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Spinning in Myth Magic and Practice

 

 

 

 

Rachel Rodham

 

14/11/11

 

I had longed for a spinning wheel for as long as I can remember and finally bought my Ashford Elizabeth wheel in the 1980's.  Spinning and spinning wheels had fascinated me since I was a child and to me these were always magical tools.

In spite of this it was a long time before I decided that this might be of interest or relevance to pagans.

 

Why is spinning a 'pagan' activity?

In a fast changing world spinning and spinning wheels have remained essentially unchanged for generations from a time when almost all women could spin.

 

  • It provides a link to history and heritage and female ancestors.
  • This is an eco activity - entirely mechanical and green.
  • It makes use of natural resources.
  • It connects us to the value of things (which many modern western people have lost).
  • It is strongly represented in folk tales and Mythology with strong link to female deities.
  • It can be used for meditation or a tool for magical arts.

 

History

Spinning dates right back to prehistory when the first threads were spun on the thigh or with sticks.  These developed into spindles in the Neolithic.

It was not until around 1200 AD that the first wheels appeared and not until the 1700's did we see the first modern type flyer wheels in this country.

 

Preparation of fleece:

Spinning a fleece from scratch is a time consuming activity.  After shearing the fleece must be sorted, washed and dried, picked, teased then prepared by combing or carding.  It can then be spun.  After spinning it must be wound then finally knitted or woven into fabric.  Such a process really makes a person appreciative of the value of the end result.

 

 

FOLKORE AND MYTHOLOGY

 

Folk tales/Fairy tales

Fairy tales have kept the spinning wheel alive and familiar to many generations.  Why is they such a common theme in the tales?  There are a number of possible reasons.

Spinning was a very common activity especially among poorer people to provide fabric for the family and maybe make some money on the side. 

Children would learn to spin from an early age.

Spinning is a magical activity in itself and has been associated with magic in many cultures.  Spinning women attract all kinds of supernatural creatures and spirits - especially in tales from Northern Europe.

Rudolf Meyer thought that spinning represents something in the soul's journey or deep psyche.

 

The origin of folk and fairy tales is obscure.  However there is a lot of crossover in tales from different cultures so it seems likely that they were passed around.  There are also a lot of common themes. Effectively the same story with a different name or the same name, different story.

 

 

Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman contains the famous "Spinning Song," and some nursery rhymes mention spinning in company:

Cross patch, draw the latch,
Sit by the fire and spin.
Take a cup and drink it up,
And call the neighbours in.

If spinning was often done in company then the spinners would have talked at the same time.  It seems reasonable that they told tales in between gossip etc.

They may well have been told to children when they were learning to spin.

It is hardly surprising that the tales might favour the spinners and make their lives seem easier - did they embellish the tales?

 

Common Themes in Fairy Tales:

 

  • Marry the handsome prince and never have to spin again. 
  • Get divine or supernatural help with spinning.
  • In some cases get the help and then trick the helper out of the price. 
  • Make sure that the lazy and unpleasant get their comeuppance.
  • These seem to be 'winning the lottery' type themes

 

Other fairy tale Themes:

  • The wicked stepmother - (the good and hardworking are marginalised and badly treated but triumph - often with divine help (and because of their virtues).
  • The woman who cannot spin is ridiculed and worthless.
  • Spinning straw into gold.

 

Spinning equipment as magical tools:

In many cases spinning is just incidental to the tale and not magical in itself.  In some tales the tools themselves become magical objects

 

 

SPINNING DEITIES

These are always female.

The spindle has become the symbol of the female sex and consequently the symbol of leading goddesses from across throughout history.

 

 

The three Fates (Moirae), (Greece)  are the three crones who control destiny.  They spin, measure and choose the fate of each person, Cutting the life thread at their decision.   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 its use for enchantment.

 

The  Norns: (Norse)

Also three goddesses who measure out the lifespan of each person and control destiny.  

 

Frigg (Frigga) (Norse) 'knows the fate of men' and is the spinners' patron.  Orion's Belt was known as "Frigg's Distaff/spinning wheel. 

 

Holda (Germany) Another patron of spinners, rewarding the industrious and punishing the idle.    (Tale of Frau Holda)

 

Neith Nit (Net, Neit, Neith) (Egypt) became goddess of weaving who wove the bandages and shrouds worn by the mummified dead as a gift to them.   As the goddess of creation and weaving, she was said to reweave the world on her loom daily.   

 

Leto of the Golden Spindle: (Greece) A goddess enthroned like a queen and equipped with a spindle seems to have originated in Asiatic worship of the Great Mother

 

Saule (Baltic) is the life-affirming sun goddess who spins the sunbeams.   A sign of her presence is a wheel or a rosette.    

 

Spider Woman (N America)

She who creates from a central source. Her web represents the grid or matrix of our reality.  Spider Woman's web links you to everything and everybody in our reality.

 

Maya (India Hindu) is the Virgin aspect of the triple Hindu Goddess, symbolized by a Spider, spinner of magic, fate and earthly appearances. The spider's web was likened to the Wheel of Fate and the spider to the Goddess as a Spinner, sitting at the hub of Her Wheel.

Habetrot  (Anglo-Celtic) was a spinning goddess, with symbols of the spinning wheel, wool and spiders web.  Habetrot had powers of healing which were linked to her skill with fibre. Anyone who wore the clothing she made would never fall ill.

 

MAGICAL ANGLES

The importance of female magic in the Germanic tradition may have enforced the connection between spinning and the supernatural.  The Romans also regarded spinning with superstition and banned women from holding a spindle in public.  A number of fairy and folk tales also emphasise the magical aspects of spinning equipment.   In the stories 'Frau Holda' and 'Sleeping Beauty' the spindle comes across as a magical rather than a mundane object.

What is magical about spinning?

Altered states of consciousness and the use of intention are both commonly used magical techniques.

  • Spinning is a good medium for intention.
  • It is useful for producing other states of consciousness.

 

Was spinning ever used for magic in the past?  Certainly it was in fairy tales but in real life this is less clear.  There may be a few glimpses in songs and nursery rhymes.

 

Old Irish Rhyme

This is an old Irish rhyme which was almost certainly sung by spinners as they worked. Is this just a romantic ditty or was the spinner trying to spin and weave some protection into the fabric to protect her lover in battle? 

 

Twinkle twinkle pretty spindle,

Let the white wool drift and dwindle;

Oh! We weave a damask doublet

For my love's coat of steel.

Hark! The timid turning treadle

Crooning soft old fashioned ditties,

To the low, slow murmur of the brown, round wheel.

 

 

What about alerted consciousness?

 

The Irish song 'The Spinning Wheel' shows the rhythmic nature of spinning.  Can this induce an altered state of consciousness like dance?

 

Irish Song: The Spinning Wheel

Mellow the moonlight to shine is beginning
Close by the window young Eileen is spinning
Bent o'er the fire her blind grandmother sitting
Crooning and moaning and drowsily knitting.

Merrily cheerily noiselessly whirring
Spins the wheel, rings the wheel while the foot's stirring
Sprightly and lightly and merrily ringing
Sounds the sweet voice of the young maiden singing.

 

Lazily, easily, now swings the wheel round
Slowly and lowly is heard now the reel's sound
Noiseless and light to the lattice above her
The maid steps, then leaps to the arms of her lover.

Slower... and slower... and slower the wheel swings
Lower... and lower... and lower the reel rings
Ere the reel and the wheel stop their ringing and moving
Through the grove the young lovers by moonlight are rovin


This song clearly illustrates the rhythmical nature of spinning on a wheel.  It would not be difficult to bring about an altered state of consciousness in the way that dance and drumming can.

 

 

WHAT CAN SPINNING BE USED FOR?

The fabric created by spinning can be used for cords in magical workings or for making talisman bags etc.

 

 

 

References:

Wikipaedia 

SPINNING IN FAIRY TALES

by K.C. Shaw

K.C. Shaw learned to spin over ten years ago, which is why her spare
bedroom is piled with wool. Her articles and essays have appeared in such magazines as Sheep!, Backwoods Home, and Spin-Off. She lives in East Tennessee. Visit her at
Rain Daisy Handspinning.

 

References:

The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, ed. Jack Zipes, Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.

The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales, Pantheon Books, 1944.

Carding, Spinning, Dyeing, Elisabeth Hoppe & Ragnar Edberg, Van
Nostrand Reinhold, 1975.

Thorskegga Thorn
MYTHOLOGICAL MATERIAL:
Ellis Davidson, H. Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. Routledge. 1993.
Grimm, J. Teutonic Mythology.
Gundarsson, K. The Spinning Goddess. Idunna, Dec 1993.
Monaghan, P. O Mother Sun. The Crossing Press. 1994.
Thorn, T. Holda. Folkvang Horg Issue 2, 1995. Spin Me A Yarn. Spinning Folklore. Darr 1995. Frigg. Talking Stick Issue 23, 1996.

SOURCES OF FAIRY TALES
Frau Holda, Rumplestiltskin, King Prickerly Beard, Lazy Gerda, The Twelve Huntsmen. The Brothers Grimm.
Tom Tit Tot. Folktales of the British Isles. K Crossley Holland. Faber & Faber. 1985.
The Good Housewife: Scottish Folk Tales and Legends. Barbara Ker Wilson. Oxford Univ Press. 1954.
The Horned Women: Fairy Tales of Ireland. W B Yeats. Collins. 1990.
Whipperty Stoury: Scottish Fairy Tales. Grant Cambell. Scholastic Pub. 1980.
Sleeping Beauty: Perraults Fairy Tales. Dover 1969.
The She-Lynx: provided by Valters Grivens.
Finist the White Falcon: Russian Folk Tales. H C Stevens. Hamlyn. 1967.
The Bear with One Leg: Heroes Monsters and Other Worlds from Russian Mythology. Elizabeth Warner.Peter Lowe. 1985.