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Tying the knot, a cross-cultural analysis of bondage in marriage

June 2012

Ever since cavemen stopped dragging away unwilling partners by the hair, marriage has been a knotty situation.

The climax of a Hindu ceremony arrives when the garments of the bride and groom are tied together and, bound in this manner, the knotted couple walk round a holy fire. Chinese Buddhists revere the deity Yue-laoum, who unites all predestined couples with a silken cord insuring that the union will be consummated. Since 1275, “tying the knot” has also been a symbol at weddings in England. Traditionally, the ribbons in a bridal bouquet would be knotted as a symbol of the solemn bond of marriage. John Ray, a 17th-century naturalist quipped, “He had tied a knot with his tongue he can’t untie with his teeth.” It seems to me that Ray was equating bonding with bondage.

Bonding, however, occurs in other marriage rituals. Before my daughter Jennifer was married some years ago in a traditional Jewish ceremony, a ketuvah “marriage contract” was signed by the couple and witnessed by two friends. This contract is ordained by Talmudic law and according to some authorities dates back to Biblical times. The ketuvah, written in Aramaic, details the husband’s obligations to his wife: food, clothing, dwelling and pleasure. It also creates a lien on all his property (there is even a reference to the shirt from the husband’s back) to pay her a sum of money and support should he predecease her or (Oy Vay!) divorce her. The document has the standing of a legally binding agreement that in many countries is enforceable by secular law.

In the marriage ceremony itself, Jennifer and her spouse, Noah, repeated their vows underneath a chuppah, a Hebrew word that means “canopy.” The chuppah is a decorated piece of cloth held aloft as a symbolic home for the new couple. With so many terms from Hebrew and Yiddish being recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, I wasn’t totally surprised to find an entry for the word “chuppah.” What was surprising, however, was the first citation of the word coming from George Eliot’s 1876 novel Daniel Deronda.
Noah intoned to Jennifer these Hebrew words: Harei at mikudeshet li, b’taba’at zo k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael, which translates as “Behold, you are consecrated to me by this token according to the laws/traditions of Moses and Israel.” In turn, Jennifer announced to the throng, Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”

I remember cringing at the wedding when an inebriated relative asked me if I was comfortable in my penguin suit. This lexicographically challenged chap was obviously not aware that the tuxedo’s origin is not tied to a puny penguin but to a wild wolf. A tuxedo is so named because in 1890, the dress code at the local country club in Tuxedo Park, 65 kilometres from New York City, dictated that gentlemen wear a tailless dinner jacket at most nightly affairs. This was known as a tuxedo coat until matching trousers were added to the ensemble, which came to be known as a tuxedo.

The connection to the wolf does not relate to the lasciviousness of these posh men but rather to the manner in which Tuxedo Park acquired its name. The P’tuksit were a subtribe of the Delawares, who lived along the western shore of the Hudson River and the name literally means “round-footed,” an allusion to the wolf.

In the 18th century, American settlers gave the name of the P’tuksit, anglicized as Tuxedo, to a village in southeastern New York and by 1880 Tuxedo Park on the shore of Tuxedo Lake became a fashionable resort of the very wealthy.

Let me conclude by hoping that all of this summer’s brides and grooms are bound together in happiness.



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