In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), this week's Folklore Thursday theme is the folklore of women. This post looks at traditional "women's work" and its relationship to fairy tales....
"A thread now most often means a line of conversation via e-mail or other electronic means," writes Rebecca Solnit (in The Faraway Nearby), "but thread must have been an even more compelling metaphor when most people witnessed or did the women's work that is spinning. It is a mesmerizing art, the spindle revolving below the strong thread that the fingers twist out of the mass of fiber held on an arm or a distaff. The gesture turns the cloudy mass of fiber into lines with which the world can be tied together. Likewise the spinning wheel turns, cyclical time revolving to draw out the linear time of a thread. The verb to spin first meant just this act of making, then evolved to mean anything turning rapidly, and then it came to mean telling a tale.
"Strands a few inches long twine together into a thread of yarn that can go on forever, like words becoming stories. The fairy-tale heroines spin cobwebs, straw, nettles into whatever is necessary to survive. Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread. Penelope at the other end of the treasury of stories prevents her wedding to any one of her suitors by unweaving at night what she weaves by day on her father-in-law's funeral garment. By spinning, weaving, and unraveling, these women master time itself, and though master is a masculine word, this mastery is feminine.
"Women were spinsters before the word became pejorative, when distaff meant the female side of the family. In Greek mythology, each human life is a thread that the three Moirae, or Fates, spin, measure, and cut. With Rumpelstiltskin's help, the unnamed fairy-tale heroine spins straw into gold, but the wonder is that every spinner takes the amorphous mass before her and makes thread appear, from which comes the stuff that contains the world, from a fishing net to a nightgown. She makes form out of formlessness, continuity out of fragments, narrative and meaning out of scattered incidents, for the storyteller is also a spinner or weaver and a story is a thread that meanders through our lives to connect us each to each and to the purpose and meaning that appear like roads that we must travel."
"It’s no accident that spinning is associated with language, that we may be said to 'spin' a tale or tell a 'yarn'," notes Lori Widmer Hess (in her fine essay on the subject). "Spinning brings a cosmic 'twist' into the raw materials of nature, giving them strength and continuity. When we look at events with a higher awareness, we can perceive the links between them and weave them into an ongoing story, coming to an understanding of their true essence. The spinning of straw into gold can be transformed from a mechanical search for material gain into a quest for meaning and knowledge.
"As anyone who has tried it knows, spinning is not a mindless task. It requires constant attention not to end up with a tangled mess or a broken thread. At the same time, the rhythmical balance of manual and mental activity, hand and mind working together to produce a continuous, even thread, is deeply satisfying and calming. The spinner often finds her thoughts becoming organized along with the fiber, leading to new insights or creative inspiration. An inner 'golden thread' can be sensed, one that we can try to cultivate ever more strongly.
"This is the thread that we can try to make of our lives, when we accept the materials we are given; on the other hand, we reject them at our peril. In 'Sleeping Beauty,' for example, the king tries to avert the prediction that his daughter will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deathlike sleep by burning all the spinning wheels in the kingdom. He thus brings about the very fate he seeks to escape, when the princess’s curiosity leads her to touch the first spindle she sees. Destiny cannot be averted through ignorance, but only transformed through knowledge."
In the fairy tale of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine's brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to gather nettles in a graveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell -- all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done -- running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men -- except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm.
Although the nettles in the story have magical properties (as indicated by ritual method with which they're harvested), the use of nettles for making coats is not as outlandish at it may seem to modern readers. Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas, such as the highlands of Scotland, nettle cloth is still made to this day.
Each day she weaves for twelve brothers, twelve golden shirts
twelve pairs of slippers, twelve sets of golden mail.
She sleeps under olive trees, praying for rescue.
In her dreams doves fly in circles, crying out her name.
For a hundred years she is turned into a golden bird,
hung in a cage in a witch's castle. Her brothers
are all turned to stone. She cannot save them,
no matter how many witches she burns.
She weeps tears that cannot be heard
but turn to rubies when they hit the ground.
She lifted her hand against the light
and it became a feathered wing....
In classical myth, the Moirai (also known as the Three Fates) portion out the threads of our lives from birth to death. Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis determines its length, and Antropos cuts it off when life is at its end. In Norse myth, it is the Norns who this work at the foot Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Certain magics can knot or smooth our fate, but the thread's length cannot be altered.
Fire shadows on the wall,
A hand rises, falls, as steady as a heart beat,
Threading the strands of life.
This is the warp thread, this the woof
This the hero-line, this the fool.
Needle and scissors, scissors and pins,
Where one life ends, another begins.
"Writing fiction," says Khaled Hosseini, "is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth."
So we spin our tales, knit plots and and lives together, measuring and mending, snip, snip, snip. Stir up the fire. Open the workbox. Take up the needle and let the story begin.
Pictures: "Rumplestiltskin" by Paul O. Zelinksy (American); "Sleeping Beauty" by Walter Crane (English, 1845-1915); "Sleeping Beauty" by Jennie Harbour (English, 1893-1959); a detail from "Penelope and the Suitors" by John William Waterhouse (English, 1849-1917); "Sleeping Beauty" by Nadezhda Illarionova (Russian); another illustration from "Rumplestiltskin" by Paul O. Zelinksy (American); "The Wild Swans" by Nadezhda Illarionova (Russian); "The Wild Swans" by Mercer Mayer (American) & Eleanor V. Abbott (English, 1909-1972); "The Wild Swans" by Adrienne Segur (French/Greek, 1901-18981); "The Wild Swans" by Susan Jeffers (American); "Sleeping Beauty" by John D. Batten (English, 1860-1932); "Woman Sewing" by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890); "Three Muses" by Oliver Hunter (Australian); "Two Girls Sewing at the Window" and "Loom and Thread" by Carl Larsson (Swedish, 1853-1919), and "Woman Sewing" by Vilhelm Hammershøi (Danish, 1864-1916).
Words: The prose passages above are from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013) and "Spinning a Tale" by Lory Widmer Hess (Cabinet des Fées, May 29, 2011). The poem extracts are from The Journal of Mythic Arts; follow the links to read them in full. All rights to the text reserved by the authors.