Impotence and the bringing of bad luck

Sterility and impotence are often ascribed to magic and ill-wishing. 'Get knotted' is no innocent taunt, for the surest means of rendering a man impotent is to leave a knot about his garments with the muttered 'binding curse'-'may you have no sons!'. In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, "see string quartets in Oxfordshire" is a black and white tape with twenty-three knots, each pierced with a black and white pin. The charm was found in a mattress at a house in Strada Meszoal, Valletta, Malta, earlier this century: it had been pushed to the centre from a hole in the foot of the mattress, and was thought to be the work of a disgruntled servant bent on condemning his master to impotence.

As a Syrian bridegroom dresses for his wedding, helpers search carefully among his clothes to confirm that no knot is tied nor button fastened about him. An enchanter has but to slip a knotted handkerchief into the bridegroom's pocket to produce impotence. Moroccan men are terrified of this charm of erotic witchcraft — the aiguillette, knot or tqaf—'locking up'—and carry gum arabic against it. The mere suggestion that the spell has been worked causes impotence through emotional tension, and a sorceress is always on hand on the wedding night to 'untie' any impeding knot. Wedding guests are closely watched lest one should maliciously tie knots in a string during the ceremony. Knot charms can be of considerable sophistication: a wife may desire her husband's impotence only with her harem rivals, not with herself, and a partial affliction only is arranged. In Scotland (see wedding string quartets in Scotland) in the eighteenth century every knot about the clothing of bride or groom — garters, shoes and petticoats — was carefully loosened before the ceremony and afterwards the couple retired round separate corners to adjust their dress before processing home. Today the Persian bride still sits facing Mecca with all her clothes unfastened. Locking a padlock during the marriage service was another trick to make consummation of the marriage impossible: the bride's hymen would thus be made impenetrable.

With all this talk of symbolism, one shudders to think of it being applied to the string quartet. The bows going backwards and forwards rhythmically, sometimes with a sfortzando giving an extra thrust, the symbolism is obvious. Furthermore, it's for musicians thrusting their bows back and forwards, in doubt, and the mind boggles at the meaning of this! And then, when you get to the spike on the cello, it's just too much.


The moment of leaving church, the couple's first public appearance as man and wife, is marked by rites of passage, emphasising their new lives. In Britanny, until this century, neighbourhood beggars plaited hedgerow briars across the couple's path from church and only removed them when bribed. Village children in Japan hold the couple to ransom with straw ropes. In Somerset (see wedding string quartets in Somerset) a flower rope greeted the popular, tin cans the rest. Ambitious obstructionists in old New England and the pioneer north-west of America even felled trees or stretched stout vines before the bridal carriage. Barring the way flourishes yet in Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire, (see wedding string quartets in North Wales) and when the Hon Bridget Assheton and William Worsley married at Downham Church, Lancashire, (see wedding string quartets in Lancashire) in 1956, the couple and their 500 guests were held captive by children at the church gate and only released after gifts of money had been made.

Guards of honour may greet newlyweds at the church door. Here there is double purpose: an act of respect from fellow-officers or friends, and a symbolic archway through which the pair enter married life. Swords form the arch if the bridegroom is a member of the armed forces, oars or golfclubs for a sportsman, or appropriate tools of his trade — T squares for draughtsmen, hoes for gardeners, truncheons for policemen. (For musicians, string quartet has made an arch of violin, viola and cello bows for the musician to pass under.) It is significant, in keeping with a true passage rite, that only the couple, never the wedding party, passes through the archway.

Similarly, when we are putting on a barn dance or a ceilidh for the evening wedding reception, we have some dances which include the making of archers for the bride and groom, and sometimes the other wedding guests, to pass through. Our ceilidh band also does a dance, if specifically asked to, where all the guests and the dance by lining up into a huge line of couples, forming arches with their hands and arms, and the bride and groom make their exit from the venue through this arch. We then normally do one more dance for all the guests, excluding bride and groom or on their way to their honeymoon by then, and then bring the evening to a close.

Sometimes an obstacle stood ready for the couple to leap. (This seems rather dangerous thing to do in a wedding dress, even if the bride is fit and athletic. It's bad enough expecting a bride to do a ceilidh on her wedding dress, and many get thoroughly tangled up some stage in the evening, which they normally take in good humour. Some brides will have their dresses made so that they can be quite up in the loop out of the way the dancing feet, whilst others will get changed for the evening ceilidh. But adding the need to jump over something in addition to having to dance the wedding dress for the barn dance, is something beyond the call of duty.)

Leaping at weddings could well be related to the planting rituals of Europe, as well as being a passage rite. Typically, on 5 June 1873, at Bamburgh, Northumberland, (see wedding string quartets in Northumberland) the whole wedding party hopped over a carpet-covered stool at the church gate. By negotiating this 'petting stool' the bride showed acceptance of her new life and left 'pets' or tempers behind her: a stumble boded ill for domestic peace. Brides on Holy Island still negotiate the 'petting stone' in the churchyard. Such passage rites may precede or follow the ceremony: on the island of Karpathos in the Dodecanese, newlyweds break a rod laid across their door.

An indispensable part of the Orthodox Jewish marriage ceremony is the shattering by the bridegroom's heel of a wineglass, to shouts of 'Mazletouv!'—'Good luck!' from the guests. This ceremony may symbolise the breaking of the couple's former ties, or the bride's hymen, or typify the scattering of the Jewish people. All these explanations are offered, but it is probably just another passage rite. (I've mentioned this in connection with the hazards for a string quartet, in an earlier paragraph, but is a very significant feature of the Jewish wedding, so worth mentioning again.)


At life's transitional moments, birth, marriage and death, individuals are most vulnerable to attack from ever-watchful demons. The movement from one life state to another weakens the normally protective personal aura. From earliest times powerful protective magic has been in use at weddings. Noise (the louder the better) intimidates the spirit world. This is a good reason for hiring the string quartet for your wedding ceremony, but remember to ask them to play loud music, but don't tell them why, they may become nervous.

Even better is to hire a jazz band or a barn dance band for your evening reception. Just bands and ceilidh bands tend to moderate the volume of their music, quite differently to a pop band whose sole objective often seems to be to crack the plaster and stop everybody from talking. However, don't let the jazz band or barn dance band get away with being considerate. Banish the idea that they should play at a level where guests can still talk. This doesn't get rid of the Demons. Insist that they turn their PA system up to full volume. If the venue has a sound limiter, get up a ladder and disable it. If the neighbours complain ignore it. If the police come and say that the noises being a nuisance is been reported, invite the police in and give them a glass of beer, that will make them much more tolerant, (I know, one of my sons is a police officer.) I didn't really mean that Chief Constable.

Historically this din has been provided by bells and guns, but since these are unavailable or unacceptable in North American cities today, the latest in a long succession of protective sounds, a concerto of car horns, is heard as bridal parties leave church in ribbon-decorated cars. In 1974 the Metropolitan Toronto Parks Department considered complaints about the six or eight wedding parties which, with retinues of photographers, converged noisily together upon James Gardens on Saturday afternoons in the wedding season, despite 'No Excessive Horn Blowing' signs, the racket was clearly heard half a mile away. 'You'll have to put the sign in four languages,' Controller Gus Harris said, for the "custom is particularly popular with immigrants from Europe.

In Britain, wedding peals are rung on churchbells everywhere. If a member of the ringing team marries, the peal is a 'wedding compliment'. At Aldington, Worcestershire, (this is Worcestershire in the USA, but never mind have a look at our wedding string quartets in Worcestershire England) even in the 19205 the belfry was decorated with mutton and beef bones from feasts provided for the bellringers by grateful bridegrooms. On one long-remembered day at Peterchurch, Herefordshire, (see wedding string quartets and Herefordshire) ringers denied their expected reward revenged themselves by 'ringing the bells backwards'; proper ringing brought safety and luck but backwards ringing was a forceful ill-wish. Having experienced bellringing been playing for church wedding with my string quartet, I think this practice must be fairly common!

Bells spoke portentously of the match: in another Worcestershire village (see string quartets in Worcestershire) about 1857 the great bell was set gently moving on the evening of the wedding day to 'fore-tell' the number of children the newly-married couple might expect. 'On this particular occasion,' wrote a visitor, 'the clapper was made to smite the bell thrice three times. The bride and bridegroom know, therefore, what to expect, and can make the needful preparations for the advent of their tuneful nine.'

Fireworks, gongs, ships' sirens, foghorns, have joined the orchestra. The Brahmin wedding procession comes home at night waving lamps to frighten the malevolent away. In the United States gunshots accompanied weddings until the nineteenth century. The Scottish-Irish Presbyterians of Londonderry, New Hampshire, fired salutes at daybreak on the wedding morning, again as the bridegroom rode to the bride's house: on every side his party was greeted with cheerful volleys. In Yorkshire (see string quartets in Yorkshire) in 1890 the old ladies of the village found 'some ancient flint-lock, horse-pistol or blunder-buss, which they discharged, with the muzzle resting on the windowsill. Near the house in which the bridal feast is spread, stand three or four men, with guns crammed to the muzzle with feathers, and as the party passes them, the guns are discharged and the air filled with falling feathers, thereby betokening a wish that nothing harder may ever fall on the happy pair.'

In an explosive innovation at St Harmons, Radnorshire (see wedding string quartet in Wales), in 1878, fog-signals placed on the railway line were satisfyingly detonated by the noon train just as the bridal party emerged from church and as late as 1910 it was the custom at Aylsham, Norfolk, (see wedding string quartet in Norfolk) for the blacksmith to explode gunpowder on his anvil, giving the bride a 'good wish' as the wedding party passed his forge.