Symbolism of Kilim Motifs
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.
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.
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.
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
Peacock: A scared bird; Divinity protection
Tarantula: By weaving this motif, weaver will succeed in keeping tarantula away from his (her) house.
“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.