Kilim Motifs

Kilim Motifs

Many motifs are used in traditional kilims, handmade flat-woven rugs, each with many variations. In Turkish Anatolia in particular, village women wove themes significant for their lives into their rugs, whether before marriage or during married life. Some motifs represent desires, such as for happiness and children; others, for protection against threat such as wolves (to the flocks) and scorpions, or against the evil eye. These motifs were often combined when woven into patterns on kilims. With the fading of tribal and village cultures in the 20th century, the meaning of kilim patterns has faded also.

In these tribal societies, women wove kilims at different stages of their lives, choosing themes appropriate to their own circumstances. Some of the motifs used are widespread across Anatolia and sometimes across other regions of West Asia, but patterns vary between tribes and villages, and rugs often expressed personal and social meaning.

Kilims thus had strong personal and social significance in tribal and village cultures, being made for personal and family use. Feelings of happiness or sorrow, hopes and fears were expressed in the weaving motifs.

The meanings expressed in kilims derive both from the individual motifs used, and by their pattern and arrangement in the rug as a whole. A few symbols are widespread across Anatolia as well as other regions including Persia and the Caucasus; others are confined to Anatolia.

An especially widely used motif is the Elibelinde, a stylized female figure, symbolizing motherhood and fertility. Other motifs express the tribal weavers' desires for protection of their families' flocks from wolves with the wolf's mouth or the wolf's foot motif, or for safety from the sting of the scorpion. Several protective motifs, such as those for the dragon, scorpion, and spider (sometimes called the crab or tortoise by carpet specialists) share the same basic diamond shape with a hooked or stepped boundary, often making them very difficult to distinguish.

Several motifs hope for the safety of the weaver's family from the evil eye, which could be divided into four with a cross symbol, or averted with the symbol of a hook, a human eye, or an amulet (a triangular package containing a sacred verse). The carpet expert Jon Thompson explains that such an amulet woven into a rug is not a theme: to the weaver, it actually is an amulet, conferring protection by its presence. In his words, to people in the village and tribal cultures that wove kilims, "the device in the rug has a materiality; it generates a field of force able to interact with other unseen forces and is not merely an intellectual abstraction."

Other motifs symbolized fertility, as with the trousseau chest motif, or the explicit fertility motif. The motif for running water similarly depicts the resource literally. The desire to tie a family or lovers together could be depicted with a fetter motif. Similarly, a tombstone motif may indicate not simply death, but the desire to die rather than to part from the beloved. Several motifs represented the desire for good luck and happiness, as for instance the bird and the star or Solomon's seal. The oriental symbol of Yin/Yang is used for love and unison. Among the motifs used late in life, the Tree of Life symbolizes the desire for immortality. Many of the plants used to represent the Tree of Life can also be seen as symbols of fruitfulness, fertility, and abundance. Thus the pomegranate, a tree whose fruits carry many seeds, implies the desire for many children.

Symbols are often combined, as when the feminine Elibelinde and the masculine ram's horn are each drawn twice, overlapping at the centre, forming a figure of the sacred union of the principles of the sexes.


All the motifs can vary considerably in appearance according to the weaver. Colors, sizes and shapes can all be chosen according to taste and the tradition in a given village or tribe; further, motifs are often combined.

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