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On spinning and magic
Why do I spin? The question comes often enough from non-crafty people—which probably includes most people out there--who don't really even understand that there's a difference between spinning and weaving, and who just can't see the point of knitting a sweater or scarf (much less spinning the yarn in order to knit one) when you can buy one a lot cheaper at Walmart or the local mall. But I'm sure there are also a lot of spiritual types out there who read my blog and wonder why I—a spirit worker, and married to Odin for crying out loud—spend so much of my time spinning and prepping wool for spinning.
Not that I am equating myself with Her, but the question sort of begs me to invoke Frigga's name. Because, after all, She is married to Odin, and She spins—and actually, it was partly Her influence that prompted my obsession with the fiber arts in the first place. So, why does She do it? The reason She is so closely associated with spinning (and the Norns and Valkyries with weaving) has to be partly a mundane and culturally influenced one: in the past, as the majority of Walmart shoppers probably don't realize, spinning was not just an odd pastime for middle aged women, it was a necessity of life. There were no stores in which to buy clothing, but there were sheep, and flax, and nettles, and other sources of fiber, and one day people discovered that this fiber could to be twisted to form a strong thread that could then be woven into cloth to make garments and other useful items. (Knitting came much, much later.) But you needed a lot of thread to weave enough cloth for even a single garment, so spinners spent virtually every spare moment of their lives spinning, and because spinning is something that can be easily set down in order to tend a baby, and is not a dangerous activity to practice around children, spinning (and to a lesser extent, weaving) naturally fell into the domain of women.
In Northern Europe, where people needed a lot of clothing for survival (in addition to cloth for sails to power those Viking ships), spinning was especially important. Since I know the amount of time it takes to produce even one skein of fairly bulky yarn, it is a bit staggering for me to think of the time and work it must have taken to spin enough thread to weave an apron dress, much less a sail, and weaving eats up thread at an astounding rate; it used to take four spinners to keep just one weaver producing cloth. With this in mind, it may be easier even for non-spinners and non-crafty people to appreciate the immense importance of the fiber arts in the ancient world. In the dark ages and in early medieval Europe, queens were not merely ornaments, personified peace treaties, and producers of children for their royal husbands (although they were those things too); they were working women whose job it was to organize and oversee the king's household, including the king's clothing and linens. As such, they devoted a great deal of their time to the production of cloth, so it is natural that Frigga—as Queen of Asgard—came to be seen as both a spinner herself and the head of a cottage industry for spinning (Fensalir).
But alongside its mundane importance in daily life, spinning came to have a spiritual meaning as well in Northern Europe (as well as in many other ancient cultures). Especially from the viewpoint of non-spinners, there is something almost magical about the ability to start with a material as raw as dirty, greasy fleece, or prickly nettles, or flax (which resembles, in its raw state, a pile of dirty straw) and transform it into a fine woolen cloak, or a tightly woven sail, or a colorful fringed belt. Because this work was primarily done by women, the ability to work this transformation was attributed to the special mystique of women—a mystical power to create that was also manifested in their ability to grow new people inside their bodies.
But the magic of spinning goes beyond this. In the Northern tradition, spinning is also a working metaphor for Wyrd, and those spirit workers who have invested the time it takes to learn the craft (there is a rather large learning curve for mastering it, but almost anyone can learn to spin some sort of yarn with a little practice) have come to appreciate it as a tool for wyrd working, not just for seeing into wyrd (although it can help you do that; see below) but also for manipulating it. How does that work? Like many spirit work skills, it is easier to learn by doing it than by reading someone else's description. But basically, because of the repetitive nature of the work (which consists largely of a series of motions that are repeated over and over and over again—for hours, generally--until the yarn is finished), spinning is also hugely meditative and trance-inducing, which opens up the potential for the spinner to be doing other things, on a spiritual level, while her hands are working. This practice is hinted at in Laxdaela Saga (which I know I've quoted in this blog before); when her husband returns from having slain their mutual enemy, Gundrun remarks: “Harm spurs on to hard deeds. I have spun enough yarn for twelve ells of homespun, and you have slain Kjartan.” There is an implied connection between the two acts, the suggestion that Gudrun's spinning aided her husband in his mission. There is also, throughout the tradition, reference to the ability of women to “spin the battle from afar;” this saying is often taken to be metaphorical, referring to women working magic in support of their families while the men took on the more direct tasks. However, those who practice both spinning and wyrd working know that it is also very literal, that the one is a tool and a vehicle for the other. Consider that, even in addition to this, the spinner has the opportunity to inject more than just her artistic skill into the finished item (she can, for example, spin protection into a cloak her husband will wear when he goes off to battle, or—for a modern example--confidence into a sweater for her son's first day of school) and you can see that spinning was a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the Norse woman who “knew a thing or two.” And so it remains today.
The other day, I discovered (and linked to on my Facebook page) a wonderful collection of images and quotes dealing with spinning and magic, collected by the fantasy writer, artist and editor Terri Windling, that I'd like to share. And later that evening, I was given the following:
“To practice seidhr, you need to be able to follow a thread—the thread that is a path through the worlds, winding ever-upward and then back down again along the Tree, spiraling like the double helix of DNA. You have to be able to navigate the narrow, twisting, perilous pathways that run from Midgard to Asgard to Hel and through all the worlds, the thread that binds the worlds together like a string of beads. But more than this, you also have to be able to spin a thread, to hold the path firmly—yet not too firmly, still allowing it to run through your fingers, as it is always in motion. You have to be able to maintain control of it, allowing it neither to break, nor to diverge into snarled dead ends and knotted masses of meaninglessness. A spinner takes raw materials and converts them to a useable supply (yarn or thread) through her skill. A seidhrkona is both a spinner and a storyteller (who also“spins a yarn,”); like picking wool from a hedge, she gathers data from the other worlds—snatches of vision, and the fleeting words of the gods and spirits—and allows them to run through her fingertips as they twist in the currents of wyrd, coalescing them from formlessness into something that can be communicated and used: a beckoning and a message, a thread of meaning and connection from There to Here.”
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