Textiles in mythology and folklore

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A royal portrait employing strong mythic overtones: Queen Elisabeth of Romania, born a German princess, adopts the national costume of Romania, with distaff and spindle.

The theme of textiles in mythology and folklore 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:[1] 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.[2]

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".

Textiles have also been associated in several cultures with spiders in mythology.

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 the adjacent region of North Syria, historian Robin Lane Fox remarks funerary stelae showing men holding cups as if feasting and women seated facing them and holding spindles.[3]


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,[citation needed] 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.[4] 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.

Homer dwells upon the supernatural quality of the weaving in the robes of goddesses.

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.


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,[5] and are to be associated with the wagon-goddess.

In Germanic mythology, Holda (Frau Holle) and Perchta (Frau Perchta, Berchta, Bertha) were both known as goddesses who oversaw spinning and weaving. They had many names.

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.


The goddess Brigantia, due to her identification with the Roman Minerva, may have also been considered, along with her other traits, to be a weaving deity.


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.[6]


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.[7]

Eve spinning, from the Hunterian Psalter, English, ca 1170

Later European folklore[edit]

"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.[8] 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.[9]

The Lady of Shallott by William Holman Hunt, painted from 1888 to 1902

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 Inca mythology, Mama Ocllo first taught women the art of spinning thread.


  • 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.[10]


  • 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.

Christian Hagiography[edit]

Multiple saints are designated as patron saints of various aspects of textile work. The mythology and folklore surrounding their patronage can be found in their respective hagiographies.

Patron saints of textiles in general[edit]

Anthony Mary Claret is a Roman Catholic patron saint of textile merchants. Saint Homobonus is a Roman Catholic patron saint of tailors and clothworkers. Saint Maurice is considered a patron saint of weavers, dyers, and clothmaking in general in Coptic Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Parascheva of the Balkans is a patron of embroiderers, needle workers, spinners, and weavers among the Eastern Orthodox.

Patron saint of drapers[edit]

St. Blaise is the patron saint of drapers.

Patron saints of dyers[edit]

Lydia of Thyatira, a New Testament figure, is a patron saint of dyers in the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church. Saint Maurice (see section on patron saints of textiles in general) is also associated with dyers.

Patron saint of fulling[edit]

Anastasius the Fuller is the patron saint of fulling in the Roman Catholic Church.

Patron saints of glove-making[edit]

Mary Magdalene is a patron saint of glove-making in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. Gummarus is a patron saint of glove-making in the Roman Catholic church. Saints Crispin and Crispinian are Eastern Orthodox patron saints of glove-making. Although their feast day was removed from the Roman Catholic Church's universal liturgical calendar following the Second Vatican Council, the two saints are still commemorated on that day in the most recent edition of the Roman Catholic Church martyrology.

Patron saint of hosiers[edit]

Saint Fiacre is the patron saint of hosiers.

Patron saints of lacework[edit]

Saints Crispin and Crispinian (see above) are considered the patron saints of lacework.

Patron saints of laundry and laundry workers[edit]

Clare of Assisi and Saint Veronica are the patron saints of laundry and laundry workers.

Patron saint of millinery[edit]

Severus of Avranches is the Roman Catholic patron saint of millinery.

Patron saints of needlework[edit]

In the Roman Catholic Church, Clare of Assisi is the patron saint of needlework, and Rose of Lima is the patron saint of embroidery, a specific type of needlework. Parascheva of the Balkans is the patron saint of needlework and other aspects of textiles (see section on patron saints of textiles in general) among the Eastern Orthodox.

Patron saint of pursemakers[edit]

Saint Brioc is the patron saint of pursemakers.

Patron saint of seamstresses[edit]

Saint Anne is regarded as the patron saint of seamstresses in both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions.

Patron saint of silk[edit]

Severus of Avranches is the Roman Catholic patron saint of silk workers.

Patron saint of tapestry workers[edit]

Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of tapestry workers.

Patron saints of weaving[edit]

Onuphrius is considered a patron saint of weaving in Coptic Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church. Saint Maurice and Parascheva of the Balkans are also patrons of weaving, as is Severus of Avranches (see section on patron saints of textiles in general).

Patron saints of wool workers[edit]

Saint Blaise is a patron saint of wool workers and is revered in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and Oriental Orthodox Church. Severus of Avranches is also considered a patron saint of wool workers in the Roman Catholic Church.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Herodotus, 2.35.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ "Athena | Greek mythology". Retrieved 2016-09-29. 
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Jeay, Madeleine; Garay, Kathleen (2006-01-01). The Distaff Gospels: A First Modern English Edition of Les Évangiles des Quenouilles. Broadview Press. ISBN 9781551115603. 
  7. ^ "Kalevala | Finnish literature". Retrieved 2016-09-29. 
  8. ^ Tatar, Maria (1987). The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales. p. 114. ISBN 0-691-06722-8
  9. ^ Tatar, Maria (1987). The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales. pp. 115–8, ISBN 0-691-06722-8
  10. ^ Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, New York: Touchstone, 2003, reprint, GlobalFlair, 1991, p. 429, accessed 2 Nov 2009

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]