Saying Yes to Knots (Part 2): It’s Knot What You Know

When my daughter was 4 she began to be interested in knots. Really interested. She practiced tying me up and seeing how long it would take me to get free. I should have known better. One day with the help of another 4 year old she tied up her 14-year old babysitter and brought her to tears. My daughter and her friend meanwhile laid waste to the 14 year old’s room.

Blame the knots.

We speak about being in knots, about problems being knotty, about being unable to understand the knots in relationships.

Stories have narrative through-lines and strands of imagery. Our language has remnants of understanding about the way knots connect to us and to our stories.

Without understanding knots as figures that embody the way stories can be put together, we can’t understand the Greek myths properly and we may miss out on how to make our own stories stronger and truer to experience.

People are connected to each other not only though simple lines of friendship, desire, and hatred; people belong to organizations, families, communities, tribes, and each unit exercises its hold on us in various and competing ways. The ancient Greeks had a word “oikos” that meant household, site, home, and the psychic and psychological links one had with family and ancestors. So you were connected to oikos, even if you were far away from it. You belonged to oikos.

Some of that ancient understanding might help us understand the conflicts in the Middle East, in the Balkans, and in Afghanistan. Maybe.

Let’s look at the story of Leda, from the Greek myths. She is a beautiful woman desired by Zeus, king of the gods. Leda might be virtuous, strong, and intelligent, but none of that matters when a god wants her. What being desired by a god might mean is not easily understandable, but it is not the same as being desired by another human being. Suffice it to say that there is nothing a human can do to resist in the face of the divine.

Leda’s story and all the myths are in part about human helplessness in front of the universe. Here is the poem by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Leda and the Swan” (1928):

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.


How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?


A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop.


Zeus knows that if he appears in his true form, Leda will die on the spot, much as we could not survive an encounter with 100, 000 volts. So he changes himself to a swan and then ravishes her. She cannot resist. A human cannot resist the will of a god.

But the mere fact of the experience results in the birth of Helen, in guaranteeing Hera’s’ wrath and her necessary vengeance against Helen, whose only offense is to have been born, and in the unwilling participation of many other people—and gods.

The cause and effect relationship here—sex with a god—is almost impossible to compute. The Greeks understood that life is impossible to compute, but they knew that actions have consequences, all of which are karmic. These consequences can take generations to unfold. The story cycles of Oedipus, for example, connect his grandparents and his children. The blood karma connected to the House of Atreus. Helen grows up and marries King Menelaus (is given to him). Meanwhile, in Troy a young prince is chosen by Zeus to judge a beauty contest. He cannot refuse. Zeus again. Paris must choose which of these three goddesses is the most beautiful: Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera.

Leda and the Swan 36" x 48" Ramon Kubicek

Leda and the Swan
36″ x 48″ Ramon Kubicek


A no-win problem. A knot. Whomever he chooses will leave two angry losers. Angry gods. Not good. The Greeks loved this kind of narrative-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place situation

Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, tells Paris that if he chooses her she will give him the most beautiful woman in the world. That might be the original “make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

So Paris, with Aphrodite’s help, is able to seduce Helen, and she either elopes with him or she is abducted. Love engenders war (the ten year Trojan war) and on the grander scale, the love between Paris and Helen has completed the arc of destruction released by the love of Zeus for Leda.

The reasons for any event in the Trojan narrative are always direct and understandable as basic narrative strands. Paris abducts Helen; the Greeks take revenge. But the deeper influences at work are ancestral and always involve the interference of the gods in human affairs. The simplest strand quickly becomes a knot, And human characters, like Oedipus, Helen, Odysseus, Theseus, Ariadne—for example—are walking knots, in whom lines of retribution and fate are being played out, often without that person’s knowledge.

The novels of William Faulkner have this quality of narrative knot. Characters walk around doomed by their ancestral guilt.

Instead of looking for simple lines of motivation in a modern novel or movie, look at the protagonists as motivated—pushed and pulled—by knots. These knots would be seemingly unresolvable situations. The damned if you do and damned if you don’t complexes.

The knots Life presented me when I was six I am finally unraveling as I meet the people I am supposed to meet.

Next time in Part Three we will look at how to use the narrative understanding of knots when we construct our own stories.

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