Symbolism of Kilim Motifs

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Kilims, colourful flat weave rugs, are woven by nomadic tribesmen and herders of Turkey, Persia, North Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. Although many Kilim weavers are often illiterate in our sense of the word, they have, over the years, evolved a symbolic language of the motifs they weave.

Today, Kilims are largely made for selling, but in the olden times, when they were woven for self use, they were treated like blank canvases on which weavers expressed their innermost thoughts, joys and fears. So young tribal girls weaving Kilims for their dowries wove motifs to express their hopes for children, good fortune or a strong and handsome husband. Married women could show their irritation with a prickly mother-in-law or longing for an absent mate in the Kilims they wove. Men could similarly show their allegiance to a particular group, or express their desire for more camels, sheep and goats.

Here’s a story about the language of Kilims.

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Long ago in a Turkish village, a tribal chief happened to see a Kilim which moved him strangely. Looking at it, he sensed the terrible anguish of the person who’d made it. He told his men to find the father of the young girl (from the sentiments echoed in the Kilim’s motifs, he knew nobody else could have woven the rug) who’d woven the Kilim. When the father was brought to him, he asked him why he wanted his daughter to marry a man of his choice, when she’d set her heart on another. The father was stunned. How did the chief know all this, he asked? The chief pointed to the Kilim and said, “the Kilim your daughter wove spoke to me about her anguish!” He gave the father a horse and a camel, told him to allow his daughter to marry the man she loved and said, “tell her she wove it well, but she shouldn’t put so much green with the red…as it is, I was almost misled!"

In this way, old Kilims speak of the life and times of their weavers who lived long ago, as well as tell tales about the society in which they were created.

Contents

Understanding the Language of Kilim Motifs

Most Turkish kilim designs have their roots in the conservative, indigenous, pre-Christian and pre-Islamic backgrounds of the rural population and are related to the basic themes of life: birth, marriage, fertility; spiritual life and happiness; love and unison; and death. They reflect the ancient cults and practices of their ancestors around these events.

Experts believe that to truly understand the language of Kilims, one must look at their component motifs, as well as at the whole that they form. More importantly, the motifs are best understood interpretively. In order to `read' a Kilim like the tribal chieftain did in the story, one needs to understand the vocabulary as well as relate on the instinctive level to the inner world of the weaver.

"...there is no direct answer or watertight paradigm that organizes and explains the development and meaning behind the patterning and motifs found in a Kilim rug," write Alastair Hull and Jose Luczyc-Wyhowska in their definitive book, Kilim, The Complete Guide.

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Here is a partial classification of some of the most commonly used motifs in Kilims, and what they denote.

Motifs signifying life and its facets (birth, death, rebirth, woman, man, family, fertility) -- ram’s horn, comb, ying-yang, hairband, earring, star, waterline, evil eye,hands on hips Motifs signifying beliefs -- amulets, cross, hand, hook Motifs signifying animals -- bird, dragon, scorpion, wolf’s print, snake, cock’s print Motifs signifying plants -- burdock, tree of life,

A Brief Vocabulary of Kilim Motifs

There are many symbols in the vocabulary of the Kilim weaver, and many stylizations of each symbol. The meaning of different symbols can change depending on the symbols it is paired with. For example, the hand motif in Kilims represents the Prophet’s sister’s hand and usually denotes fertility. However when an evil eye symbol is made inside the hand, the combined motif could denote good luck and protection from evil.

Camel: Wealth and Fortune

Dog: Protector of house; will ward of thieves, illness and evil spirits

Dove: Peace and good omens

Donkey: Hard work

Dragon: Fortune

Fish: Happiness

Horse: Freedom

Peacock: A scared bird; Divinity protection

Tarantula: By weaving this motif, weaver will succeed in keeping tarantula away from his (her) house.

Fruit: Fertility

Rose: Love

“S” motif: Light, divinity and wisdom

“Z” motif: Light

Zigzag: Water and eternity

Octagon: All of the world

Eight-pointed star: Divinity

Hand: Prophet’s sister

The Language of Kilims Today

Most new Kilims are produced in factories or in cottage industry situations where motifs and colours are dictated by commercial value and changing home décor fashions. The nomads who wove Kilims in the days of yore for their own use, also have vastly changed lifestyles today. As a result, few weavers remain, who view Kilims as the means of expressing themselves in the same manner as their ancestors did. There are also not many people left today, who can `read’ a Kilim the way the tribal chieftain did.

Did You Know?

  • The war in Afghanistan has resulted in a new vocabulary of Kilim motifs -- weavers have begun to incorporate the ugly symbols of death and destruction, tanks, Kalashnikovs and Mig 27s, in their rugs. So the cold technology of terror and destruction has been reduced to some warm, soft patterns in wool.
  • Stylised rams' horns are woven into kilims as a symbol of masculinity, virility and power.
  • Because people were afraid of the scorpion's sting they used to carry scorpion-shaped amulets to ward off the real thing. Stylised scorpion motifs also appear in some kilim designs for this reason.

References

  • Symbolism of Kilim Motifs
  • Kilim Tours
  • Kilims
  • Kilim – The Complete Guide, Alastair Hull and Jose Luczyc-Wyhowska; 1993; published by Thames and Hudson Ltd, London
  • About Kilims and Nomadic Rugs