In her history of textiles, Mary Schoeser has remarked that “…textile techniques and their terms readily become analogies for the mysteries of nature and the universe.” Both sides of the analogy are clearly linked with female endeavors and power.
In Greek mythology the three Fates, female figures in control of human destinies, are depicted as spinning, measuring and cutting the threads that represent individual lives. Norse mythology employs the same analogy, with the three (female) Norns depicted spinning the thread of life for the hero Helgi in the Poetic Edda. The metaphor that compares a human life with a length of thread is clear and understandable. The fact that the Fates and the Norns are female bears witness to the reality that women have traditionally been the spinners and weavers. The metaphor works particularly well, though, because there is an even deeper identification of women with the “mysteries of nature and the universe.”
Nowadays we are so far removed from the processes of spinning and weaving that we may well wonder, what’s the big fateful deal regarding these activities? In pre-industrial societies, textile production was an enormous part of life. It was parallel to food production in that both entailed harvesting or gathering as well as processing, and both must have been constant, ongoing activities. Children have watched their mothers doing these things for eons.
Food is undoubtedly a necessity, and clothing, even if not needed for warmth, is important for other societal purposes. Other textile items, including bags, baskets, fishing nets, sails, etc., are necessary tools. Through many generations, people—primarily females--developed and perfected the technologies and processes that allowed their families and societies to survive, adapt to varying conditions and prosper. Their successes rested on their knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry, both of which could provide food and fiber.
(Am I wrong to credit women with all this? Jochens writes, “Although direct proof is scarce, few scholars doubt that women bore the chief responsibility for spinning and weaving in primitive societies, a conclusion supported by cross-cultural comparisons.” In addition, let me say that, even if my husband is normally in charge of the crops and/or the animals, what happens when he goes to war? Or goes on a trading or raiding expedition? Or travels far from home to participate in some sort of governmental assembly? Or simply has to work late at the office? If I want my family to survive, I had better know my husband’s business as well as my own!)
Thus women, through the ages, have been central to many essential activities. And let’s not forget the obvious: Because of their primary roles in childbirth and child rearing they are essential to life itself in a way that men are not. History and myth abound with stories of male raiders setting out to steal the neighbors’ women; evidence that women have felt the need to abduct men is scanty at best.
Perhaps because of their traditional occupations—giving birth and feeding and clothing the next generation with the bounty of the earth-- women were thought to play a particularly large part in the natural cycle of life and in the connection of humankind with nature. In a situation where the natural world was little understood and felt to be capricious or frightening, this connection might be especially valuable. Indeed, in the historical Germanic and Norse world, this seems to have been the case.
Tacitus reminds us that among the continental Germans, women were particularly regarded as prophetesses and sages. In Snorri’s Heimskringla we continually meet with priestesses, prophetesses and wise women who move the action along with their premonitions and insightful words. In the Eirik the Red’s Saga, Thorkel, the head of a household in Greenland, wishes to know when his district will recover from a difficult season, so he engages a prophetess to provide answers. In the Voluspá the god Odin himself summons a dead prophetess from her grave to obtain information about the destiny of gods and men.
Of course, the natural cycle includes both life and death. The Fates not only spin the thread, but they also measure and cut it when life is through. So we would expect to see female figures involved in the bloody realities of both birth and death.
Norse mythology famously features valkyries, female agents of fate responsible for choosing those who will die in battle. In the Norse poem Darraðljóð, a group of twelve valkyries are depicted weaving a gruesome tapestry using warriors’ entrails as warp and weft to the refrain, “let us wind, let us wind, the web of war.” (One wonders if Dickens had this poem in mind when he created that infamous knitter of the French Revolution, Madame Defarge!) Jochens observes, “In effect, Darraðljóð pursues to a logical conclusion the image of the Norns, who were female figures in control of the thread of fate.”
Valkyries bring to mind the Greek goddess Athena, at once a goddess of war and of the “women’s arts” of spinning and weaving. She was also, incidentally, the goddess of wisdom. Athena figures into Homer’s depiction of Penelope, who uses her weaving and her wits to control her own fate. Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, delayed ten years in returning home after the Trojan War. She insists she will not remarry until she finishes her weaving. Every day she weaves, but at night she secretly unravels her work, thus keeping her many suitors at bay until she receives word of Odysseus’s return from (of course) Athena.
Textile-related stories abound in Greek mythology. Arachne was a woman who bragged that her weaving was better than Athena’s. As a punishment, the goddess turned her into a spider. Though women may not have engaged in sports or war, their competitive instinct could be strong and their anger potent! And speaking of potent anger, Medea, one of the most powerful sorceresses of Greek mythology, took revenge on her unfaithful husband and his new bride by giving the bride a beautiful, magic robe that burned her alive when she put it on. (I don’t know that Medea wove the robe herself, but she clearly masterminded and engineered its magic.)
These stories are interesting in part because they move beyond the supernatural, fleshing out real women’s activities, roles, and emotions. They attribute motives and generate narrative where there was only mute production (and reproduction). Textiles become not only a symbol but also an instrument of women’s creativity and fate. As women’s handiwork is transformed into works of mind, heart, and soul, we encounter a wonderful, telling paradox: the intangible attains immortality while the tangible is doomed to disintegrate.
Anonymous. “Eirik the Red’s Saga” (translated by Keneva Kunz) in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
Anonymous. “The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer,” in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Lee M. Hollander. Second edition, revised. Tenth paperback printing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Anonymous. “Voluspá,” in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Lee M. Hollander. Second edition, revised. Tenth paperback printing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Modern Library, 1996.
Jochens, Jenny. Women in Old Norse Society. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.
New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Translated by Richard Aldington and Delano Ames and revised by a panel of editorial advisors from the Larousse Mythologie Générale edited by Felix Guirand and first published in France by Augé, Gillon, Hollier-Larousee, Moreau et Cie, the Librairie Larousse, Paris. New Edition 1968. Ninth Impression. U.S.A.: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1974.
Schoeser, Mary. World Textiles: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Tacitus’s Germania is cited in Jochens, Jenny. Old Norse Images of Women. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.