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The theme of weaving in mythology is ancient, and its lost mythic lore probably accompanied the early spread of this art. In traditional societies today, westward of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, weaving is a mystery within woman's sphere. Where men have become the primary weavers in this part of the world, it is possible that they have usurped the archaic role: among the gods, only goddesses are weavers. Herodotus noted, however, the cultural difference between gender identities and weaving among Hellenes and Egyptians: among Egyptians it was the men who wove.
Weaving begins with spinning. Until the spinning wheel was invented in the 14th century, all spinning was done with distaff and spindle. In English the "distaff side" indicates relatives through one's mother, and thereby denotes a woman's role in the household economy. In Scandinavia, the stars of Orion's belt are known as Friggjar rockr, "Frigg’s distaff".
The spindle, essential to the weaving art, is recognizable as an emblem of security and settled times in a ruler's eighth-century BCE inscription at Karatepe:
"In those places which were formerly feared, where a man fears... to go on the road, in my days even women walked with spindles"
In pre-Dynastic Egypt, nt (Neith) was already the goddess of weaving (and a mighty aid in war as well). She protected the Red Crown of Lower Egypt before the two kingdoms were merged, and in Dynastic times she was known as the most ancient one, to whom the other gods went for wisdom. Nit is identifiable by her emblems: most often it is the loom's shuttle, with its two recognizable hooks at each end, upon her head. According to E. A. Wallis Budge (The Gods of the Egyptians) the root of the word for weaving and also for being are the same: nnt.
In Greece the Moirai (the "Fates") are the three crones who control destiny, and the matter of it is the art of spinning the thread of life on the distaff. Ariadne, the wife of the god Dionysus in Minoan Crete, possessed the spun thread that led Theseus to the center of the labyrinth and safely out again.
Among the Olympians, the weaver goddess is Athena, who, despite her role, was bested by her acolyte Arachne, who was turned later into a weaving spider. The daughters of Minyas, Alcithoe, Leuconoe and their sister, defied Dionysus and honored Athena in their weaving instead of joining his festival. A woven peplum, laid upon the knees of the goddess's iconic image, was central to festivals honoring both Athena at Athens, and Hera.
In Homer's legend of the Odyssey, Penelope the faithful wife of Odysseus was a weaver, weaving her design for a shroud by day, but unravelling it again at night, to keep her suitors from claiming her during the long years while Odysseus was away; Penelope's weaving is sometimes compared to that of the two weaving enchantresses in the Odyssey, Circe and Calypso. Helen is at her loom in the Iliad to illustrate her discipline, work ethic, and attention to detail.
In Roman literature, Ovid in his Metamorphoses (VI, 575–587) recounts the terrible tale of Philomela, who was raped and her tongue cut out so that she could not tell about her violation, her loom becomes her voice, and the story is told in the design, so that her sister Procne may understand and the women may take their revenge. The understanding in the Philomela myth that pattern and design convey myth and ritual has been of great use to modern mythographers: Jane Ellen Harrison led the way, interpreting the more permanent patterns of vase-painting, since the patterned textiles had not survived.
The concept of weaving actually relates to mythology much more than simply appearing in myths, the English word text is derived from the Latin word for weaving, texare, explaining the source of terms like "weaving a story".
For the Norse peoples, Frigg is a goddess associated with weaving. The Scandinavian "Song of the Spear", quoted in "Njals Saga", gives a detailed description of Valkyries as women weaving on a loom, with severed heads for weights, arrows for shuttles, and human gut for the warp, singing an exultant song of carnage. Ritually deposited spindles and loom parts were deposited with the Pre-Roman Iron Age ritual wagon at Dejbjerg, Jutland, and are to be associated with the wagon-goddess.
Holda, whose patronage extends outward to control of the weather, and source of women's fertility, and the protector of unborn children, is the patron of spinners, rewarding the industrious and punishing the idle. Holda taught the secret of making linen from flax. An account of Holda was collected by the Brothers Grimm, as the fairy tale "Frau Holda". Another of the Grimm tales, "Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle", which embeds social conditioning in fairy tale with mythic resonances, rewards the industrious spinner with the fulfillment of her mantra:
- "Spindle, my spindle, haste, haste thee away,
- and here to my house bring the wooer, I pray."
- "Spindel, Spindel, geh' du aus,
- bring den Freier in mein Haus."
This tale recounts how the magic spindle, flying out of the girl's hand, flew away, unravelling behind it a thread, which the prince followed, as Theseus followed the thread of Ariadne, to find what he was seeking: a bride "who is the poorest, and at the same time the richest". He arrives to find her simple village cottage magnificently caparisoned by the magically-aided products of spindle, shuttle and needle.
Jacob Grimm reported the superstition "if, while riding a horse overland, a man should come upon a woman spinning, then that is a very bad sign; he should turn around and take another way." (Deutsche Mythologie 1835, v3.135)
Also the Norns, female giantesses, weavers of fate, belong in this folklore of weaving.
Weavers had a repertory of tales: in the 15th century Jean d'Arras, a Northern French storyteller (trouvere), assembled a collection of stories entitled Les Évangiles des Quenouilles ("Spinners' Tales"). Its frame story is that these are narrated among a group of ladies at their spinning.
In Baltic myth, Saule is the life-affirming sun goddess, whose numinous presence is signed by a wheel or a rosette. She spins the sunbeams. The Baltic connection between the sun and spinning is as old as spindles of the sun-stone, amber, that have been uncovered in burial mounds. Baltic legends as told have absorbed many images from Christianity and Greek myth that are not easy to disentangle.
The Finnish epic, the Kalevala, has many references to spinning and weaving goddesses.
Later European folklore
"When Adam delved and Eve span..." runs the rhyme; though the tradition that Eve span is unattested in Genesis, it was deeply engrained in the medieval Christian vision of Eve. In an illumination from the 13th-century Hunterian Psalter (illustration. left) Eve is shown with distaff and spindle.
In later European folklore, weaving retained its connection with magic. Mother Goose, traditional teller of fairy tales, is often associated with spinning. She was known as "Goose-Footed Bertha" or Reine Pédauque ("Goose-footed Queen") in French legends as spinning incredible tales that enraptured children.
The daughter who, her father claimed, could spin straw into gold and was forced to demonstrate her talent, aided by the dangerous earth-daemon Rumpelstiltskin was an old tale when the Brothers Grimm collected it. Similarly, the unwilling spinner of the tale The Three Spinners is aided by three mysterious old women. In The Six Swans, the heroine spins and weaves starwort in order to free her brothers from a shapeshifting curse. Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle are enchanted and bring the prince to marry the poor heroine. Sleeping Beauty, in all her forms, pricks her finger on a spindle, and the curse falls on her.
In Alfred Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott", her woven representations of the world have protected and entrapped Elaine of Astolat, whose first encounter with reality outside proves mortal. William Holman Hunt's painting from the poem (illustration, right) contrasts the completely pattern-woven interior with the sunlit world reflected in the roundel mirror. On the wall, woven representations of Myth ("Hesperides") and Religion ("Prayer") echo the mirror's open roundel; the tense and conflicted Lady of Shalott stands imprisoned within the brass roundel of her loom, while outside the passing knight sings "'Tirra lirra' by the river" as in Tennyson's poem.
A high-born woman sent as a hostage-wife to a foreign king was repeatedly given the epithet "weaver of peace", linking the woman's art and the familiar role of a woman as a dynastic pawn. A familiar occurrence of the phrase is in the early English poem Widsith, who "had in the first instance gone with Ealhild, the beloved weaver of peace, from the east out of Anglen to the home of the king of the glorious Goths, Eormanric, the cruel troth-breaker..."
- In Tang Dynasty China, the goddess weaver floated down on a shaft of moonlight with her two attendants. She showed the upright court official Guo Han in his garden that a goddess's robe is seamless, for it is woven without the use of needle and thread, entirely on the loom. The phrase "a goddess's robe is seamless" passed into an idiom to express perfect workmanship. This idiom is also used to mean a perfect, comprehensive plan.
- The Goddess Weaver, daughter of the Celestial Queen Mother and Jade Emperor, wove the stars and their light, known as "the Silver River" (what Westerners call "The Milky Way Galaxy"), for heaven and earth. She was identified with the star Westerners know as Vega. In a 4,000-year-old legend, she came down from the Celestial Court and fell in love with the mortal Buffalo Boy (or Cowherd), (associated with the star Altair). The Celestial Queen Mother was jealous and separated the lovers, but the Goddess Weaver stopped weaving the Silver River, which threatened heaven and earth with darkness. The lovers were separated, but are able to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh moon.
- The Japanese folktale Tsuru no Ongaeshi features a weaving theme. A crane, rescued by a childless elderly couple, appears to them in the guise of a girl who cares for them out of gratitude for their kindness and is adopted as their daughter. She secretly begins weaving stunningly beautiful cloth for the couple to sell under the condition that they may not see her weave. Though the couple initially comply, they are overcome with curiosity and find the girl is the crane who has been weaving the cloth from her own feathers, leaving her in a pitiful state. With her identity discovered, she must leave the remorseful couple. A variation of the story replaces the elderly couple with a man, who marries the crane when she takes on the form of a young woman.
- Kathy M'Closky, "Trading is a whiter man's game: the appropriation of women's weaving," in Sally Cole and Lynne Phillips, eds., Ethnographic Feminisms: Essays in Anthropology (Ottawa: Carleton University Press) 1996:97–118
- Herodotus, 2.35.
- Quoted and noted in Fox, Robin Lane (2008). Travelling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer. Vintage Books. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-679-76386-4
- Found in the 1880s; noted by Grigsby, John (2005). Beowulf and Grendel: the Truth behind England's Oldest Myth. Watkins. p. 57, 113f. ISBN 1-84293-153-9. See discussion of the ritual wagons in Danish bogs in Glob, Peter Vilhelm & Bruce-Mitford, Rupert (transl.) (1988). The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved. New York Review. pp. 166-71. ISBN 1-59017-090-3.
- Tatar, Maria (1987). The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales. p. 114. ISBN 0-691-06722-8
- Tatar, Maria (1987). The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales. pp. 115–8, ISBN 0-691-06722-8
- Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, New York: Touchstone, 2003, reprint, GlobalFlair, 1991, p. 429, accessed 2 Nov 2009
- Barber, Elizabeth Wayland (1991). Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03597-0
- Scheid, John, and Jesper Svenbro (1996). The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-17549-2
- Weigle, Marta (2007, 1982). Spiders and Spinsters: Women and Mythology. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press. ISBN 978-0-06-534587-4
- Volkmann, Helga (2008). Purpurfäden und Zauberschiffchen: Spinnen und Weben in Märchen und Mythen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 978-3-525-20858-8