Saturday, September 12, 2009

On the Mythology of Weaving

“The weavers are striking up the wise shuttle’s song, which wakens those who are asleep.” – Sophocles, The Progeny

When I first learned to weave, my Navajo teacher included instruction in the stories of Spider Woman as well as the weaving itself, as if the two could not be separated. I found her stories so fascinating that as I expanded my interest in weaving, my interest in the mythic side of weaving grew as well.

I learned that while men weave in some cultures, there is, in all the world, no god of weaving -- only goddesses! I found this surprising, but the more research I did and the more correlations I found, it began to make sense. Women, it seemed, were the first weavers.(1)

Both the ancient Greeks and the Navajo have legends of spiders and weaving. In the Navajo mythos, Spider Woman is a beneficent helper who taught them to weave. She also taught them the spiritual meaning of the loom, the warp, and all the tools. On the other hand, Athena was jealous of her skill, punishing Arachne by changing her into a spider when she challenged the goddess too closely.

Often the weaving goddesses are also teachers of wisdom and midwifery. Ixchel is the 16th century name of the Mayan goddess of weaving and childbirth and, it seems likely, the moon. She was worshipped on the Isla des Mujeres (the Isle of Women) and is often seen with a hare.

The people who have become the modern day Berbers, renowned for their weaving, were present in North Africa before the Phoeniceans founded Carthage. They worshipped Tanit as the goddess of childbirth, weaving and the moon. Tanit was later equated with Astarte, the northwestern Semitic goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war.

At least two goddesses of weaving were seen as sun goddesses. In Japan, Amaterasu is the Shinto goddess of weaving and the sun. In the Balkans, it is Saule who spins and weaves sunbeams. However, the usual association of weaving goddesses is with the moon.

Among the ancient Egyptians the men did the weaving, but it was Isis who taught the women to spin, without which there would be no weaving. And one of the oldest gods of Egypt is the goddess Neith, who was a weaver. Her name means “one who is,” and, according to E. A. Wallis Budge, weaving is synonymous with “being” in the Egyptian language.(2)

In Greece it was Athena Ergana who was the goddess of weaving and of the strategy of warfare. In one legend, Athena defeats Ares by weaving a trap and then stretching it across the charging warrior’s path. Those who spun for Athena were the Moirae (the Fates). The Moirae spun, measured, and cut the thread of human lives. They were often personified as three ugly and sometimes lame old women.

In Norse and Viking mythology, the Norns spun and wove the lives of humans. In The Fafnismol, Sigurd asks Fafnir: “Who are the Norns who… the babe from the mother bring?”(3) The Norns almost seemed a class of priestesses, tending the world tree and being of human, elvish and dwarven races. In The First Lay of Helgi Hundisbane they are described as three women who:

Mightily wove they
the web of fate,
While Bralund's towns
were trembling all;
And there the golden
threads they wove,
And in the moon's hall
fast they made them.(4)
Sometimes, weaving goddesses are associated with the stars. In Germanic lore, it is said that what we call Orion’s Belt was really Frigga’s distaff. Holda knew the secret of turning flax into linen, but Frigga (her name means “the Beloved” and we remember her in the word “Friday,” which was Frigga’s day) wove the destiny the Norns had spun and was of help during birth.

The idea of three mysterious women spinners is repeated in so-called “faerie tales” from Germany to Puerto Rico. Although sometimes the girl is a princess and sometimes she is a poor orphan, she is always set to spin flax (sometimes into gold) by a cruel woman. Three grotesque old women rescue her by doing her spinning for her in exchange for an invitation to her wedding. At the wedding, they blame their ugliness on the hard work of spinning flax. This influences her father (whether he be merchant or king) to decree that, to save her beauty, she may no longer spin.

My teacher Sarah is a traditional Navajo and for her Spider Woman is a living entity entwined with her life and her weaving. I suspect that there was a similar relationship between many of the women who wove in these ancient cultures and their goddesses. I wonder about that sense of connection, that sense of belonging to a family with a history of weaving, to the tradition of weaving in general, and a sense that it was in divine order. Maybe our time is too cynical for that now, and I wonder how much we have lost because of it.


(1) Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
(2) The Gods of the Egyptians, E.A. Wallis Budge
(3) The First Lay of Helgi Hundisbane, trans. Henry Adams Bellows, 1936
(4) The Fafnismol, trans Henry Adams Bellows, 1936

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another great post. It's nice to remember the myths of weaving - thanks.

    ReplyDelete