Have long figured in magic. It was widely held that by tying three (or nine) knots on a lace or thread, witches could render a man impotent; according to the astrologer Simon Forman early in the 17th century, this was done during the wedding ceremony itself, with the words ‘Whom God hath joined together let the Devil separate; sara till these knots be undone’. Similarly, as told in the ballad ‘Willie's Lady’, a witch might prevent a woman in labour from giving birth by secretly knotting her hair ribbons (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 220–1; F. J. Child, English and Scottish Ballads, no. 6). It was believed witches would ‘sell the wind’ to sailors in a cord with three knots; untying the first would bring a fine breeze, the second a high wind, the third a destructive storm; this is usually told of witches abroad—in Scandinavia, Scotland, the Isle of Man, or Ireland—rather than in home ports (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 446–7).
Knotting one's garter was a relatively simple form of divination, which unlike most could be practised on any night of the year, to reveal one's destined partner in a dream. Aubrey's recipe is to tie one's left garter to one's right stocking and recite the following verses, making a further knot at each comma: ‘This knot I knit, To know the thing, I know not yet, That I may see, The man (woman) that shall my husband (wife) be, How he goes, And what he wears, And what he does, all days, and years’ (Aubrey, 1696: 131–2). Knotted threads were also used as cures for whooping cough, sprains, nosebleed, and warts; in the first three cases they were worn by the patient, but for the last they were touched to each wart and then thrown away to decay (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 221–4).