Spinning in Myth, Magic and Practice (Rosa Mundi)
This article is based on a talk that Rosa gave to PPs in 2011
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 often considered a 'pagan' activity? In a fast-changing world spinning and spinning wheels have remained essentially unchanged from a time when almost all women could spin and therefore spinning provides a link to history and heritage, and therefore our female ancestors.
A spinning wheel, like a bicycle, is entirely mechanical and because no electricity is involved, it is an eco-friendly activity. Spinning also makes use of natural resources and connects us to the value of things, which many modern western people in a throwaway consumerist society have lost. Spinning is strongly represented in folk tales and mythology, with strong links to female deities. The almost hypnotic influence of a spinning wheel over many hours can produce a meditative state of consciousness in the user and therefore a spinning wheel can also be employed as a tool in the magical arts.
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 and 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.
Folk tales/Fairy tales
Fairy tales have kept the spinning wheel alive and familiar to many generations. Why is it such a common theme in many 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 also learn to spin from an early age. Spinning is a magical activity in itself and has been associated with magic in many cultures. Women who spun were associated with all kinds of supernatural creatures and spirits, and this is particularly reflected in tales from Northern Europe. 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, such as the same story with a different name or the same name with a variation of the story. Rudolf Meyer thought that spinning represents something in the soul's journey or deep psyche.
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 would have 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, and the tales were probably embellished.
Certain motifs or common themes are featured in fairy tales, such as: marry the handsome prince and never have to spin again; get divine or supernatural help with spinning; get the help of someone, but then trick the helper out of the price; make sure that the lazy and unpleasant get their comeuppance. Other fairy tale themes include the wicked stepmother - (the good and hardworking are marginalised and badly treated, but finally triumph - often with divine help (and because of their virtues). The woman who cannot spin is ridiculed and worthless. And also spinning straw into gold. In many cases, spinning is merely incidental to the tale and not magical in itself. In some tales the tools themselves become magical objects.
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)
These are 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.
Another patron of spinners, rewarding the industrious and punishing the idle. (Tale of Frau Holda)
Neith Nit (Net, Neit, Neith) (Egypt)
Neith 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 re-weave 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.
She 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)
She 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.
She was a spinning goddess, with symbols of the spinning wheel, wool and spiders web. Habetrot had powers of healing that were linked to her skill with fibre. Anyone who wore the clothing that she made would never fall ill.
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.
As we have seen, spinning featured widely in folk tales from a variety of cultures, but was spinning ever used traditionally for real-life magical purpose? Perhaps a clue to an answer can be found in songs and nursery rhymes. The following 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.
The Irish song 'The Spinning Wheel' also highlights the rhythmic nature of spinning. The song clearly illustrates the rhythmical nature of spinning on a wheel, which could bring about an altered state of consciousness in the way that dance and drumming can do. Finally, the fabric created by spinning, apart from providing clothing and mundane items, can also be used to make cords for magical workings or for making talisman bags.
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.
Sources & 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.
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.
Whuppety 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