Ancient Sailor's Knots

These are the four basic maritime knots that Captain Jason expects you to know before we set sail


Pronounced boe-lin, the Bowline knot is one of the most commonly used knots on sailboats - no wonder it is called the ‘King of Knots’! This knot was first labelled as the ‘Boling knot’ in 1627 in John Smith’s book Seaman’s Grammar. However, this knot originates all the way back in ancient Egypt! During the 1954 excavations around the Giza Pyramid Complex, Archaeologists found a knot resembling the Bowline. The knot was discovered in the rigging of Pharaoh Khufu’s Solar ship which was found buried at the feet of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Today, as in the past, the Bowline knot is tied to make a loop at the end of a line. The knot is commonly used to attach a Halyard (a kind of line) to a sail in order to hoist it up.


The figure eight knot looks like its name. It is tied at the end of a rope to stop it from what is called unreeving. In the sailors’ language, to ‘reeve to’ means to pass a rope through any object. Once the rope has been threaded through, a figure eight knot is tied at the end to prevent it from unreeving -or in other words to stop it from coming undone. 


This knot is used to secure a line(rope) to an object. For example, it can be used on a boat to tie Fenders to the boat’s rails. These rubbery Fenders hang on the side of the boat and protect it from bumping into anything that could damage the vessel’s sides when docked.


The Hercules knot is commonly used on ships to secure the sail when it is reefed. Reefing a sail is done by pulling it in to tighten and fasten it. Sails are reefed by sailors who get caught in heavy gusts of wind or a storm. The idea is to lessen the ammount of billowing sail so that the wind does not violently push and pull the ship. Sometimes when there is too much wind filling the sails, the ship can actually capsize (tip over). In fact, during the old days of sail, when the crew found themselves in an unbearable storm they had to cut down their ship’s masts and sails to avoid being topled over by strong winds!

But what of the peculiar name given to the Hercules knot? Well, it is named after one of the strongest of Ancient Greek Heroes. Indeed, any sailor would want a knot as strong as Hercules to tie down reefed sails in a sea storm!

In fact, the Hercules knot is one of the most ancient knots. In Ancient Greece it was also known as the marriage knot as it symbolised the loving and unbreakable union between husdband and wife.

 Another reason the knot may have been named after Hercules is because he had seized the knotted girdle (belt) belonging to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. The mighty Hero achieved this during one of his adventures called the Ninth Labour. Indeed, Hippolyta’s belt was fastened with a knot resembling the Hercules knot. It is said to have been a magical belt and was a symbol of Hippolyta’s rule over the Amazons. These were a tribe of warrior women who lived apart from men and fought fearlessly in battle. However, Hercules killed Hippolyta in a clash between the Amasons and his men. After the battle Hercules undid Hippolyta’s belt and brought it to Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns, who presented it to his daughter.

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© Hellenic Museum Argonauts Club