ojibwa (Chippewa) culture is not an imprecise grid pattern; it is based on the regular form of a round spider’s web and is a spiral design [3], see the illustration below. Secondly, spider webs are not a “lure” for anything, they are invisible traps to and for insects and they do not eternally snare, they hold insects fast until they are either caught by the spider, or die on the web, or indeed manage to extricate themselves. A snare is not of itself a decoy or a lure; it does not attract its quarry.


Smithsonian 'dream catcher': my drawing after Densmore, 1929.

The fashion for Native American artefacts like dream catchers only became widely popular in Britain with the advent of New Age spirituality in the 1960s and 1970s. Ojibwe religion and post-Reformation folk belief are from disparate and unrelated cultures. To attempt to reference medieval and post-Reformation graffiti with Native American spirituality is misleading and an anachronism of colossal stature; it is also deeply ironic because, as Philip Jenkins points out, in the historical context of European Christianity there was no sympathy for the religious practices of Native Americans and “the clergy had little doubt that Natives were worshipping the devil” [4]. Furthermore, it seems that the example of the dream catcher has been selected as a convenient aspect of a “generic Native spirituality so amorphous that it can be adapted to the interests and ideologies of the moment” [5], as in the current instance. It follows that I must reject it. The dream catcher web is only a web, a symbolic net, there is no suggestion that the lines of the net are anything but composite parts of a whole [6], which leads on to the next spirit trapping theory.

For Matthew Champion’s theory on supernatural traps we progress away from concealed caches of faunal remains and pick up on two-dimensional imagery, which may or may not be partly inspired for Champion by Easton’s  ‘dream catcher’ analogy. Champion’s ‘spirit trap’ thesis, which can apparently view lines on walls as paths of entrapment along which demons endlessly circulate, would contradict Easton's dream catcher analogy because the dream catcher functions as a net, and not as an arrangement of linear trackways around which spirits endlessly circulate.

Champion bases his particular thesis on “the story of Solomon’s Knot” on page 28 of his book, but only examines Solomon's Seal which he says "gave Solomon power over demons" [7], and the Seal is not always identified as his Knot. He tells us that Solomon’s Knot was a linear device that demons were “attracted to”, becoming trapped “within the symbol” [8].  Let us examine Solomon’s Knot.

Solomon the magician comes to us from medieval Judaic lore. The author Joseph Verheyden [9] tells us that Solomon’s Knot was a variant of Solomon’s Seal, a design engraved upon a ring making it powerful. There is no consensus as to what the seal was, it was either a knot motif, a sacred name [10], or “an eight-, six-, or five-pointed star”, Verheyden says the star had a face in the middle of it. The ring was for “subduing demons and forcing them” [11] to work for Solomon. The Knot could catch demons in it but was equally “an apotropaic sign” [12] scaring them away, which is not unreasonable considering its property of restraint. However, it did not function as a lure or to attract spirits. There is a Biblical parallel from the book of Revelation where Satan is bound in chains by an angel who “shut him up, and set a seal upon him” but we are told nothing about the seal, [Revelation 20:3]. Again, the Arch-fiend is not lured or attracted to the chains; he is forcefully bound into them, and only for 1000 years at that, according to St John.

Solomon's Knot is a two-dimensional figure consisting of two loops, doubly interlinked, with four crossings where the dual loops interweave under and over each other. This knot or more accurately ‘link’ motif thus forms a complex cross, it is thus an elaboration on the theme of the cross.

Solomon's Knot

The cross is the Knot of Solomon’s primary symbolism and explains its appearance in churches. I would see the cross as an abstracted form of the sun wheel, spokes without the rim of the wheel. As a solar cross symbolising the sun it is indeed a powerfully apotropaic device, a lucky charm for driving away or banishing evil. This would explain its great popularity down the ages, amongst the pagan Romans, on their mosaics, and appearing on ancient synagogues and latterly in Christian churches where the solar cross becomes the Cross, a cruciform.

Celtic ‘sun cross’, modern era, Harnham, Wiltshire, UK.

Champion’s thesis would have a theoretical demon or spirit “attracted to lines” [13] then travelling eternally around  the unending figure of Solomon’s Knot, trapped forever because "evil begins to follow the line [which will] never come to an end..." [14]. Champion does not tell us how the demon enters this hermetically sealed figure in the first place. The author Ruth Mellinkoff [15] says that demons disliked confusion and includes knots and interlaces under this heading. Contrary to Champion, Easton and also the author Brian Hoggard [see note ‘witch bottles’ below] who view spirits being lured into traps, Mellinkoff thinks the appearance of a knot “with no determinable end” would confuse a devilish spirit and “ward off the feared demonic evil”. This contradicts the whole notion of luring or decoying a spirit into a trap, the function of the knot would again be – as with the sign of the cross – apotropaic, intending to fend off an unwelcome intruder. Mellinkoff mentions no spirits following or trapped within lines.

The magical knot as apotropaic talisman seems to have entered Europe during the Middle Ages. As Champion notices [16], the Arthurian knight Gawain possesses ‘an endless knot’ on his shield in the shape of a pentagram, both knot and shield comprise a protective barrier between the knight and an adversary; I would stress that the device does not attract evil to it which would contradict the function of a shield. It may also be significant that Gawain’s shield with its golden pentagram has an image of the Virgin Mary on the other side, facing the knight. This arrangement realises an association between the shining fivefold geometry of the pentagram and the Marian devotional image recalling “the five joys that the gracious Queen of Heaven had of her Child” ~

Thus Gawain “had on the upper half of the inside of his shield, a picture of the Virgin painted, so that when he looked at it his courage never failed”.

‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, M R Ridley, page 34, 1944.

Note. ‘Witch bottles’ are archaeological remains of folk belief in Britain. A bottle was filled with material with the intention of forming a ‘sympathetic link’ with a witch, and thus harming the spell-casting witch through the preparation of the contents and treatment of the remedial bottle. Since bottles were buried many have been recovered enabling study. Brian Hoggard in ‘Physical Evidence’ ultimately refutes the documented evidence of Joseph Blagrave who, writing in 1671, clearly explained the apotropaic function of a witch bottle as “causing the evil to return back” [17] to its sender. The bottles are also endorsed by Merrifield as “counter-measures to witchcraft” [18].  These explanations are contrary to Hoggard’s belief that the receptacles were used as a “decoy” [19] for malign agencies. Hoggard’s belief also contradicts Mellinkoff’s thesis that spirits could see well enough to become confused and frightened away by the sight of knots and interlaces, and yet Hoggard believes malign spirits would mistake a stoppered bottle for a real person. Some early witch bottles were initially of the continental European imported stoneware ‘Bellarmine’ type, with stern bearded, generic faces on them. There is no evidence that they were intentionally manufactured for export for use in Britain specifically as decoys for spirits. Eventually, featureless glass bottles were used as witch bottles in Britain. The tradition of the witch bottle does not occur in Europe; Hoggard  following Merrifield [20] says the early stoneware witch bottles were manufactured in Holland and the Rhineland, but both authors say the witch bottle practice was indigenous to the British Isles. The author Paul Devereux contradicts this with the statement "Witch bottles were common throughout Europe" [21]. In terms of the spirit trap thesis, parallel to Champion and his sealed knots, Hoggard doesn’t attempt to explain how the spirit negotiates the stopper in the bottle in order to trap itself within it. Thus this is yet another ‘spiritual trap’ thesis I have to reject because there just isn’t the evidence for it.


1. ‘Physical Evidence’, page 162.
2. ibid. page 55.
3. Smithsonian Bulletin 86, Frances Densmore, ‘Chippewa Customs’, 1929.
4. ‘Dream Catchers’, Philip Jenkins page 20.
5. ibid. page 6.
6. ‘Dream Catchers’, Oberholzer, page 43.
7. ‘Medieval Graffiti’, Champion, page 49.
8. ibid. p28.
9. ‘The Figure of Solomon’, p238.
10. 'The Jewish Encyclopedia', 1906, V:11 P:448.
11. ‘The Figure of Solomon’, p238.
12. ibid
13. ‘Medieval Graffiti’, page 28
14. ibid
15.‘Averting Demons’, Vol 1, Ruth Mellinkoff, page 48.
16. ‘Medieval Graffiti’, page 48.
17. Merrifield, page 169.
18. ibid. page 167.
19. 'Physical Evidence', Page 96.
20. Merrifield, page 173.
21. Paul Devereux – (June 2007), under the ‘Spirit Control’ sub-heading: “Witch bottles were common throughout Europe”. (


‘Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: A Feeling for Magic’, Ronald Hutton (Ed), 2016.

‘Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality’, Philip Jenkins, 2004.

‘Dream Catchers: Legend, Lore and Artifacts’, Cath Oberholtzer, 2012.

‘Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches’, Matthew Champion, 2015.

 ‘The Figure of Solomon in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Tradition: King, Sage and Architect’, Joseph Verheyden, 2012.

‘The Jewish Encyclopedia’, (1906) Jewish Encyclopedia, V:11 P:448 (

‘Averting Demons: The Protective Power of Medieval Visual Motifs and Themes’, Vol 1, Ruth Mellinkoff, 2004.

‘The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic’, Ralph Merrifield, 1987.