The archaic invention of twine--or of any thread, string, line, rope, or generic cordage--was of an elemental importance comparable to that of the spear, the cutting edge, the hammer, and the technologies of clothing, shelter and fire. For Indo-European languages, there are many old linguistic clues attesting the early significance of twine, and the frequently related verbs of twisting, bending, turning, and tying knots. A phrase like "the ties that bind" is derived from the Greek peirata, symbolizing connections between the aion (or eon)--the individual span of a human being's life--and the will of the gods, or beyond to the power of the Fates whom even the gods must respect, and still beyond that to the dictates of chance and necessity.

In Homer, one is struck by the fact that his heroes with all their magnificent vitality and activity feel themselves at every turn not free agents but passive instruments or victims of other powers. It was not merely that they and their foes "lived dangerously" and life and fortune were precarious possessions. A man felt that he could not help his own actions. An idea, an emotion, an impulse came to him; he acted and presently rejoiced or lamented. Some god had inspired or blinded him. He prospered, then was poor, perhaps enslaved; he wasted away in disease, or died in battle. It was divinely ordained, his portion appointed long before...."It lies on the knees of the gods." This famous phrase, still current, is a picturesque way of saying that some issue rests with a higher power whose will is not yet known.

[One's fate was spun, and] the instruments used were a basket and a spindle....That the knees played a part in the spinning process is thus clear [with no distaff to hold up the unspun wool]....Spinning and weaving can be traced back to the neolithic age and even earlier. In the dim past, from which such a concept as this almost certainly comes, it may well be that the male ancestors of the Achaeans, with the Egyptians of old and some comparatively primitive peoples today, partook in or even wholly performed the spinning. The internal evidence of Homer is sufficient to show that his gods were habitually conceived as spinning what is to be.

[Onians, Origins of European Thought, pp. 303-304, 308. Following this brief section titled "On the Knees of the Gods," which opens that part of this rich and wonderful book on "Fate and Time," is a lengthy section on "Peirata," the bonds and the bounds, Life's weft threads.]

Nobody knows by whom, when, or where the innovation of twine through a simple twisting of strands was first performed. At the North American Wendover bog site, dating from around 5000 years ago,traces of an extremely fine plaited cordage were found in which minutely twined palm fronds were prepared by having been drawn first through the teeth. But such evidence is scarce, and we know almost nothing about what must be the extensive history of twine--however it may be called: string, rope, or cordage. Yet, inspecting evidence from the close of the Paleolithic period--of around 15,000 years ago--we do find some clues about the early use of twined or plaited strands.

In the cave of Lascaux, in the Vzre region, in an archaeological layer containing the bones of reindeer and chipped flint tools, there was found the small carbonized fragment of a piece of cord. Its imprint was also in the clay.

Because the fragment was fossilized, it was not possible to determine what variety of plant supplied its fibers. It was braided of three strands about one quarter inch wide (7 to 8 mm), all twisting to the right. The position of the cord in the cave has led archaeologists to believe that it had been used to descend into the ritual pit or "well" containing the paintings of the wounded bison, the bird-headed "sorcerer," the rhinoceros and the horse.

The clue is slight and is perhaps the least dramatic of those found in Lascaux with its wealth of painted and engraved animals, plants, weapons, signs and symbols. The fragment of cord hardly compares in significance with the art of the other Upper Paleolithic images of plants...depicting sprout, branch, flower, tree, and possibly cone, fruit and nut.

Nevertheless, by implication, the cord is of vast importance, telling us much about man, his cognition, and the nature of his early culture....Plant images and twined cord are equally parts of human "culture," contemporaneous products of the brain and society.

[Alexander Marshack, The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation, McGraw-Hill, New York (1972), pp. 369-370.]

Any strand of twine such as that in Duchamp's With Hidden Noise--which, even though coiled is still but a single strand--may be viewed as the common analog of a theoretically one-dimensional line. We speak rather loosely about lines of argument, genealogical lineages, strings or chains of cause and effect, and time-lines. Strictly speaking, however, "twine" must be more than a single filament, because the word TWINE is cognate with TWIN, and comes from a Middle English term for a rope of two strands. Of course, twine itself is much, much older than these words for it. Yet the archaeological origins of twine, string, rope, or any kind of cordage will probably never be fully confirmed, for it is most unlikely that "hard" evidence about such soft stuff from remote times will have survived.

While the general truth of this observation should be self-evident upon brief reflection, the failure by some scholars to grasp their significance has led to severe shortcomings and methodological bias. The renowned anthropologist Leo Frobenius distinguished between two different kinds of history: that for temperate latitudes in which the data of a culture was typically preserved in stone, bone, or other durable material; and that for equatorial climes, where people had to transmit their culture through the non-material oral and ritual arts such as dance, because hard stone was generally scarce and anything made out of organic materials would disintegrate within a rainy season or two. So, whereas we have archaic handaxes and other primitive cobblestone tools, for example, which define the beginnings of paleolithic object-making activity in temperate regions, very little has survived from equatorial, rain forest sites, with particularly scant evidence for organic artifacts that could be as old as stone tools, such as archaic thongs, baskets, carrying pouches or thread and twine.

[Leo Frobenius, Indische Reise, Verlag von Reimar Hobbing, Berlin (1931), pp. 221-222; in Campbell, Oriental Mythology, pp. 152-154.]

Nevertheless, a growing body of argument suggests a revision of the traditional belief that tropical rain forest ecosystems have been too fragile to support long-term, extensive human habitation. One extraordinary find by anthropologist Anna C. Roosevelt (originally reported in Science, December, 1991) consists of pottery fragments, excavated from a shell midden in the Amazon and dating from 8,000 years ago, which is about 3,000 years earlier than comparable finds on the South American coast, the area hitherto assumed to have been in the historical forefront of that continent's cultural development.

The discovery of the pottery and other artifacts at Taperinha, near the banks of the Amazon River in the Santarm region of Brazil, indicates that the oldest sophisticated civilizations in the Americas [so far confirmed by actual physical evidence] were created in the heart of the tropical rainforest and that it was not until much later that the technology and culture developed there filtered out to other sites....Roosevelt believes that the first residents of the Amazon arrived there about 12,000 years ago, descendants of Asians who migrated across the Bering Strait and down through the Americas. Over thousands of years, descendants of these first inhabitants conquered [sic!] large regions of South America, developed sophisticated cultural systems and cleared large areas of forest for farming and housing. But when the Europeans arrived, they brought diseases that wiped out much of the indigenous population and their concept of slavery turned most of the rest into "support populations" for the new arrivals, she said.

["A Revised View of Rain Forests: They may have been birthplace of New World's oldest civilizations," Los Angeles Times, (reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle, December 31, 1991). Ms. Roosevelt's reasons for presuming a hostile dialectic with Nature or the identity of those adversarial forces needing to be "conquered" are unclear.]

By whatever chance, genius, or intervention of the Demiurge, in any event, the crafting of twine, string, cord and rope must have come about very early in the evolution of mankind's basic tools. Braiding and plaiting are simple ways of producing strands which compounded a just few times can produce, even from fine human hair, surprisingly strong line. A cutting edge and a length of cordage--however found or made--together supply the fundamental pieces of equipment for tying-off the human umbilical cord at childbirth.

In the modern paramilitary organization of the Boy Scouts, one of the first traditional tests for the Tenderfoot is learning to differentiate between the infamous granny knot and a square knot properly tied. In the lore of knots, the square or reef knot is tied so that the paired strands emerging from either end of the knot lie on the same side of the respective adjacent bight. Such a knot will not unravel under tension as, however, will a granny knot in which one strand passess over, and the other under, each of the respective bights. The square knot--and NOT the granny--is used for tying-off first the mother's end of the umbilical cord, then the baby's, so that the cut can be made between the two secure knots, thus substantially reducing the risk of hemorrhage. The lineage of human culture applying this innovation would have benefitted from very powerful selective advantages through higher survival rates for both infant and mother.These were augmented when people discovered the idea of purification, especially through understanding the agency of fire, which certainly came about when cuisine evolved to include cooked meat and grains.


In an eloquent essay on the art of counting, Professor of Mathematics and then President of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Levi Leonard Conant (who died in 1916), supplies a charming example of knots used in little-known, traditional numbering systems.

Mom Cely, a Southern negro of unknown age, finds herself in debt to the storekeeper; and, unwilling to believe that the amount is as great as he represents, she proceeds to investigate the matter in her own peculiar way. She had "kept a tally of these purchases by means of a string, in which she tied commemorative knots." When her creditor "undertook to make the matter clear to Cely's comprehension, he had to proceed upon a system of her own devising. A small notch was cut in a smooth white stick for every dime she owed, and a large notch when the dimes amounted to a dollar; for every five dollars a string was tied in the fifth big notch, Cely keeping tally by the knots in her bit of twine; thus, when two strings were tied about the stick, the ten dollars were seen to be an indisputable fact."

[Levi Leonard Conant, "Counting," in The World of Mathematics, edited by James R. Newman, Simon and Schuster, New York (1956), Volume I, p. 436. The article from which Conant quotes was by Elizabeth W. Bellamy in the Atlantic Monthly, March, 1893, p. 317.]

Other, more sophisticated systems of counting by the use of knots include the knotted cord assemblage of pre-Columbian Peru known as a quipu, documented by a manuscript written in Spanish by a Peruvian Indian, Don Felipe Guamn Poma de Ayala sometime towards the end of the sixteenth century. His Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno was a letter of 1,179 pages addressed to the Spanish king, with four full-page illustrations showing quipus, and other descriptions of Andean life.

Then Poma gets to the point: the rest of the letter is about corruption, hypocrisy, cruelty, and torture introduced by the Spanish.

[Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher, Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics, and Culture, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor (1981), pp. 63 ff. For Poma's work, see John V. Murra, `Guamn Poma de Ayala,' Pt I, II, Natural History, Volume 70 (1961).]

The quipu was usually made of cotton cord, and dyed one or more colors which were also involved in coding its meaning. Such complex conventions formed a highly privileged if not secret method of reckoning, since the use of a quipu represented

the only form of "writing" known, [and] played a very important role in the Inca Empire because they recorded all the official Inca transactions concerning the land and the subjects of the empire....In every Inca settlement there were four official quipu keepers, known as camayocs, who tied the knots in these strings and submitted them to the central government in Cuzco....

At first glance, it seems puzzling that the Incas could also "write down" their history, their laws, their agreements and contracts on quipus. Garcilaso de la Vega, son of a Spaniard and an Inca princess, gives a very revealing account of the reception of the Spanish ambassador by the Inca: "Among the common people and the nobility who attended the Inca in the audience hall there were two official historians who recorded Hernando de Soto's message and the Inca's reply in knots."

How this was done is revealed to some extent in a second passage in which Garcilaso complains of a poor translator:

"His translation was not good and not accurate; this was unintentional, of course, since he did not understand the meaning of what he had to translate. Instead of the three-in-one and single God he read three gods plus one make four (!), adding the numbers so as to make the expression intelligible to himself."

[Karl Menninger, Number Words and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Numbers, translated by Paul Broneer, The M.I.T. Press, Cambridge (1969), pp. 252 ff. As also illustrated by Menninger, knots used by millers and bakers in Germany up to the beginning of the twentieth century, denoted the amounts and kinds of flour.]

The use of knotted cords was also, apparently, one of the earliest forms of writing in archaic China. The legendary sage Huang Ti is given credit in the I Ching, or Book of Changes, for invention of the Chinese equivalent of the quipu, which is associated with hexagram number 43, Kuai, symbolizing speech/solidity, i.e. retention of things spoken. Knotted cords as records are also referenced in a classical expression of the Taoist attitude toward society found in the 80th chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

The sage could bring it about that though there were contrivances which saved labor ten or a hundred times over, the people would not use them. He could make the people ready to die twice over for their country rather than emigrate. There might still be boats and chariots but no one would ride in them. There might still be weapons of war but no one would drill with them. He could bring it about that "the people should go back (from writing) to knotted cords, be contented with their food, pleased with their clothes, satisfied with their homes, happy in their work and customs. The country over the border might be so near that one could hear the cocks crowing and the dogs barking in it, but people would grow old and die without ever once troubling to go there."

Pondering once over this passage [writes Joseph Needham], the words of our English seventeenth-century Leveller (or rather Digger) thinker, Gerrard Winstanley, came into my mind, that "all the world's evils had come about from the dreadful device of buying and selling." Indeed, the only occasions on which the people from one country would have needed to go to another in ancient Taoist times would have been to buy and sell; or to make war under the leadership of one of the feudal lords. This passage gives the clue, therefore, that the Taoists were the spokesmen of some kind of primitive agrarian collectivism, and were opposed to the feudal nobility and to the merchants alike.

[Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II, History of Scientific Thought, Cambridge at the University Press (1956), pp. 327, and 99-100. The passage in the first paragraph that appears in quotation marks occurs also in Chuang Tzu, Chapter 10. Needham notes on p. 327, "This ancient method of recording has persisted in the Liu-Chu Islands until now," citing a study by E. Simon published in 1924.]

Just as we have no tenable theories about when and where twine or cord itself was invented, neither is there any substantive record of the history of knots. Theoretically, there is a finite (and rather limited) number of distinct knots that can be tied, depending upon whether the number of strands used is one, two, or three and so forth. History does not record who invented any of these knots, although quite recently certain (formerly secret) details have been bruited about one of the latest of knots to be tied.

Supposedly, they kept it a family secret for two generations. Why they wanted to is another matter. But the sons of Lauri Rapala have revealed how to tie a special knot created by their father to fully permit the swimming action of the Rapala lures.

The idea behind the Rapala lure, or any bait fish imitation lure, is that it faithfully performs a deadly imitation of a struggling, doomed bait fish. Most of us tie the line to swivels or O-rings attached to the eye of the lure. Obviously it works as we have all, at one time or another, caught fish using the lure attached in such a manner. But [testing] the lure in a swimming pool using the Rapala knot attachment against other attachments ...there was a noticeable difference in the action....Rapala also claims the loop knot doesn't slip or cut back on itself to weaken the advertised strength of the line.

[Gary Voet, "The Secret of Rapala lure knot is revealed," Sacramento Bee (July 4, 1985). "There is a free decal that can be applied directly to the boat seat, console or tackle box which shows you how to tie the knot. Consumers should send a self-addressed envelope to Normark Corporation, B. Ganzer, 1710 E. 78th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55423 to receive the free decal."]


The subject of knots fittingly attracts human interest from the sublunar and immemorial world of fishing to the ethereal and timeless realm of mathematics.

(T)he study of knots presents difficult mathematical problems of a topological character. A knot is formed by first looping and interlacing a piece of string and then joining the ends together. The resulting closed curve represents a geometrical figure that remains essentially the same even if it is deformed by pulling or twisting without breaking the string. But how is it possible to give an intrinsic characterization that will distinguish a knotted closed curve in space from an unknotted curve such as the circle? The answer is by no means simple, and still less so is the complete mathematical analysis of the various kinds of knots and the differences between them. Even for the simplest case this has proved to be a sizeable task. [Consider two symmetrical trefoil knots.] These two knots are completely symmetrical "mirror images" of one another, and are topologically equivalent, but they are not congruent. The problem arises whether it is possible to deform one of these knots into the other in a continuous way. The answer is in the negative, but the proof of this fact requires considerably more knowledge of the technique of topology and group theory than can be presented here.

[Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins, "Topology," in James R. Newman, editor, The World of Mathematics, Simon and Schuster, New York (1956), Volume I, p. 592.]

Also tied to this subject of strings is the quest for simplicity central to Western scientific speculation well before Occam's razor of the Middle Ages: the urge for the elegant as old as the search by pre-Socratic philosophers for the basic stuff of all being. Today, science and its underlying discipline of mathematics-- with high regard for precision, truth and rigor--are still seeking to bruit the secrets and reveal the mysteries of creation at the most generalized level of formulation; this has led to several theories of strings. Curiously, in current computer lingo a "string" refers to a sequence of characters appearing in succession, between two spaces. On the other hand, a "thread" denotes the linkage between one message and another; still, the two terms appear to be used interchangeably in other technical fields. In both particle physics and cosmology, creative efforts to develop a grand unification theory currently involve the idea of "superstrings" and "cosmic strings,"

exotic, invisible entities spun by theories of particle physics. Strings are threads remaining from the fabric of the newborn universe. They are incredibly dense and incredibly energetic; they travel at almost the speed of light and bend the space around them....No one knows for certain whether cosmic strings exist. If they do, many physicists believe they might account for the lumpy distribution of matter in the universe. Particularly massive loops of string could provide the gravitational attraction necessary to nucleate galaxies and clusters of galaxies. But such loops also have short lifetimes; even if they once pervaded the universe, most of them will have vanished by now.

Less massive strings could still exist, but they are hard to detect. With diligence and ever more sensitive equipment astronomers might nonetheless be able to reject or confirm the existence of cosmic strings within a few years. Their search is full of suspense because the discovery of a string would open windows on the elementary nature of matter as well as the birth of the universe.

[Alexander Vilenkin, "Cosmic Strings," Scientific American (December, 1987), p. 94. See also, Michael Green, "Superstrings," Scientific American (September, 1986), pp. 120 ff.]


String references in the lyrics of popular music are frequent, for example, "I've got the world on a string, sittin' on a rainbow..." The mention of twine on records is rarer, although there is Alvin Cash and the Crawlers's funky tune, "Twine Time," on the Mar-V-lus label (3094), issued September 12, 1963, less than a month before Duchamp's retrospective opened in Pasadena (October 8th). Also, toward the end of their hit song "Shot Gun," Jr. Walker and the All-Stars (although the words are indistinct, and gradually fade away) seem to be singing:

I say, it's Twine Time...I say, it's Twine Time...

["Shot Gun," Soul Records S 701, Motown Records (1967).]

A record BALL of twine is quite another matter. The editors of the Guiness Book of World Records, under a heading "Stunts and Miscellaneous Endeavors," illustrate the largest attested ball of twine. A gentleman-- presumably record twine-amasser Johnson--is shown attending the ball in front of which is staked a painted sign announcing, WORLD'S LARGEST TWINE BALL.

The photo's legend reads:

All tied up: To make the world's largest string ball, Francis Johnson of Darwin, Minn., has been adding to this ball until now, 40 feet around, it needs its own house. Minneapolis Star Tribune.

[And, en face, the main entry appears:]

String Ball. The largest ball of string on record is one of 12 feet 9 inches in diameter, forty feet in circumference and weighing 10 tons, amassed by Francis A. Johnson of Darwin, Minnesota, between 1950 and 1978.

[Alan Russell and Norris McWhirter, editors, Guiness Book of World Records, Bantam Books (1988), p. 477.]


One of the most venerable traditions of Tibetan Buddhism is the Ka-rGydud Pa, called the Practicing, or Black Hat tradition after the crown worn by its ritual head, the Karmapa. This lineage of Tantric teachings begins from a mystical source, Dorje Chang, and was first received by the Indian yogi Tilopa. He transmitted the teachings to agreat sage and pundit Naropa, who--before undergoing his excruciating training--had been rector of India's distinguished Nalanda University. Then the tradition was brought into Tibet by Marpa the Translator in the eleventh century, A.D.; it includes Tibet's greatest saint and poet, Milarepa, the monk Gampopa, and each of the Karmapas, in whose lineage first appears the idea of "incarnation," hundreds of years before the succession of Dalai Lamas established the Yellow Hat school. The Tibetan word rGyud in the tradition of the Karmapa refers both to this continuous practice and direct transmission from one living teacher to another, as well as to the spiritual lineage and the telepathic means by which it is transmitted at the highest level.

[For the full Karma Kagyu lineage see, The Chariot for Travelling the Path to Freedom: The Life Story of Kalu Rinpoche, translated by Kenneth I. McLeod, Kagyu Dharma, San Francisco (1985), p. 79.]

The three principal Buddhist "paths" are: the Hinayana or lesser path, the Mahayana or greater path, and the Vajrayana or diamond path, also called the Tantric path. Increasingly important since the nineteenth century is the Rime tradition of Jamgon Kongtrul, encouraging respect for the underlying similarity of these paths. From the tantric point of view, it is important to stress both the interrelatedness of these disciplines, and the sense of continuity in the practice.

Tantra literally means "continuity" or "thread." Hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana are a continuous thread of sympathy and sanity, which is never broken....The tantric teachings of Buddhism are extremely sacred and, in some sense, inaccessible...The wisdom of that tradition has been handed down orally from generation to generation by the great mahasiddhas, or tantric masters. Therefore, tantra is known as the ear-whispered, or secret, lineage. However, the notion of secrecy does not imply that tantra is like a foreign language. It is not as though our parents speak two languages, but they only teach us English so they can use Chinese or Yiddish when they want to keep a secret from us. Rather, tantra introduces us to the actuality of the phenomenal world. It is one of the most advanced, sharp, and extraordinary perceptions that has ever been developed. It is unusual and eccentric; it is powerful, magical, and outrageous; but it is also extremely simple. In fact, the word tantra or gy (rgyud) in Tibetan, means "continuity." There is a continuous thread running through the Buddhist path, which is our personal experience and our committment to the Buddhist teachings. Usually we think of a thread as starting somewhere. But according to the Buddhist teachings, the thread has no beginning, and therefore there is continuity. In fact, such a thread does not even exist, but at the same time, it is continuous. We might wonder why the vajrayana is kept secret at all. What is this famous tantric secret? The secret is not particularly exotic. It is not anything special. It simply refers to what we discover when we play with the cosmos, the energy of the universe. As children we know that if we touch a naked wire we get a shock; we learn that by playing with our world. If we speed in our motor car we will crash. We know that much. Here we are talking about the spiritual equivalent of that knowledge, which is a hundred times worse or a hundred times more powerful, depending upon how we would like to put it. We are talking about the energy that exists in the world....The point of tantra is to reintroduce the world to us...and we begin to find that this world is fabulous and fantastic....Everything makes sense. That is the whole point, that things makes sense in their own right. Such truth does not have to be written in books--it is self-existing.

[Chögyam Trungpa, Journey Without Goal: The Tantric Wisdom of the Buddha [Dharma Ocean Series], Prajna Press, Boulder and London (1981), pp. 3, 19-20, 57.]


One of the auspicious signs or emblems widely employed in Buddhist art is the endless knot of eternity, symbolizing this tantric self-existing quality. Another traditional meditation, perhaps handed down from the days of ancient Bon-po, pre-Buddhist shamanic practice, involves disentangling a knotted ball of twine. One could say that if it has been tied, then it can be untied. To be sure, it is not always possible to reverse actions in the real world, but when a powerful impression has been made upon our psyche--a knot tied--it can be recalled through the practice of disciplined meditation, and untied or psychically neutralized. Theoretically, the knot-untying exercise could be done in the darkness, as though blind, like the yarrow stalk method of casting the I Ching oracle; yet metaphorically it requires (and produces) awareness, and successful practice of the exercise leads to the total clarification of consciousness, or Enlightenment.

The journalist Desmond Doig published, in 1961, an account of his visit to the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. He describes the treatment of a man, eyes glazed with fear, who had suffered an attack from one of the native spirits, called a sounday. The story was retold in the ornate sitting room of the Royal Palace at Thimbu--the polished floors covered with the skins of leopards and tigers--before no less an authority than His Highness Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, Bhutan's then 33-year old monarch, explaining the nature of his nation's hungry ghosts and other spirits, including one particularly fascinating detail:

The sounday, I learned, can assume the shape of a dog, jackal, pig, or even a ball of twine. The ball of twine manifestation is the most terrible. In it a man can become hopelessly entangled and die.

[Desmond Doig, "Bhutan: Mountain Kingdom between Tibet and India," National Geographic, (September 1961), pp. 384-385.]