The Origin of String Figures

by Martin Probert

Part III - Why is Jacob’s Ladder so widely distributed?

"a well-known figure, sometimes called a Fishing Net"
(W. W. Rouse Ball, An Introduction to String Figures, 1920)

The frame strings

Anyone who experiments with string figures cannot fail to be conscious of the ‘frame strings’. Many figures are suspended between two such frame strings, one frame string perhaps running straight from thumb to thumb, the other say from little finger to little finger. We shall show how simple experimentation with the frame strings may have led to the independent discovery of Jacob’s Ladder, a string figure of worldwide distribution.

Drawing each frame string through the opposite supporting loop

String figure glossary

The following construction (invented by the author purely for illustrative purposes) clearly shows the process of drawing each frame string through the opposite supporting loop: insert the ring fingers into the loop; insert the right index into the left ring finger loop from above, then rotate the finger towards you and up, picking up the near left ring finger string in the process; insert the left index into the right index loop from below; extend (giving a 2-loop Opening); give each index loop a half turn (180 degrees) towards you; give each ring finger loop a half turn towards you; pass each thumb through the index loop from below, pick up the near ring finger string and return through the index loop (thus drawing the far frame string through the near supporting loop); pass each little finger over the far ring finger string and pick up the far index string (thus drawing the near frame string through the far supporting loop); release the index and ring finger loops; extend. The process has resulted in a string figure we shall refer to as Two Eyes.

string figure
Fig. 22 - Two Eyes

The development of any technique which draws each frame string through the opposite supporting loop will lead quickly to the discovery of an ‘eyed’ figure. A variety of such techniques have been recorded from North America, South America, Central Africa and Siberia.

The Index into Thumb-Triangle Extension

"Insert each index from above into the small triangle formed by the palmar string twisting around the thumb loop"
(Caroline Furness Jayne, String Figures, 1906)

The Index into Thumb-Triangle Extension is a procedure utilised in both two-eyed and four-eyed figures - and in local variants with 3, 5, 6 or 8 eyes - in North America, South America, Hawaii, Africa and Japan. We shall now ‘independently invent’ the Index into Thumb-Triangle Extension by logical experimentation with the frame strings:

1. Opening A.  
2. Release the thumb loops. Releasing a loop is a standard string figure manipulation. We obtain a 2-loop Opening. What may be done with it? The frame strings are observed to be the near index string and the far little finger string. We shall see what happens if we pick up the far frame string with the thumbs.
3. Pass each thumb over the intervening strings and pick up the far little finger string. The two frame strings are now lying parallel at the near side of the figure. One is on the thumb; the other lies adjacent to the thumb. We shall see what happens if we again pick up the far frame string with the thumbs.
4. Pass each thumb close to the index finger and pick up the near index string. Both frame strings are now on the thumbs. A common manipulation whenever two loops are on a finger is to navaho the loops.
5. Navaho the thumb loops. Having kept watch on the two frame strings, we observe that one (the near thumb string) now runs from thumb to thumb. The other is in position to be hooked down to the palm by the tip of the second finger.
6. Insert each index into the triangle near the thumb from above and hook the far frame string to the palm. Both frame strings are now held firmly. We release the loops from the little fingers to see what happens.
7. Release the little fingers; extend, the index fingers turning away and up under all strings. The figure is finally extended by separating the fingers holding the frame strings. The figure Two Eyes has appeared.

Steps 6 and 7 above form the Index into Thumb-Triangle Extension. If one string figure artist had, by reasoning as above, succeeded in discovering the Index into Thumb-Triangle Extension, it is probable that other artists in other communities have done the same. The release of the little finger in the basic method above is awkward: various improved methods have been recorded from South America and Hawaii (essentially replacing step 3 above by: give each little finger loop a half turn towards you; each thumb picks up the near little finger string).

Jacob’s Ladder

A subsequent development would be to apply the Index into Thumb-Triangle Extension which we used on the 2-loop Opening (and which resulted in Two Eyes) to a more elaborate figure. An obvious substitute for the 2-loop Opening is the ubiquitous 2-mesh Net. A construction designed to illustrate the process is: steps 1 and 2 as above; pass each index loop down through the little finger loop; pass each little finger loop down through the index loop (giving a 2-mesh Net); give each little finger loop a half turn towards you (this step is once again desirable to ease the release of 5 during the final extension); then steps 3 to 7 as above. The resultant ‘four eyed’ figure (fig. 23) is known as Jacob’s Ladder among other names. This four-eyed figure (like the two-eyed figure) has been recorded from North America, South America, Hawaii, Africa and Japan.

string figure
Fig. 23 - Jacob's Ladder

Other string figures of worldwide distribution

Many other figures of worldwide distribution can be shown to be the result of a relatively simple logical approach to string figure creation: Two Boys Fighting for an Arrow (317-320), Brush House (301-6), Shears (251), Pouch (376), Cassowary (378), Darkness (373), Well (85-7), Mouth (282-6), Saw (356-7) and Dressing a Skin [aka Cup and Saucer] (30-2). The numbers in brackets are page references to the 1962 Dover reprint ISBN 0-486-20152-X of Caroline Furness Jayne's classic String Figures 1906.

Further conclusions

  1. The string figure Two Eyes is to be expected in any culture which has discovered a technique for drawing each frame string through the opposite supporting loop.
  2. Jacob’s Ladder may have evolved independently in different places from the application of a logically derived Index into Thumb-Triangle Extension to the easily discovered 2-mesh Net.
  3. The analysis suggests that the underlying reason for the distribution of the widely known string figures has been the independent invention of the techniques involved (e.g. frame string manipulation leading to Jacob’s Ladder and other ‘eyed’ figures).
  4. A contrary conclusion of a common origin or diffusion for the widely known figures would assume that in each case no other string figure making community remote in space or time had succeeded in arriving at that figure except at second hand. While this may be true in the case of other more locally distributed string figures, there is something in the nature of the worldwide figures that facilitates the process of discovery.

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