By Thorskegga Thorn

The folk heritage of spinning has been ignored, misrepresented and misunderstood by historians and folklorists alike. This is a terrible shame as spinning was hailed as the most worthy of a woman’s tasks up until the Industrial Revolution. The craft has been lost in obscurity and has no apparent relevance to the modern world. Maybe as a pagan social historian and spinner I can bring this noble craft back into the light.

Spinning is the art of transforming loose fibres such as wool and flax into thread. This is done by pulling out the fibres to the required width and introducing twist to fix and strengthen them. The ancient tools of the spinner were the distaff and the spindle. The distaff was a long staff to which the fibres were tied to keep them untangled. The spindle was a short shaft weighted with a stone whorl which was used like a suspended spinning top to provide momentum and the downward pull of gravity for the work. These same implements were the spinner's only tools until the late fourteenth century when early spinning wheels were developed. Because first wheels were large, inefficient, expensive and unpopular the spindle remained in common use until the eighteenth century.

Foremost among the mythological spinners is the ancient German goddess Holda whose cult has persevered through fifteen centuries of Christianity. She is given many roles, control of the weather, giver of fertility, protector of unborn children, but foremost she is the patron of spinners. She travels through the land checking on spinners' handiwork, the industrious are rewarded and the idle punished. The most interesting account of Holda was collected by the brothers Grimm, the fairy tale 'Frau Holda'.

A mother had two daughters, the eldest was spoilt and idle, the youngest unloved and overworked. The youngest daughter sat outside the cottage and span by the well every day. On one occasion she cut her hand on the point of the spindle. She dipped it into the well to wash it but the spindle fell from her hand and sank out of sight. Knowing her punishment for losing her mother's spindle would be severe the girl leapt into the well to end her miserable life. Instead of oblivion she finds herself in the land of Holda were she stays as Holda's housemaid for several weeks. Holda is impressed by the girls kindness and industry and sends her back to her family loaded with gold. The girls' mother sends the eldest daughter to get more gold from Holda. Copying her sister she bloodies a spindle and leaps into the well. The eldest daughter cannot hide her true nature for long and Holda is exasperated by her idleness. Eventually Holda sends her home covered in soot.

Holda is the spinner's patron who teaches, encourages, inspires and rewards the hard working. Her teaching role is seen most clearly in a German folk tale where she shows a poor farmers wife how to make linen cloth from the flax plant and sets up the family in prosperity.

However in Grimm's tale of Frau Holda the spindle becomes more than just a tool, it is the magic link between the world of men and Holda's land. The requirement for the girls to wet the spindle with blood and leap into the well suggests an ancient shamanistic ritual for contacting the goddess, requiring blood offerings applied to the goddess's symbol followed by a trance giving the sensation of falling. Water is often linked to Holda, she has a sacred pool where she cares for the spirits of unborn children and women come to bathe to increase fertility.

Another folk story tells of an hard working woman who spun on Twelfth Night, a day sacred to the spinning goddess and set aside from work. Perchtha (a regional variant of Holda) peered into the window and passed the woman two bobbins demanding that they should be filled within the hour. The woman spun as much as she could on the bobbins and threw them into the brook running past the house. Again the contact of spindle and water is believed to be the link to the goddess.

The goddess as a patron of spinners is known from many mythologies. The Egyptians held that Isis first taught women to spin while the Greeks attributed the textile crafts to Artemis and Athene. Among the Baltic peoples it is the sun goddess Saule who spins as she traverses the heavens. Sunbeams being the fruit of her labours. An identical role is given to the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu who works in her weaving room in the sky. The Norse goddess Frigg is a spinner and in Scandinavia the star constellation Orion’s Girdle is named ‘Friggjar rockr’, Frigg’s distaff. The heavenly distaff is also claimed by Freyja and the Virgin Mary. The Norwegian belief that spun yarn should not be cut on a Friday (Frigg's day) may be a memory of Frigg's worship. Note the similarity of this superstition and the dangers of spinning on holy days in Holda's territory.

All these goddesses hold very important positions in their regional hierarchies. By compassion the arts of cooking and laundering are very poorly covered in folklore. By her spinning and weaving a woman showed her skills to the rest of the community through the quality of her families clothes and to her guests by her wall hangings and table linen. Young women produced heavily decorated household fabrics to increase their value as brides, hence the use of the word ‘spinster’ for an unmarried woman. Again and again folk tales stress the importance of choosing industrious rather than beautiful wives, not to mention the heights to which a hard working girl could soar. In the story ‘Tom Tit Tot’ a king is eager to marry a poor woman’s daughter when he hears that she is proficient at spinning. Likewise the heroine of the German tale ‘Rumplestiltskin’ is brought out of obscurity when her father boasts of her skill. Thus the good spinner was the embodiment of the perfect housewife.

The woman who cannot spin is ridiculed and worthless. The spoilt princess from ‘King Prickerly Beard’ is dragged to a peasants hovel and forced to spin, her hands are so unused to work that the thread makes them bleed. In the Scottish tale 'Whipperty Stourie' a husband is so disgusted by his wife’s inability to spin that he threatens to divorce her.

A common theme of spinning tales is the breaking of magical boundaries. Spinning women attract all kinds of supernatural creatures and spirits. The tale of Frau Holda is a prime example where the act of spinning causes a link between worlds. Rumplestiltskin and his English equivalent Tom Tit Tot appear at the spinners side to offer miraculous help at tragic cost. The German queen must lose her first child and the English lady must become bride to a goblin. Both escape their fate by a lucky chance.

Other hostile spirits include the mischievous fairies from the Scottish tale ‘The Good Housewife and her Night Helpers’. The housewife worked late at her spinning while her family slept. Eager to complete her weaving she made a wish that someone would come from land or sea, far or near to help her finish the work. This unwise request summoned a large number of fairies who took up the woman’s carding, spinning and weaving. The fairies kept crying out to the housewife for food until the larder was empty and the poor woman was half demented. She tried to wake her family but they were all deep in an enchanted sleep. Terrified she ran from the house and consulted the village elder who helped her extract the fairies by trickery.

A very similar story is told in Ireland in which a spinning housewife, working late, was visited by ten witch women. Each of them had horns growing out of their foreheads and carried wool combs, a reel or a spinning wheel. They all sat down in the house and began to work at the wool with lightning speed. Again the housewife was driven to distraction by their demands for food and ran from the house to fetch water for baking. She was helped by a kindly spirit living in the well and the witches were expelled, again by trickery.

A Russian folk story tells of a cruel peasant woman who cut off a bear's leg while he was sleeping. She took the leg home, cut off the fur, laid the skin aside for curing and put the meat in a pot over the fire. When she gathered the fur onto her distaff and tried to spin it the thread broke continuously, while over the fire the meat refused to cook. The woman became increasingly uneasy and late in the night she heard a growling voice outside. The bear entered her house, growling a song about the harm she had done him and bit off the woman's head.

Not all spirits drawn to the spinner are harmful. Holda, although harsh on the idle and defensive of holy days is essentially benevolent. The heroine from ‘Whipperty Stourie’, in disgrace for her inability to spin, met six fairies spinning in a hidden chamber beneath a large stone. All of them had hideously deformed lips ‘bent like a fir tree in the wind’. The fairies asked her why she was so sad and the woman explained her predicament. The woman was told not to worry but to go home and tell her husband that she had six guests for dinner. She did just so and when the table was set the six fairies arrived. The husband was very curious about their appearance and eventually asked them why their lips were bent. The fairies replied that they span every day, and wetting the flax in their mouths so often had caused the deformity. The husband was horrified, imagining his beautiful wife with the same features and declared that he would never ask her to spin again.

The story of 'Lazy Gerda' is very similar. Gerda was the original idle brat and her mother happened to be screaming at her to help with the spinning when the queen rode by. The queen demanded to know the reason for the commotion. Gerda’s mother was deeply embarrassed and lied that her daughter had spun all her flax and she had to buy more. The queen was very impressed by this apparently hardworking young girl and decided to procure her as a bride for the prince. Gerda was whisked off to the royal palace where she was given a spinning wheel and three rooms filled to the ceiling with flax which she had to spin. Gerda was terrified, she had never spun a thread in her life and didn’t know how to start. When the child burst into tears three women appeared, one with a huge lip, one with a huge thumb and one with a huge foot. The fairy women span all the flax and invited themselves to dinner. The prince asked them why they were so deformed. They explained that they bore the marks of long years of spinning and the prince declared that no wife of his would ever touch a spinning wheel.

A Latvian tale, 'The She-Lynx' which follows the tradition of the unloved stepdaughter provides a magical cow to aid the spinster. She feeds her flax to the cow and spun yarn pours out of its nose and winds into skeins on its horns. The stepmother discovers the secret and has the cow slaughtered. From the cow's body springs a golden apple tree and a spring of wine which only the stepdaughter can approach. A thirsty king happens to pass by and asks for a drink from the spring and one of the apples. Deeply impressed by the stepdaughter's good looks and kindness he offers her marriage.

Another aspect of magical spinning is the spindle’s use as the tool of fate. The parcae of classical mythology spin woollen yarn which is measured and cut for each life span. This idea is elaborated in Lithuanian Myths where seven goddesses share the work. The high god gives a distaff to the first goddess who spins the thread of life, the second takes the thread and warps a loom, and the third weaves. The fourth goddess tells stories to interrupt the work and the fifth encourages their industry. The sixth goddess cuts the fabric from the loom and the seventh washes the garment which becomes a winding sheet and passes it to the high god.

This is a very different scenario where the length of each man's life is left to chance rather than the conscious decision of the goddesses. In Norse mythology the Norns and Valkyries work threads representing life. A wonderful description is given in ‘The Lay of Helgi’ from the Poetic Edda. At the birth of the hero the Norns span a magical thread and attached it to the heavens, one end was placed in the west and one in the east marking the land that Helgi would control in maturity.

A far more familiar story based on the idea of the fates is ‘Sleeping Beauty’ written by Charles Perault. Perault must have based his tale on much older material because the blessings given by the fairies corresponds very closely to stories about the Norns surviving in Scandinavian folklore. The old fairy even places her curse by means of the ancient symbol of fate, the drop spindle.

Thus in the hands of the fates the spindle becomes a weapon of magic. The Teutons attributed almost all magical powers to women and there may well be a connection between the spindle as a symbol of womanhood and it’s use for enchantment.

Of the Norse goddesses it is Frigg (who knows the fate of men) and Freyja (the teacher of magic) who are the spinners' patrons. The whirling spindle would have been an awesome sight in a time when hardly any task was automated and it is not surprising that it was considered to harbour magical powers. In the stories ‘Frau Holda’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ the spindle comes across as a magical rather than a mundane object. In both cases it is stained with blood to start the enchantment.

Another story which gives the spindle a magical role is ‘The Spindle, the Shuttle and The Needle’ recorded by the brothers Grimm. A young girl lived alone in a small cottage. Her mother had died when she was young leaving her a spindle, a shuttle, a needle and her blessing. The girl was hard working and spun wove and sewed every day to earn her food, singing songs that her mother had taught her.

One day a prince came past searching for his perfect bride, he peered into the girls cottage and passed on. The girl was cheered by the brief appearance of the handsome stranger and burst into song ‘Spindle, oh spindle, hasten away, and bring to my house the suitor I pray.’ At her words the spindle leapt out of her hands and danced off in the prince’s wake leaving the shining thread trailing behind. The prince was amazed when the spindle overtook him and twirled in front of his horse. He decided to follow the thread back and when he arrived at the girl's cottage the shuttle and needle had woven rich curtains and rugs. The prince decided he had found his bride.

The magical spindle is also encountered in the Russian tale 'Finist the White Falcon'. A young girl is travelling far across the world looking for her lover. She meets three old women who give her magical gifts to help her in her search. One of these is a distaff and spindle which spins flax into gold. The girl gives the spindle to her lover's wife in return for a moment alone with him in his bedchamber. Her lover divorces his wife for valuing the gift over her fidelity and marries the heroine.

The spindle comes across strongly as a symbol of womanhood (of a straight laced, hearth tied, skirt bundled variety, from an age when both sexes worked themselves to exhaustion in the daily round). But even in her subservience a woman held power and the distaff was her weapon against the world of men. In the domestic battle the Mediaeval woman reached for her distaff, a far more versatile weapon than today's rolling pins due to its length.

Femininity and spinning have come hand in hand through the centuries. The Saxons called their women 'peace weavers'. We still use the terms 'distaff side' and 'spinster' their original relevance forgotten. Representing her sex the image of Eve spinning after the fall from grace to clothe her nakedness graces many a church and prayer book. The ancient Greek comedy of Hercules and Omphale relies on the femininity of spinning when the demi-god is humiliated by being dressed in skirts and forced to spin. In Grimms' tale of 'The Twelve Huntsman' a king tries to determine the sex of some cross-dressed women by leading them through a room filled with spinning wheels, which only a woman would admire.

The spindle is the symbol of the female sex and consequently the symbol of leading goddesses from across the world. The use of the spindle by the fates of classical literature and the importance of female magic in the Germanic tradition have enforced the connection between spinning and the supernatural.


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