The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The Spinning Goddess spins the thread of life. Spinning goddesses are Fate goddesses and spider goddesses. The Spinning Goddess sees and knows all.
As evidenced by rock art and pottery going as far back as the Neolithic period, “Bird goddesses” and owls were associated with spinning.
Among the many spinning goddesses are the following:
Amaterasu is the glorious, beautiful Japanese solar goddess; her occupation is spinning and weaving. Amaterasu gave humans the sacred gift of spinning hemp and silk. Every twenty years, Amaterasu’s shrine at Ise is renewed; during the ritual she is given a miniature sacred loom as well as spindles and thread boxes.
Athena, the artisanal goddess, created many crafts, not least among them spinning. In one of the most famous of all Greek myths, Athena challenges a mortal woman, Arachne, to a spinning contest (see ANIMALS: Spiders for more information). She presided over all women’s arts. Young Athenian women once offered Athena sacrifices of their own hair curled around spindle whorls.
Athena and the Egyptian goddess Neith (see page 841) are believed linked although the connections between them are not fully understood. Both originally derive from Libya, among the ancient strongholds of women’s mystery traditions. Some believe Neith, an incredibly primeval deity, crossed the Mediterranean and transformed into Athena. Another suggestion is that Neith and Athena once formed part of a trinity of goddesses; the third goddess, in this case, was Medusa.
The Witch Circe sits in her island palazzo spinning and weaving; she is understood as magically weaving destiny as well as crafting tapestries. She is often portrayed at her loom and so spinning became explicitly associated with witchcraft.
Frigga knows everyone’s fate although she will not or cannot reveal it. In Pagan Scandinavia, the constellation now known as Orion’s Belt was considered Frigga’s Distaff.
Habetrot (Habitrot, Habtrot)
Habetrot is a Scottish spinning wheel fairy and Fairy-matron of spinsters and spinning. She manifests as an aged woman whose lips are deformed from excessive spinning. She has been known to assist women with little skill at spinning or weaving. Her sacred creature is the spider. Habetrot lives beneath a huge stone in a grassy knoll with her sisters.
Hulda, according to legend, introduced flax to the world. Spinning and weaving are among her sacred arts and rituals. In the story Mother Holle, Hulda’s realm is accessed by throwing a spindle down a well. (See FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Mother Holle.)
Ix Chel is the Mayan spirit with dominion over fertility, sexual relations, childbirth, healing, creativity, and weaving. In her benevolent aspect, Ix Chel represents the waters of life, whether it is the ocean or the amniotic fluids. In her negative aspect, Ix Chel represents destruction through water. She is the personification of torrential rains and hurricanes.
Ix Chel manifests in all phases of womanhood: as a young girl, a fertile woman, and an old crone. Ix Chel often wears a skirt embroidered with crossbones. She wears a snake as a headband. In Mayan script, she is represented by a uterine symbol. Ix Chel has dominion over lunar cycles and thus also over menstrual cycles. She is often depicted with a loom and is credited with inventing weaving.
The Keshalyi are Romany fairies whose name apparently derives from kachli (“spindle”). Linguists suggest these Romany words (kachli, keshalyi) derive from the Middle Eastern root word kesh, whose other derivatives are explicitly related to magic:
In Akkadian, kashshapu indicated a magician, sorcerer or wizard
In Hebrew, kesem is magic
An invocation of the Keshalyi allegedly enhances personal fertility: “Keshalyi lisperesn!” or “Fairies spin!”
Mari is often encountered spinning in the moonlight, often outside one of the mountain caves she calls home. The Basque witches who adored her once brought their spinning tools outside too; spinning at night under the moonlight, especially by a well, sacred tree or at a crossroads, was considered an unmistakable sign of witchcraft.
The Moirae (also the Moires) are the three Greek Fates. They represent the waxing, full, and waning moons: creation, existence, and destruction. In Greek, moira indicated a “portion,” “lot” or “share.” The Moirae determined one’s allotted portion or fate. Their emblems include a spindle, scroll, and scales. The Moirae are eternal and were considered even more powerful than the gods. One of their number, Klotho, is also a goddess of spinning.
Klotho the Spinner puts the wool around the spindle
Lachesis the Sustainer or Caster of Lots, Caster of Fate, spins the wool. Alternatively, she measures the thread
Atropos the Cutter snips the thread. She is also known as “The Inevitable”
Mokosh, “Mother Moist Earth,” is the Russian deity of spinning, weaving, fertility, divination, and occult knowledge. She protects Earth’s moisture including amniotic fluids and semen. Mokosh was, just prior to Christianity’s ascendancy, the most significant Russian goddess. Post-Christianity, she may or may not have donned the mask of St Paraskeva (see page 843).
Neith is the ancient Egyptian goddess of weaving, witchcraft, and warfare. She is the Oldest One. In one Egyptian creation myth, Neith brought forth Ra the sun. Then she picked up a shuttle, put the sky on her loom and wove the world into existence. Neith invented weaving in the same way that Thoth invented magic: it doesn’t exist without her.
The Norns are the Nordic Fate Goddesses. These three sisters live at the Well of Urd and are sometimes envisioned as mermaids. The Norns gather at the Well of Urd to water and care for Yggdrassil, the World Tree. The Norns are responsible for maintaining it and watering its roots. The tree is the spindle on which they weave destiny. The fate of the world is in their hands. The Norns’ sacred creature is the spider.
The Norns are the most powerful of all beings, even more powerful than the gods. They determine the fate and destiny of all living beings:
Urd (also sometimes spelled Urdh), “Past,” is the eldest sister. She wraps the wool around the spindle
Verdandi spins the wool and rules the present
Skuld, “Shall Be,” is the youngest of the Norns. She cuts the thread, terminating existence. Skuld has been known to change the benevolent fates bestowed by Urd and Verdandi.
Another perspective suggests that Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld represent Past, Present, and Future. Alternatively, Urd spins the thread of existence, Verdandi weaves it into existence (the Web of Urd), and Skuld rips it apart.
The Parcae are the Roman Fate goddesses. Their name derives from the Latin root, parere, “to bear or give birth.” Originally there were only two Parcae, the Roman deities Decuma and Nona. Later, to match the prototype of the Greek Moirae, they became a triad with the addition of death, Morta.
Nona, the goddess of birth, rules the nine months of pregnancy
Decuma rules birth
Morta rules death
Twelfth Night is Perchta’s sacred day; in her honor, women are supposed to stop working. According to one legend, a hard-working woman kept working on Twelfth Night. Perchta looked in the window, saw her, gave her two gold bobbins and told them to fill them within the hour. The woman did the best she could, and then threw the bobbins into a running stream in order to reach Perchta.
Saule is the Baltic solar goddess of spinning and weaving. She spins rays of sunshine.
Spider Grandmother is the primary deity of various Native American spiritual traditions. Spider Grandmother brings fire to people and trains and initiates the heroes who lead people to victory against a host of spiritual, magical, and physical dangers.
Spider Woman is the direct, simple name given to spinning goddesses in many cultures around the world.
St Paraskeva is venerated in Russia as well as in Greece and the Balkans. She is depicted as a tall, thin woman with long, flowing hair carrying a spindle. Paraskeva is associated with growing and spinning flax but she transcends the role of “botanical spirit”; she is one of the very few Russian female saints.
Among Paraskeva’s epithets are “The Flaxen One,” “The Muddy One,” and “The Dirty One.” Paraskeva is described as black as fertile Earth.
St Paraskeva literally means “St Friday” and Friday is her holy day. Her ritual consists of 12 Fridays spread throughout the year when her devotees cannot work.
Those who keep her 12 fasts from work are said to be guaranteed abundance, happiness, and prosperity. On those days men are forbidden to work the soil. It is a day of respite for Earth: hunting, fishing, and gathering berries are forbidden, as is cooking and washing. One may only do what revitalizes: dance, sing, and have sex. Women (but not men) may perform acts of healing. Paraskeva’s Fridays are considered very auspicious days on which to get married and give birth.
Paraskeva’s origins are obscure. The official story is that St Paraskeva was a virgin-martyr during the Diocletian persecution of Christians. Her name Friday indicates her devotion to the day of Christ’s Passion.
It is generally believed that she was a Pagan deity of such importance and popularity that the Church was obligated to incorporate her as a saint. Beneath the mask of the saint lies a Slavic deity protector of women and their sacred arts. Her official feast day, October 20, lies amid the period traditionally dedicated to spinning and considered favorable for marriage.
The sixteenth-century Stoglav Council complained that Paraskeva’s festivals featured men and women, old and young, all naked with loose, unbound hair, engaged in jumping and shaking. Devotees claimed Paraskeva ordered them to honor her feast days with dancing. However, in 1589, the Patriarch of Constantinople banned her cult.
St Paraskeva sometimes appears with two other saints, St Sreda (Wednesday) and St Nedelia (Saturday). They fulfill the concept of a triplicity of spinning goddesses.
Tante Arie is the fairy-witch goddess of the Jura Mountains and Franche Comte. She spins Fate in her mountain sanctuary. Tante Arie is a goddess of spinning. Singing and spinning lure her from her caverns.
Tante Arie manifests as a woman with goosefeet or as a snake. She rewards those who are industrious and protects pregnant and laboring women. She is sometimes represented as an old woman, half fairy, half witch, who comes down from a mountain on Christmas Eve, riding a donkey.
A children’s legend suggests that Tante Arie invisibly shakes fruit trees so that the fruit falls for good children. She brings nuts and cakes at Yule time. Another legend suggests that Tante Arie brings gifts for good children but birch rods or dunce caps (witches hats) for the naughty ones.
Uttu was the Sumerian spider goddess of weaving and cloth.
The Weird Sisters
The Weird Sisters or Wyrd Sisters are the Germanic variant of the Norns. Urd, the Norn of the Past, is etymologically related to the Old German wurt and Anglo-Saxon wyrd, both indicating “destiny” but also magic, power, and prophetic knowledge. Wyrd eventually evolved into the English “weird”—“strange” or “eerie.”
Wyrd is the eternal and all-powerful thread of destiny that shapes existence. It may be visualized as a web (The Web of Wyrd). All of life is magically interconnected via this web.
The Fate goddesses evolved into Fairies, known as Fatas in Italian. (See FAIRIES.) These weren’t merely fairy tales: in twelfth-century Denmark it was customary for Pagans to consult a trinity of goddesses regarding children’s future. Three seated priestesses served as the Oracle for these Fates.
In an Inca belief, the moon controls the tools of female labor. The moon is the ultimate controlling force over anything female or related to women. It was feared that spindles and looms would transform into bears, jaguars, and snakes during lunar eclipses.
Witches in trance sent their doubles to battle with each other armed with agricultural tools as well as spinning tools like distaffs and shuttles.
Anthropologists suggest that the practice of spinning fibers into thread and yarn has existed for over ten thousand years with very few changes in technology during that time. The distaff, spindle, and spindle whorl remain the constant tools of spinning from pre-history until almost the eighteenth century. (The spinning wheel was invented in the fourteenth century but did not gain general usage until the eighteenth.)
Miniature spinning wheels, spindles, and gold bobbins are often the sole items of baggage carried by fairy-tale heroines. Similar items were buried with queens during the Middle Ages.
These tools are no longer familiar to most of us, but not too long ago they were women’s constant companions.
The distaff is a long staff to which fibers were tied to keep them untangled. Distaffs feature frequently in paintings and engravings of witches, including those by Dürer. They served as an emblem or attribute of witchcraft. Witches are frequently depicted flying on distaffs.
The distaff, of course, was a tool found in virtually every home and used for spinning yarn. What does this imply? That every woman is at least potentially a witch? That the distaff served as a tool of divination too? That witches have the ability to influence and control life and death similar to the Fates?
The simplest distaffs were forked sticks; more elaborate ones consisted of a stick with a fork or comb on the top intended to hold the fibers during the spinning process.
Mary B. Kelly, author of Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe, writes of women who bring their distaffs to the riverside annually and hang them in trees so that the Bereginy (nature spirits) can spin their own clothing. Distaffs were considered to be incarnations of the goddess who supervised spinning, similar to Hathor’s mirror or sistrum in ancient Egypt.
Some Russian spinning distaffs are created in the form of a woman or are ornamented with goddess imagery painted on them.
Just spinning thread isn’t sufficient. Once spun, the thread must be woven into cloth. A loom is a frame for interlacing two or more sets of threads to form cloth.
Fabric, tapestries and carpets are woven on looms. Among some nomadic tribes, their very homes, their tents, were woven on large looms. All clothing, all fabrics, from the most mundane to the most holy and sacred, were woven on looms.
Looms, thus, were not luxury items; they were basic, everyday tools necessary for survival. In many cultures, from the Middle East to the Maya, women were not deemed ready for marriage until they were proficient weavers.
According to legend, instead of broomsticks, Bulgarian witches traditionally flew on weaving looms.
Depending on culture and need, a wide variety of looms exist, although all are recognizable as looms:
There are heavy, massive free-standing looms complete with complex foot pedals
Light, mobile back-strap looms can be carried anywhere
Tiny bead looms facilitate the creation of intricately beaded bands
If spinning thread was envisioned as birthing and cutting thread as terminating life, then weaving is the metaphor for living. That old cliché about weaving the “tapestry of life” still survives.
In some indigenous American cultures, spinning is perceived as akin to pregnancy; weaving represents birth and life. This becomes a metaphor for infertility: a woman who spins but never weaves. Some Mayans also believe this to be among the telltale signs of malevolent witchcraft: witches are believed to spin but never weave.
Weaving is not only a practical and aesthetic art but a spiritual and magical art too; weaving may be understood as a direct descendant and link to primordial tree religions. Metaphorically, the loom is the tree while the shuttle (see below), weaving in and out amidst the threads, represents the serpent. (See ANIMALS: Snakes; BOTANICALS: Trees.) Many fairies and fate goddesses spin thread and weave webs while seated by the World Tree.
Through the use of the loom, any tree is potentially, metaphorically transformed into the World Tree: traditionally, large freestanding looms used logs as frames, and while one end of the Mayan back-strap loom loops around the weaver, the other traditionally loops around a tree, as if one weaves destiny on the sacred World Tree.
Although details are mysterious, the Old Testament records women weaving “houses” for the Asherah, a sacred wooden pole believed to represent the Hebrew goddess Lady Asherah and/or the sacred tree of life, periodically a fixture of King Solomon’s Temple. The woven houses are believed to be some sort of garment.
Weaving may also be perceived as an act of specifically female resistance; women wove their equivalent of history books and reference works: woven tapestries, carpets and sacred fabrics were repositories for the symbols and images of women’s ancient spiritual and magical traditions. These motifs dominate traditional Oriental carpets, and still ornament modern ones.
A shuttle is the weaving device used for passing the thread of the weft between the threads of the warp on the loom. A skilled weaver manipulates the shuttle in a consistent, sure rhythm. “Shuttle” thus also refers to this back and forth, hypnotically repetitive, rhythmic motion: in modern usage, a train or plain continually traveling between two points at regular, consistent intervals is called a shuttle. Shuttle also names a spindle-shaped device that holds the thread in tatting, knotting, and lace or net making.
The shuttle is also called “the woman’s voice”; Sophocles described the Athenian heroine Philomela as the “voice of the shuttle.” Philomela’s tale is retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
Tereus, King of Thrace, married Procne of Athens; her younger sister Philomela traveled to Thrace with Procne. Tereus developed an illicit passion for the virgin, Philomela; he raped her then tore out her tongue so that she couldn’t reveal the crime. He secretly imprisoned Philomela, telling Procne her sister was dead.
Left alone with a shuttle and loom, Philomela wove her story into a tapestry, which she gave to a serving woman to deliver to her sister. Procne, able to read the tapestry like a letter, immediately understood the situation and is able to liberate Philomela.
The spindle is a short shaft weighted with a spindle whorl (see page 847), The spindle, like the distaff, symbolized women and served as a magical tool.
Spindles, although women’s tools, represent phallic energy; they are sharp and are frequently described as doubling as weapons. In essence, the spindle puts phallic energy in the hands of a woman, in the manner that the birch switches identified with horned gods places feminine power in the hands of men.
The spindle whorl is the weight attached to the spindle, which provides momentum and the downward pull of gravity. The simplest, most ancient spindle whorl was a rock. Ancient spindle whorls were ornamented to resemble owls, spiders, and women.
Spindle whorls seem to have served as progenitors of milagros (ex-votos). Spindle whorls were used as votive offerings, inscribed with the maker’s name, a deity’s name and a vow or contract that bound them. Figurines, plaques, and vessels were similarly fashioned.
A high percentage of pilgrims to Romano-Celtic healing sanctuaries appear to be female based on the offerings that have been recovered: spindle whorls as well as anatomically shaped milagros (especially breasts) and hairpins.
Hoards of spindle whorls have been uncovered in Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Minoan, Mycenaean, and Greek caves and sanctuaries as well as in Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans.
Spinning wheels were developed in the late fourteenth century but because the first wheels were large, awkward, inefficient, and expensive, the simple hand-held spindle remained in common use until the eighteenth century. It is believed spinning wheels were first developed in Asia, perhaps in China or Persia.
In George MacDonald’s fairy-tale novel The Princess and the Goblin (first published in 1872), Princess Irene discovers her mysterious, goddess-like great-grandmother spinning alone in a turret room. Unlike the lone spinner of Sleeping Beauty, Irene’s great-grandmother spins the thread of life, not death, creating an invisible but unbreakable thread for Irene that always leads her safely home. MacDonald describes the sound of the spinning wheel as the “hum of a very happy bee that had found a rich well of honey.”