The cord or cingulum, is another one of those witchy tools that has always perplexed me a little. Frankly, I think its use must perplex a lot of people, since there seems to be little consensus across traditions in what it is used for.
The one consistent thing said about cords across traditions is that they often incorporate some aspect of the number “three.” Some traditions insist that the magical cord be made of three other cords twined together, and these magical cords are often nine feet long, which is the square of three. Since nine feet is also the diameter of a ‘traditional’ magical circle, some traditions maintain that the cord’s primary use is to measure out the physicomagical boundary for the circle.
I’m not really sure how many covens today actually hold to this use of the cord and these measurements for the circle. My bedroom is essentially a 9 foot by 10 foot box, which would just about be the perfect size to hold a traditionally-sized circle, and I really can’t see how one could cram thirteen people in my bedroom either comfortably or safely. If the traditional full coven were to fit into a traditional full circle, I’d be terrified that someone would be accidentally burnt with a candle or cut with a blade! No, these days people seem to cast circles to fit enough space for a ritual, and those can have four foot diameters or forty foot diameters. Either way, they rarely seem to be strictly measured out these days.
Aside from the nine foot length of the cord, the only other thing that is semi-constant through many traditions is the practice of each person within a group (or even solitary practioners) wearing the cord about their waist in ritual garb. This can be a purely practical convention, since a simple cord cinched about one’s waist does a wonderful job at keeping billowing robes under control (and out of candle flames!). Even skyclad traditions can wear cords practically, since they also make a good belt from which to attach various items one might desire to have nearby during ritual, such as a sheath for one’s athame.
Many groups and traditions, however, also have symbolic meaning for their cords. These cords frequently function as a visual symbol of a member’s initiation into a group and the degree of his or her initiation. Some groups and traditions with multiple degrees of initiation might specify that each degree have its own color of cord: white for first degree initiates, red for second degrees, and blue for thirds, for example. Others might require one color for all initiates, perhaps symbolizing the one cord that binds them all together in the group. Still others might have the single color, but utilize different ways of tying the cord or tying knots in one end to denote the differences between degrees. Still others might add beads of different colors or number to the cord ends to signify the different degrees. Some groups might even use special cords and colors to denote roles within a particular ritual; for example, coven members who call and attend to the elements during ritual might wear a red, yellow, green, or blue cord depending on their element(s). In other words, the outward appearance of the cord can be just about anything, but all cords boil down to belonging to the group and the specific role one has within that group.
Other groups and traditions may also use cords as an energetic tool. In particular, it most often will act as a sort of storage battery for specifically raised energy. The author Raymond Buckland, in particular, thought this the primary use of the cord. (Indeed, he thought this so important that he thought one’s magical cord should be an entirely different cord than the one worn in ritual.) In his Complete Book of Witchcraft, Buckland carefully describes how an individual or a coven will sit and chant to raise power to their intended purpose. At intervals, each person will–in their own time–mentally pull themselves out of the chant trance to focus on their intent and tie a knot in the cord to sort of “lock” the raised energy into place and store it until it is needed. As the person ties their knot, they number which knot in a sequence of nine it is, and offer a little rhyme. Then they return to chanting until they feel moved to tie another knot. The knotting is often done in a peculiar manner across the length of the cord, 1–4–6–8–3–9–7–5–2, which further “knots up” the raised energy as the spell progresses. When the last knot is tied, everyone directs all the remaining raised energy into the knotted cord with a final visualization of the intended object of the work. That energy is now stored in the cord, ready to be released at it’s appropriate time.
Why might you desire to store energy? Well, sometimes you just can’t raise the right energy at the right time. Buckland, for example, notes that if you want something constructive to happen, but the most propitious time for it to happen would be close to the New Moon (a time more appropriate to banishing), you don’t try to do waxing magic during a waning time, but plan ahead and raise the energy at the time most conducive to it, the release the properly raised at the time it is needed.
Of course, you might desire to plan ahead for this, too. Buckland recommends, for example, that you do not untie the knots all at once, but rather only one for each of 9 consecutive days. He also further specifies that they are to be untied in the same order in which they were tied so that the last knot, which was tied at the climax of the ritual, will be released at the time it is most needed. It is also a good idea to raise up a bit of energy as the knots are being untied, concentrating on the object and building up a bit of power to which that stored in the knot can join–priming the pump if you will. Then, as the knot is untied, release the energy with a shout so that it can move to its intended purpose.
Cords can enter magical work in ways other than the knot spell. Before a ritual, a cord may be knotted in a certain pattern to help a practitioner keep track of some element of the ritual. For example, if it is critically important to this ritual that a phrase be repeated 87 times, knotting a length of cord with 87 knots can help a person keep track of the number of times they’ve said the phrase without breaking trance mind to count. Cords could also be wound around a representative object in a binding ritual. Either of these uses, however, don’t necessarily require that the cord be that specially crafted 9-foot cord, though.
Coven members could also use either their magical cords or any other type of cords as an aid in circle dancing. As many of us know, one easy way for a coven to raise energy is to link hands–either with the people to each side of you, or one hand clasped with all others in the center–and then run, skip, or dance about in either a widdershins or deosil circle, increasing speed as the energy increases. Unfortunately, it can be very awkward to run with clasped hands. Joined to the people before and behind you, you end up running sideways, which is a little uncomfortable and can be hard on one’s knees. Clasping hands in the circle center allows you to run facing forward, but you end up in uncomfortable proximity to everyone else: really, only about three people can do this safely.
Cords, however, can easily be employed to gain the benefits of connecting with your other circle mates and of running forwards. All they do is basically increase the space you have between covenmates by increasing the diameter of the running circle. The most simple cord joining can be done by those standing on opposite sides of the circle joining their two cords together in a sturdy reef knot. All can then run attached only to the person opposite from him or herself, or the joined cords can be woven over each other to gain some more symbolic connection. The weaving can be a little tricky to figure out and untangle, though, so if it is important that all be joined together, everyone’s individual cords can be looped around a ring with larkshead knots, which will anchor everyone to one center.
The use of a ring and larkshead knots can be wonderfully effective and dead easy. However, I can definitely attest that it is easier to keep tension solid when using smaller rings. If five or six people attach their cords to a large wreath, for example, the weight of the wreath will pull the cords down and people might spend more mental energy keeping the cords level and off the ground than they do raising energy. Therefore, I’d recommend using the smallest, sturdiest rings that will accommodate all covenmate’s cords.