Women’s Mysteries

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft - Judika Illes 2005

Women’s Mysteries

Recognition of magic power was born from recognition and awe at the mysteries of the universe.

In order to even begin to comprehend this, one must attempt to look at the world with fresh eyes, like a child approaching something brand new and unexplored. Look around and appreciate the magic of the natural world. Look around and see how all these different magic powers interrelate with each other.

Go outside on a dark night and look at the beautiful moon as it rules the night sky. Go out on different nights and watch the moon change: the moon shifts continually and rhythmically, simultaneously unique and consistent.

Look at the tides: they move in harmony with the lunar phases. Temporarily, throw out all your scientific knowledge; think about the moon and tides and access your pre-scientific mind. Now ask yourself, “How does that happen?” The simple answer is, “By magic!” That answer remains true in addition to the scientific explanations now accepted. Scientific explanations don’t negate the mysterious magic of the process. They only enhance it.

Now, look at women.

Suddenly, in adolescence, women begin to bleed on schedule with the moon and tides. These days, menstruation is popularly perceived as, if not a curse, then at least a bother. Once upon a time, it was considered amazing.

Women bled from no wound, often with no pain, on schedule!

Women bled, for days at a time, without death as the end result.

Instead of death, women bring forth new life, as if by magic, just like Earth brings forth plants. Women were connected to the moon because of their cycles, but their fertility connected them to Earth.

Ancient ovens intended to bake loaves from grain were built in the form of women’s pregnant bellies. Mysteries of fertility stimulate the birth of magic and spirituality; these mysteries are never forgotten, even among the most sophisticated of alchemists.

The alchemist’s laboratory may be understood as the precursor to the modern infertility laboratory. Alchemical masters didn’t only want to produce the Philosopher’s Stone; they wanted to create the Homunculus too—a living being created not in a test tube but in an alchemist’s vessel, a vessel that was formed in the shape of a woman’s body. Female bodies inspired the creation of alchemical ovens, beakers, and other vessels.

Before these labs however, there were women’s mysteries: places where women congregated alone and shared the secrets of these mysteries to which only they were privy. (Don’t feel left out guys. Men had societies, too! Just think of all those werewolf cults.)

Women originally were not banished to red tents and menstrual huts, although as the balance of power shifted, eventually they would be. At first, based on mythology and artifacts, they seem to have gone willingly to these places, with joy and awe.

Spiritual traditions, women’s mystery religions, were based on these practices. When the spiritual traditions were banished, these mysteries lingered in but a few places—in birthing cambers and in spinning rooms. (Islamic women also had the haven of the hammam.)

Birthing chambers and spinning rooms, of course, are places where women openly congregated together: women’s attendance in these places was, in fact, often mandatory. However, other women’s meetings that focused on women’s mysteries were forbidden on pain of death, and thus held secretly in forests, caves, and on mountaintops.

Witches, as survivors and descendants of lunar priestesses, have the skill, ability and knowledge to access lunar power. The moon is believed able to control the reproductive capacity of humans, animals, and crops, as well as the tides, the sea’s harvest (fishing), weather conditions, and the human body—especially human sexuality and mental stability. It is no coincidence that lunacy derives from word for moon. Lunar animals include bats, cats, owls, and nightjars, all animals associated with witchcraft.


The labor room was one of the few areas considered feminine territory. All sorts of taboos were associated with birth. Men, for centuries, were excluded from birthing rooms except in medical emergencies.

Midwife literally means “mediating woman.” The midwife is the equivalent of a medium.

Image In Russia, the word or honorific for midwife (Baba) is synonymous with “Witch”

Image The French word for midwife is sage-femme, literally “wise woman”

Once upon a time, the midwife’s services were broader than childbirth alone. Beyond pregnancy and birth, the midwife served as professional consultant for all “female issues” including menstrual difficulties, irregular cycles, lactation, infertility, menopause, and venereal diseases. The midwife supervised spiritual and magical rites for mother and child as well as for menopausal women and girls just beginning to menstruate. She was a priestess who initiated women into the lunar mysteries of blood, birth, and magic power.

Midwives were responsible for anything to do with reproduction or with the female aspects of the anatomy. They nurtured pregnancies and delivered babies, but they also provided contraceptives and terminated pregnancies.

Some understand the witchcraze as an attack on midwives, although this is a gross over-simplification: many, if not most, of those accused and killed as witches were not midwives. However, a high percentage of midwives were subject to accusations of witchcraft. Among the results of the Witchcraze was that the duties of the midwife narrowed considerably, and much of her ancient lore and wisdom was suppressed.

Once upon a time there were midwives for death as well as birth. Midwives assisted the dying, easing their transition into the next Realm. They supervised proper funeral rites. The German Leichenwäscherin, literally “corpse washerwoman,” was the woman who attended the dead; she was perceived as a kind of midwife.

Hardening feelings toward abortion were partially responsible for negative feelings towards midwives and their associations with witches. Plato accused midwives of causing abortions via drugs and incantations. In the ancient world, herbal abortifacients were the rule, rather than surgical procedures. Thus the Greek pharmakos may be a witch, poisoner, healer, or abortionist.

Roman laws of the third-century CE ordered exile for women who attempted abortion against the father’s wishes. Not because abortion was wrong, per se but because this was a deprivation of paternal privilege. The paterfamilias (father of the family) could force an abortion on his wife or female slaves, regardless of their personal wishes.

Midwives were repositories of fertility magic and women’s mysteries, maintaining pre-Christian birthing traditions, even while veiling them as Christian, into the Middle Ages.

Shamans sometimes must guide a dead soul to the Realm of Death; midwives were shamans who guided the new soul to the Earthly Realm of the Living.

In the traditional cultural perspective of the Andes, women who help other women give birth are considered blessed and imbued with sacred power. Fertility was a sacred power; giving birth a sacred act, thus the one who facilitates presides over holiness.

Midwifery was a sacred profession. Traditional Andean midwives were (are) expected to undergo various rituals to attain their position, not only functional professional rituals but also spiritual ones. Ceremonies, ritual fasts, and sacrifices were required.

In Andean tradition, women are spiritually called to become midwives. Some receive the summons in their dreams. Giving birth to twins was considered such a summons too.

Midwife Goddesses

Midwives were demonized and yet there are midwife goddesses, too. These goddesses protect midwives but are also perceived as being midwives. Midwives are the heroines of the Jewish Bible (the prophetess Miriam and also Shifra and Puah are among the very few biblical women named for their own accomplishments).

Birth was considered sacred and magical but also a dangerous experience. Midwives in ancient times were affiliated with shrines and temples in Egypt, Sumeria, and elsewhere in Asia and Africa as well as among the Aztecs and Incas.

Midwife goddesses include the following:

Image Artemis is the sacred Greek midwife. Her first act upon being born was to help her mother give birth to Artemis’ twin, Apollo. Artemis was the Greek deity responsible for determining which women died in childbirth and which survived. (See DIVINE WITCH: Artemis.)

Image Brigid protects and sponsors midwives. Veneration of Brigid once extended throughout the Celtic world. Brigid’s associations with birth were so powerful that eventually a Christian myth would suggest that Brigid had traveled all the way to Nazareth to serve as the Virgin Mary’s midwife.

In the West Highlands, newborn babies were traditionally passed over a fire three times then carried around it deasil (in a sun-wise direction) three times before receiving the “midwife’s baptism” of water accompanied by an invocation of Brigid.

Image Hecate is the goddess with dominion over the borders between Life and Death. Her priestesses were midwives who assisted human souls’ transition over those portals. Their sacred emblem was the broom with which they purified the birthing chamber.

Image Heket may be the oldest Egyptian spirit of all. She is a spirit of childbirth and the protector of the dead and the newly born. She is associated with the tomb, birth, and resurrection and all the transitions between them. She helps place the child in the womb. Heket prevents miscarriage and stillbirth. She has dominion over contraceptives.

Heket, a frog goddess, may or may not derive from the same roots as Hecate, who considers frogs and toads among her holy animals.

Image Pachamama is the Andean Spirit of Earth. Peruvian midwives were understood to have a special relationship with her, to serve as her priestesses.

Midwife Magic

Ancient and medieval midwives paid attention to signs and symbols as birth drew near. As the midwife approached the birthing chamber, she observed what animals crossed her path, what people she met, even the weather. She read the atmosphere like a fortune-teller reads cards. The atmosphere advised of the circumstances of the upcoming birth, both physical and spiritual.

The midwife stayed with the mother after the birth to greet, appease, and/or thank the birth fairies and spirits. She supervised a new mother’s attempts at nursing and, if necessary, taught her how.

The magic role of midwives survived early Christianity. This verbal charm from Ulster was once spoken by midwives before entering the homes of laboring women:

There are four corners to her bed,

There are four angels at her head,

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

God bless the bed that she lies on!

New moon, new moon, God bless me!

God bless this house and family!

A Christian charm from fifteenth-century Austria was written on paper and laid over the laboring woman’s stomach or attached to her clothing:

From a man, a man

From a virgin, a virgin

The Lion of Judah triumphs!

Mary bore Jesus

Elizabeth, though sterile, bore John the Baptist

I adjure the Infant, by Father, Son and Holy Ghost!

Whether male or female that you issue forth from

your mother’s womb

Be empty! Be empty!

Midwife Persecution

Midwives, who surpass all others in wickedness…” (Malleus Maleficarum)

The Malleus Maleficarum, the witch-hunter’s manual, devoted not one but two chapters to midwives. (See BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Sprenger.) They were accused of attempting to prevent babies from being baptized: killing the newborn or presenting it to devils deprived the baby of salvation. Witchcraft and midwifery became linked.

The Malleus Maleficarum and its contemporaries considered witches’ crimes to be seven-fold:

1. Practicing fornication and adultery

2. Obstructing the generative act by rendering men impotent

3. Performing castrations and sterilizations

4. Engaging in bestiality and homosexuality

5. Destroying women’s generative power

6. Procuring and providing abortions

7. Offering children to devils

In 1580, Jean Bodin, French philosopher, rationalist, and demonologist declared these charges true and valid. All of these charges are somehow related to reproduction, at least tangentially. Many are related to contraception. Most are explicitly related to sex and sexuality.

Witchcraft became considered a woman’s crime, like abortion, prostitution, and infanticide. In Luxembourg, words indicating “witch” were associated with those for “whore.”

In Genesis 3:16, God condemns Eve to labor with pain and difficulty. This led to Christian suspicions of easy births: is Satan responsible? Midwives, trained to ease labor pains and speed birth became regarded by some as apostles of Satan.

The politics of childbirth changed. Women were encouraged to complain about birth and focus on its pain and difficulty. Midwives who were accused of witchcraft were consistently accused of easing labor pains; this was considered a sin.

The Church developed a hardening stance toward reproductive issues:

Image If sex is only for procreation, then there’s no point to contraception

Image God determines the outcome of sexual liaisons, thus aphrodisiacs, many of which are also fertility enhancers, are wrong

Image Abortifacients are wrong to the point of heresy because, beyond any other issues, their use implies that you have autonomy, not God

The entire art and science of midwifery was called into question; the herbal science of childbirth would effectively be eradicated.

Reproductive (or any) herbalism is a complex art and science, not for amateurs. Not all parts of a plant have the same effect; not all preparations and routes of administration have the same effect. The skilled herbalist is an expert on all these details and often an intuitive healer.

Dosage and determining the correct frequency of administration is crucial. Depending on the plant, there can be a very narrow margin between medicine and poison: the healing dose versus the fatal dose. As an example, a small dose of tansy infusion may have no effect on a pregnancy. A larger one can cause miscarriage and an even larger one can be potentially fatal.

Instead of appreciating the traditional midwife’s artistry and knowledge, she was eliminated. It was well recognized that midwives were stubborn repositories of women’s mystery traditions:

Image In some Teutonic regions (and elsewhere), medicinal law and Church prohibitions decreed that a priest must be present at each birth to prevent midwives from practicing superstitious and heathen customs.

Image In 1494, a priest in Breslau wrote that “In childbirth the midwives are busy with a thousand devilish things as well as with the women in travail.”

The medical profession was changing; the birthing room was no longer exclusively female territory, nor was a woman necessarily in charge. Physicians were by legal requirement university trained. Women were not permitted to enter these universities and thus could not become physicians.

Physicians replaced midwives in the laborroom but they did not reproduce their role; the physician’s art was devoted to healing disease, ailments, and injury, not reproductive issues. Practical reproductive knowledge remained in the hands of midwives, wise women, old wives, sage-femmes, and witches, however these became fewer and fewer.

Midwives became associated with the poor, ignorant, and uneducated as well as those with Pagan leanings or those who were less than devout Christians. They became low-status professionals. Upscale women began to go to hospitals or have physicians attend them. Because of their low status, relatively little written information about midwifery exists. The exception is when midwives ran afoul of the law: that was recorded in detail. This offers a skewed picture.

Midwifery became a risky profession:

By the latter half of the fifteenth century, midwives throughout much of Europe were pressured to submit to licensing procedures involving an oath that they would not practice in secret. In one 1588 oath, the midwife promises “not in any wise use or exercise any manner of witchcraft.” The Paris Oath of 1560 states, “I will not use any superstition or illegal means, either in words or signs, nor any other way…

In 1624, an English law put the onus on women to prove that an infant’s death was natural. If unable to do so, the woman might be accused of homicide and hanged. Collaborative evidence was necessary from male professionals like physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries when female midwives testified regarding the viability of premature babies. Male midwives were permitted to provide collaborative evidence.

In the late sixteenth century, Nuremburg issued an ordinance prohibiting midwives from burying fetuses or dead children without informing the city council. When an infant was buried, the midwife was expected to have several “unsuspected female persons” as witnesses of the procedure. The witchcraze was raging in German lands during the sixteenth century; “unsuspected” females were not easy to find.

In 1711, an edict issued in Brandenburg forbade midwives from selling or giving away fetuses, placentas or umbilical cords. In Würzburg, they were required to dispose of these in running water.

Spiritual conflicts ensued as well. Traditional midwives wished to perform rituals and magical acts intended to safeguard births. Pious, devout Christian mothers, midwives, and observers objected to these practices. Some objected to them sincerely, others for fear of Pagan associations and vulnerability to suspicions of witchcraft.

Henri Boguet’s Examen of Witches, written in the 1580s, observes that many witches are midwives. “These midwives and wise women who are witches are in the habit of offering to Satan the little children which they deliver and then of killing them…they do even worse; for they kill them while they are yet in their mother’s wombs. This practice is common to all witches.

In other words, Boguet is suggesting that all witches are abortionists.

Midwife Witch Trials

Identification of midwives with witches was more powerful in some areas than others. Between 1627 and 1630, at least one third of all those executed as witches in Cologne were midwives. (Statistics indicate at least one in three; because many did not have occupations listed it may have been more but not less.)

Of the nearly 200 people accused of witchcraft at Salem Village in 1692, 22 were identified as midwives and/or healers. (The occupation of many remains unknown; it’s impossible to achieve an accurate statistic.)

On the other hand, midwives also turned in witches and testified against them at trials.

By necessity, information regarding witch trials is fragmentary. All that survives are pieces of stories. For further information on Witch Trial Records, see WITCHCRAZE!

On September 20, 1587, Walpurga Hausmannin, a licensed midwife practicing in Dillingen in Augsburg in southern Germany, was burned at the stake as a witch. She had confessed to a long list of crimes, most having to do with her professional career.

In 1632, Alie Nisbet, a Scottish midwife, was arrested as a witch and accused of using charms and incantations to remove a woman’s labor pains. Alie denied the charges but admitted that she might have bathed the woman’s legs with warm water that she had charmed so that it would have beneficial healing properties by sticking her fingers in it while running three times around the bed widdershins. The woman’s labor pains were immediately relieved but entered another woman who died 24 hours later. Nisbet was charged with committing murder by sorcery and burned to death.

In pre-conquest Andes, midwives were perceived as sacred. Spanish chroniclers acknowledged that the indigenous Andeans viewed midwives as “special.” However for the Spanish Inquisition, midwives, traditional curers, doctors, and healers were all considered sorcerers and witches.

In 1660, two husbands in colonial Guatemala denounced a midwife, Marta de la Figueroa, an Indian woman married to a former government official, for using malicious sorcery during their wives’ pregnancies. She was charged with witchcraft. (Her trial transcripts suggest that Marta may have been caught in a political conflict—at least her husband thought so.)

In order to extract a confession, Marta was hung up in public and exposed to the smoke of burning chili peppers. Her face and body were covered with the pepper until she confessed.

Both men who accused Marta had wives who died during pregnancy. Marta was accused of causing the death of one via magical means because the two women had argued. Marta had allegedly asked to be the midwife for the second woman but she had already hired one and, based on the trial record, may not have been too polite in turning Marta away. From that moment the woman became incurably ill and began having recurrent dreams that Marta wished to smother her. Other men came forward, charging Marta with magically causing death and disease.

Marta was convicted of sorcery and superstition. She was punished with 100 lashes administered in the public streets.

Margaret Jones of Charleston, Massachusetts, midwife, cunning woman, and alleged fortune-teller was accused of witchcraft, convicted and executed on June 15, 1648.

In 1680, the neighbors of Elizabeth Morse of Colonial New England complained that she was a witch. Elizabeth stood trial in Boston. She was found guilty in May 1680 and sentenced to die although she was later reprieved. One neighbor described Elizabeth as a “healing and destroying witch.”


Technically, spinning is the art of transforming loose fibers into thread but spinning is more than just the art of spinning thread. Spinning is the magical art of transformation. Spinning connects every woman to the sacred actions of the Goddess.

Spinning was associated with the entire cycle of life—with birth, nurturing, and death, symbolized by the weaving of one’s burial shroud. It is a metaphor for providing order and structure. It regulates fertility and controls cyclical occurrences like the moon, tide, and seasons, and thus the weather.

Many spinning goddesses are associated with water, especially wells. The Norse Norns live by the Well of Urd. In the fairy tale Mother Holle, a spindle enables the girls to reach Hulda’s realm at the bottom of a well.

Spinning and weaving metaphorically suggests creating something powerful and beautiful from one’s own essence and substance, like a spider.

Spinning is like cooking: it transforms the raw material into the useable. It provides the action of completion and fulfillment. There is a fertility aspect to spinning. One creates something from raw material in the way that raw material is transformed into a living, vital baby within the womb.

Spinning in many parts of Earth was a woman’s art; the spinning room was female territory. In colder climates during the winter, when agricultural work was not possible, women joined together at night to spin together. An older woman might be delegated to “entertain” the spinners with old stories. Mother Goose is frequently depicted in the company of a spindle. In some communities, professional story-tellers were hired to preside over the spinning room: they may be understood as priestesses or as repositories of ancient lore.

Children ran in and out of the spinning room; an exciting or entertaining story kept restless children well behaved.

Hungarian preachers complained that the common people found greater pleasure listening to the old wives’ tales told in the spinning room than in sermons told in Church.

Flax, hemp, and nettles, the plants that can be “spun” into fabric, were once sacred to goddesses (Freya, Frigga, Hulda, assorted fairies) but were later demonized as “witch plants.” Some believe the negative passions aroused by the hemp plant are derived from its associations with witchcraft, shamanism, and women’s magical traditions.

Spinster is now a negative word indicating an unmarried woman but it literally means “one who spins” or “woman who spins.” Spinsters were independent women able to support themselves via spinning thread or spinning tales.


Spinning was once associated with divination. A method of scrying involves gazing into a moving spinning wheel (literally a wheel of fortune). In ancient Greece, sphondulomantis involved “divination via spindle.” Bobbing spindle wheels and the monotony of spinning may induce prophetic trances.

Embroidery and Fine Needlework

Spinning and weaving aren’t the only sacred arts associated with fabric. Embroidery was often a safe repository for sacred but now forbidden symbols, akin to tarot or tattooing.

In much of Europe, embroidering for the Goddesses included ritual towels, aprons, and embroidered bread covers for the loaf placed on the domestic altar for ancestors.

These ornamented fabrics were incorporated into women’s spiritual and magical rituals.

Examples of these embroideries have been collected by Mary B. Kelly and published in Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe (Northland Press, 1996) and Goddess Embroideries of the Balkan Lands and the Greek Islands (Studiobooks, 1999).

Spinning Goddesses

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

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:

Image In Akkadian, kashshapu indicated a magician, sorcerer or wizard

Image 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

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.

Image Klotho the Spinner puts the wool around the spindle

Image Lachesis the Sustainer or Caster of Lots, Caster of Fate, spins the wool. Alternatively, she measures the thread

Image 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

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:

Image Urd (also sometimes spelled Urdh), “Past,” is the eldest sister. She wraps the wool around the spindle

Image Verdandi spins the wool and rules the present

Image 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

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.

Image Nona, the goddess of birth, rules the nine months of pregnancy

Image Decuma rules birth

Image 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

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

Spider Woman is the direct, simple name given to spinning goddesses in many cultures around the world.

St Paraskeva

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

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.

Spinning Tools

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:

Image There are heavy, massive free-standing looms complete with complex foot pedals

Image Light, mobile back-strap looms can be carried anywhere

Image 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.

Spindle Whorls

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

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.”