The origins of puzzles using string are lost in the ancient past. One of the earliest known puzzles that used string is the one known as the Gordian Knot.
In Greek mythology, a Phrygian peasant - Gordius (father of Minos) - became king because he was first to drive into town after an oracle commanded the Phrygians to select as ruler the first person to drive into the public square in a wagon. In gratitude, Gordius dedicated his wagon to Zeus and placed it in the temple grove, tying the wagon pole to the yoke with a rope of bark. The knot was so intricately entwined that no one could undo it. A saying developed that whoever succeeded in untying the knot would become ruler of all Asia. Many tried, but all failed.
According to legend, even Alexander the Great was unable to untie the Gordian knot, so he drew his sword and cut it through with a stroke. The expression “to cut the Gordian knot” is used to refer to a situation in which a difficult problem is solved by a quick and decisive action. (Microsoft Encarta (c) 1993)
Jerry Slocum & Jack Botermans, New Book of Puzzles, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992, page 89, acknowledge this legend in discussing the many puzzles which "deal with the problem of freeing (or attaching) a part of the puzzle, usually a ring or a handle." Here are some examples from the Museum's collection.
Lover's Yoke Puzzle: This puzzle was manufactured by World Wide Games, Delaware, Ohio. The natural wood bar is 2.4cm wide x 13.8cm long x .6cm thick. Three holes are drilled into the bar and the 50cm long string is knotted into the end holes and looped through the center hole. The objective is the same, that is to get the Lovers (the 1.8cm blue balls) together in the same loop. A similar Hawaiian puzzle and a story about a Hawaiian Princess and her lover can be found on another page of this Website. Click on the Hawaiian listing in the left menu. Another similar puzzle made out of bones and sinue, created by an Inuit artist can be viewed by clicking on the Inuit listing on the left menu.
Finnish Yoke Puzzle: Made by Aarikka in Finland, and acquired in 1975, this puzzle is composed of a wooden dowel 14cm long x 1cm in diameter, with a 2cm ball on each end. A 50cm long string end is attached under each of the red balls, and is looped through a hole drilled into the center of the dowel. The objective is to get the 2cm yellow ball and 2cm blue ball in the same loop without untying the string! This puzzle is identical to the one above, and requires the same solution to solve it.
Disc Yoke Puzzle: This puzzle, also manufactured by Aarikka in Finland, is a variation of the previous puzzles. In this puzzle there is a wooden disc into which a 60cm long string has been looped through three 1.7cm holes - which are too small to pass the 2cm red balls through! The objective is to free the string and balls from the disk.
Duck Yoke Puzzle: Manufactured in Japan of teak wood, the 9.8cm long x 4.5cm wide x .6cm thick "duck" has a 3.6cm long slot in its body. A 29cm long black string passes through the slot. Two 1.4cm teak balls are threaded on the string on each side of the duck, and a wooden disk is attached to each end of the string. A metal ring, 3cm in diameter x .3cm thick rides on the string above the disks. The disk and the ring are able to pass through the slot in the duck, but the balls cannot, nor can the ring slide over the disks. The objective is to free the metal ring from the other pieces.
Sword Yoke Puzzle: This teak wood puzzle was also manufactured in Japan. It is 9.8cm long x 4.5cm wide x .6cm thick, and has a 3.6cm long slot in the blade. A 29cm long black string passes through the slot. Two 1.4cm teak balls are threaded on the string on each side of the blade, and a wooden disk is attached to each end of the string. A metal ring, 3cm in diameter x .3cm thick rides on the string above the disks. The disks and the ring are able to pass through the slot, but the balls cannot, nor can the ring slide over the disks. The objective is to free the metal ring from the other pieces. According to Slocum & Botermans, the Sword Puzzle was patented in the US in 1968 by Robert Boomhower.
Solving the Sword Yoke Puzzle: The solution to puzzles such as these are somewhat similar, regardless whether they just have loops, with balls, rings, etc. Slocum & Botermans offer this solution for the Sword Puzzle.
Turn the sword so it is blade down.
Pull down one string.
Pull the metal ring up to the top of the slot and hold it.
Pass the disk behind the sword, through the slot towards you.
Lower the metal ring to the end of the sword.
Take the ring out through the slot.
NOTE: This page was originally created and posted on the Web on October 6, 1997. Subsequently it has been modified and periodically updated. Last update April 7, 2010