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  • Leslie Hudson

One knot, two knots, three knots, storm

Cape Breton is full of storytellers. It's my favourite part of Canada (that I've so far visited), full of magic and memory and music reaching back to its Gaelic roots across the Atlantic.



Wind knot magic.

Day 11/30


I'm only beginning to get into the study of knot magic. It's a new obsession and have begun practicing basic nautical and practical knots to familiarize myself with the fundamental patterns and uses. But the practical uses of knots are stepping stones for me into the use and history of knot magic.


Many cultures, nations, and peoples have well-developed traditions of knotting for practical, artistic, storytelling, magical, and many other purposes. In today's example of folklore magic, the knots that occur in the story of "The Wind Merchant" are wind knots, and the undoing of them unleashes the wind.


I have a wonderful little book called The Twelve Winds of the Ancient Gaelic World, by Jean Wright-Popescul, which has a very scholarly bibliography, excellent notes on the traditions of the 12 coloured winds in Irish texts, and a small collection of folktales about the wind, some retold, some invented, some adapted.


Without going too deeply into the study, in Old Irish MSS like the Seanchas Mór and the Saltair na Rann the winds are identified by colour, association, and direction, so the southeast wind (for example) is yellow and brings good fortune. The colours are approximated in translation because the Early Irish colour palette was quite dissimilar to the modern concept of the colour wheel in use today, and several aren't strictly colours.


Four chief winds:


Purple (likely reddish-purple) from the east

White (bright) from the south

Black from the north

Dun from the west


Eight sub-winds:


Yellow (golden) & red (rusty) from the southeast

Glas (grey/blue/green or "grue") & green (verdant) from the southwest

Grey & temen (dark, dark-grey?) from the northwest

Alad (variegated, speckled) & ciar (dusky, dark-brown?) from the northeast


When it comes to wind knot tales, Wright-Popescul notes that the colour of the thread of rope seems always to be blue, which corresponds to a wind from the southwest, though my understanding is that the wind unleashed when a knot is undone is a favourable one and not necessarily direction-specific.


The Wind Merchant


A man and his friend have caught no fish all week because there has been no wind. After two days more of fruitless attempts to catch anything, they make land on an island where a wind merchant lives. She plies them for news (but they have none) and tea or whiskey, both of which they share with her.


The old woman ties them three knots in blue thread and tells them to untie the first knot for a fine, fluttering breeze. Untie the second knot for a strong, favourable wind. But not to untie the third knot.


Out on the bay the men untie the first knot and sail out easily to where the fish are. When they see an even larger school of fish beyond their reach they untie the second knot and the wind carries them forward, fast enough to catch them.


When their boat is heavy with fish they head home. Close to the harbour, (for some reason) they untie the third knot thinking themselves safe to do so and a dark and heavy storm rolls in that will not allow them to make land. They row against it all day long making no headway.


Fearing for their lives and the loss of their catch they tie the boat full of fish to a rock and wait it out. When the storm blows out they gratefully limp home. The next day they visit the wind merchant again and bring her plenty of tea and whiskey, a peace offering with their gratitude.


Lesson learned: when a woman so knowledgeable she can tie the wind in knots tells you not to untie the third knot, don't untie it!


"The Wind Merchant" from Jean Wright-Popescul's The Twelve Winds of the Ancient Gaelic World (Halifax: Canso-Chesapeake Heritage Publishing, 1997), pp. 161-166.


From Wright-Popescul's notes: See Peter McIntosh's History of Kintyre. Also, Joe Neil MacNeil's version called "The Three Knots" in Tales Until Dawn, 84-86. The idea of 'winds for sale' seems common among the Gaelic speaking people and appears in other cultures as well. See "The Wind Knots" in Thorpe's Northern Mythology.



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