History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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We are the Weavers

Ic wæs þær Inne þær ic ane geseah
winnende · wiht wido bennegean
holt hweorfende heaþoglemma feng
deopra dolga daroþas wæron
weo þære wihte ⁊ se wudu searwum
fæste gebunden hyre fota wæs
biid fæft oþer · oþer bisgo dreag
leolc on lyfte hwilum londe neah
treow wæs getenge þe þær torhtan stod
leafum bihongen Ic lafe geseah
minum hlaforde þær hæleð druncon
þara flan on flet beran

The Anglo-Saxon riddle above falls in the group usually classified as 'domestic' items: better to call them work tools. The aim of the riddle of course is to disguise a very familiar object with an unexpected description. Here's Paull Franklin Baum's translation (because it is hot even in Scotland, too hot to come up with my own translation!):

I was in there where I saw something,
a thing of wood, wound a striving thing,
the moving beam —it received battle wounds,
deep injuries; spears caused the hurts
of this thing; and the wood was fast bound
cunningly. One of its feet
was stable, fixed; the other worked busily,
played in the air, sometimes near the ground.
A tree was nearby, that stood there hung
with bright leaves. I saw the leavings
of the arrow-work brought to my lord
where heroes sat over their drinks.

I'm sure many of you sing 'We Are the Weavers' and think of the metaphor often; some of you may also do real weaving like this. There's great power in the metaphor, of course. But I don't think often enough about the real work of weaving--using the 'moving beam' to join disparate threads.

Anglo-Saxons tended to see everything in terms of battle (well, the monks did anyway, who wrote down most of these poems). A romanticising, surely -- though many monks also rode to battle at least before they took up the life. Some never gave up military life altogether (there were a lot of reasons to be in a monastery, not all of them any indication of faith). We may not associate the work of weaving with 'battle wounds' and 'deep injuries' but the 'leavings of arrow-work' surely deserve the hero(ine)'s draft of ale. No wonder men held women's weaving in awe -- the Fates/Norns with their spinning and weaving and cutting made mortality vividly present.

The hard work of making cloth was just one of the many tasks that filled the day in the medieval world. Time-consuming in comparison to popping down to the shop to buy new clothes. Work -- but also magic and community. Weaving songs have a long history that lasts right up to our time.

Jute Mill Song by Sarah Hayes

What are you weaving? As our friend Byron Ballard reminds us, we are living in Tower Times. Do the work, dig in, make things. 

Image: Psalter of Queen Isabella of England BSB Shelfmark: Cod.gall. 16


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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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