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Fierce Threads: Fiber Arts and Battle Magic

 

 

"It does not take a long time," said madame, "for an earthquake to swallow a town. Eh well! Tell me how long it takes to to prepare the earthquake?"

 

"A long time, I suppose," said Defarge.

 

"But when it is ready, it takes place, and grinds to pieces everything before it. In the meantime, it is always preparing, though it is not seen or heard. That is your consolation. Keep it."

 

She tied a knot with flashing eyes, as if it throttled a foe.

- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, p. 175

 

 

Witchcraft as a form of protest and political action has surged in recent years, although witches such as Mat Auryn and Scarlet Magdalene have long advocated that witchcraft has always been political. I agree. Throughout history, the difference between witchcraft and other magical or spiritual work is that witchcraft rejects and transgresses cultural boundaries, including those made by dominant social and political powers. Witchcraft is magical work that is dangerous because it does not behave. It rebels. It resists. Even in simple, personal ways.

 

But it's fair to say that witchcraft has become more overtly political in recent years. Collective rituals organized against politicians, the presence of witches in stereotypical (and stunning) witch costumes at protests, and other forms of activism by witches has brought the witch subculture out of the shadows and into a prominent position to support (or weaken) sociopolitical powers. In effect, it is battle magic. And, truly, battle magic -- political magic -- is not new, nor does it have to take place far from home.

 

A very famous example is the first Merseburg charm, recorded in the 9th or 10th century in Fulda, Germany:

"Once sat women

They sat here, then there

Some fastened bonds,

Some impeded an army,

Some unraveled fetters:

Escape the bonds, flee the enemy!"

This incantation or verbal charm is an example of a lösesegen, or spell of release, meant to free prisoners of war. But it also implies in its text another possible use for battle magic: binding and impeding the opposing army.

 

The Norse poem Grógaldr also includes an incantation for loosening fetters:

"Then fifth I will chant thee, | if fetters perchance

Shall bind thy bending limbs:

O'er thy thighs do I chant | a loosening-charm,

And the lock is burst from the limbs,

And the fetters fall from the feet."

 

The acts of binding and loosening are deeply connected to weaving. The first Merseburg charm references the Idisi, mother goddesses and divine female spirits that protect and guide the living in Germanic polytheism. These goddesses have strong associations with fiber work, an intensely magical practice. The Darraðarljóð lays out this connection explicitly, depicting a group of supernatural women weaving on a grisly loom of severed human heads, entrails, and weapons. As they weave, they sing a battle song of who will be slain:

“Wind we, wind swiftly

Our warwinning woof.

Woof erst for king youthful

Foredoomed as his own,

Forth now we will ride,

Then through the ranks rushing

Be busy where friends

Blows blithe give and take.”

 

They declare the deaths of princes and kings, and of new powers rising from the ashes of the old, all the while weaving their threads into a fabric made of gore. This is a visceral, mythical variation of what was perhaps a common practice once: as loved ones went off to battle, the skilled weavers remained home, using their powers to support them and hinder their enemies to ensure success and a safe return home.

 

Throughout many cultural changes, the concept of fiber art as battle magic has persisted into modern times. One of my favorite examples is the scene with Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, in which she knits the names of political enemies to create "the register." Often, it’s interpreted as a merely clandestine, utilitarian act, but there are certain points in the text that suggest otherwise, such as the following conversation:

 

“‘Business is very bad; the people are so poor[,’ said Madame Defarge.]

‘Ah, the unfortunate, miserable people! So oppressed, too -- as you say.’

‘As you say,’ madame retorted, correcting him, and deftly knitting an extra something into his name that boded him no good” (Dickens 178, bolding mine).

 

Susanna Clarke also utilizes fiber work as a political magical act in the short story "Antickes and Frets," included in The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Clarke’s Mary, Queen of Scots, attempts to magically depose of Queen Elizabeth via embroidery while imprisoned. Through instruction by a fellow prisoner and some trial and error, Mary learns that the more benign the embroidered image, the more pernicious the spell that manifests through it. In other words, the magic works through suppressed hostility infused into physical, symbolic imagery -- a strategy that would be familiar to chaos magicians. Yet the power of symbolic images worked in thread is not a postmodern concept: embroidery as a subaltern magical language has long existed in Slavic countries. Consider the redwork on Slavic clothing and towels that feature chickens, horses, diamond lozenges referred to as "sown fields," and Mother Earth figures -- powerful images that promote health and fertility by protecting the wearer from disease and other dangerous wild spirits (Barber 124).

 

It is interesting to me how belief in the powers of magical techniques have persisted despite centuries of repression. Even contemporary, secular American culture continues to hold certain skills -- like knitting, embroidery, and cloth-making -- in something like awe. We still hold close the idea that creativity is a sacred and powerful skill (however mainstream culture relegates the expression of that idea to fantasy). And for thousands of years, the creative power of fiber art has been used in many, many ways, including to protect, to harm, to ensnare, and to set free.



Unlinked Works Cited

 

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the

Origins of European Dance. W. W. Norton, 2014.

Clarke, Susannah. The Ladies of Grace Adieu: And Other Stories. Bloomsbury, 2007.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Barnes & Noble, 1993.

 

Photo by Elio Santos on Unsplash

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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