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The theme of weaving in mythology is ancient, and its lost mythic lore probably accompanied the early spread of this mysterious art. Westward of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, weaving is a mystery within woman's sphere, and where men have become the primary weavers in this part of the world, it is possible that they have usurped the archaic role.
Myths of weaving exist around the world as metaphors for creation. The spindle is often an axis mundi and its whirling whorls serve a cosmogonic function. Plato, for example, had a vision of the great goddess Ananke, "Necessity," spinning the universe; the sun, moon, and planets were her spindle's whorls; sirens sang through the webs of time and fate that she wove, and souls endlessly moved through the strands on their way to and from death and rebirth. Many goddesses are spinners and weavers: the Fates of ancient Greece; Athena, also of Greece; Neith of ancient Egypt; in Teutonic myth the Norns spin secret meanings into life; in the American southwest, Grandmother Spider Woman spins all life from the shimmering threads in her belly.
Weaving begins with spinning. Until the spinning wheel was invented in the 14th century, all spinning was done with distaff and spindle (see those entries for technical details and history). In English the "distaff side" denotes a woman's role in the household economy. In Scandinavia, the stars of Orion's belt are Friggjar rockr, "Frigga’s distaff".
In pre-Dynastic Egypt, nt, (Neith) was already the goddess of weaving (and a mighty aid in war as well). She protected the Red Crown of Lower Egypt before the two kingdoms were merged, and in Dynastic times she was known as the most ancient one, to whom the other gods went for wisdom. Nit is identifiable by her emblems and most often it is the loom's shuttle, with its two recognizable hooks at each end, upon her head. According to E. A. Wallis Budge (The Gods of the Egyptians) the root of the word for weaving and also for being are the same: nnt. Many of the world's people understand that the world is woven and that a weaving creator wove its designs into being. Compare the Navajo legend of the Spider Woman, of Teotihuacan origin.
In Greece the Moirae (the "Fates") and among the Norse the Norns are the three crones who control Destiny, and the matter of it is the art of spinning on the distaff the thread of life. Ariadne, a consort of Dionysus in Minoan Crete, possessed the spun thread that led Theseus to the center of the labyrinth and safely out again. In the following Age, Penelope the faithful wife of Odysseus was a weaver, weaving her design for a shroud by day, but unravelling it again at night, to keep her suitors from claiming her during the long years while Odysseus was away. Penelope has a high lineage that melds human and divine, and is she perhaps secretly Odysseus' own weaving goddess-nymph, like the two weaving enchantresses in the Odyssey, Circe and Calypso. Helen is at her loom in the Iliad.
Among the Olympians, the weaver goddess is Athena, who punished the impious pretensions of her acolyte Arachne by turning her into a weaving spider. The daughters of Minyas, Alcithoe, Leuconoe and their sister, defied Dionysus and honored Athena in their weaving instead of joining his festival. A woven peplum, laid upon the knees of the goddess's iconic image, was central to festivals honoring both Athena, at Athens, and Hera.
Homer dwells upon the supernatural quality of the weaving in the robes of goddesses, and every writer reaching for a heroic style after him imitated an analogous passage.
In the terrible tale of Philomela, raped and her tongue cut out so that she could not tell about her violation, her loom becomes her voice, and the story is told in the design, so that her sister Procne may understand and the women may take their revenge. Ovid retold the old tales in his Metamorphoses (VI, 575-587). The understanding in the Philomela myth that pattern and design convey myth and ritual has been of great use to modern mythographers: Jane Ellen Harrison led the way, interpreting the more permanent patterns of vase-painting, since the patterned textiles had not survived. Weavers had a repertory of tales: in the 15th century Jean d'Arras, a North French tale-teller (trouvere), assembled a collection of stories entitled Les Vangiles de Quenouille ("Spinners' Tales"). Its frame story is that these are narrated among a group of ladies at their spinning.
Romans continue to regard the processes of spinning and weaving with superstitious awe. In many parts of the Roman empire, laws banned women from holding a spindle in public: should anyone lay eyes on such a woman, it could mean exceptionally bad luck perhaps even the failure of the harvest. Jacob Grimm reported the superstition "if, while riding a horse overland, a man should come upon a woman spinning, then that is a very bad sign; he should turn around and take another way." (Deutsche Mythologie 1835, v3.135)
Among the Celts, the healing goddess Brigid is a spinner. The Scandinavian "Song of the Spear", quoted in "Njals Saga", gives a detailed description of Valkyries as women weaving on a loom, with severed heads for weights, arrows for shuttles, and human gut for the warp, singing an exultant song of carnage . In Germanic myth the spinner is Holda, whose patronage extends outward to control of the weather, and source of women's fertility, and the protector of unborn children, without ever losing her role as the patron of spinners, rewarding the industrious and punishing the idle. Holda taught the secret of making linen from flax. An account of Holda was collected by the Brothers Grimm, as the fairy tale "Frau Holda". Another of the Grimm tales, "The Spindle, the Shuttle and the Needle", which embeds social conditioning in fairy tale with mythic resonances, rewards the industrious spinner with the fulfillment of her mantra:
"Spindle, my spindle, haste, haste thee away,
and here to my house bring the wooer, I pray."
"Spindel, Spindel, geh' du aus,
bring den Freier in mein Haus."
It recounts how the magic spindle, flying out of the girl's hand, flew away, unravelling behind it a thread, which the Prince followed, as Theseus followed the thread of Ariadne, to find what he was seeking: a bride "who is the poorest, and at the same time the richest". He arrives to find her simple village cottage magnificently caparisoned by the magically-aided products of spindle, shuttle and needle. (See link.)
In Baltic myth, Saule is the life-affirming sun goddess, whose numinous presence is signed by a wheel or a rosette. She spins the sunbeams. The Baltic connection between the sun and spinning is as old as spindles of the sun-stone, amber, that have been uncovered in burial mounds. Baltic legends as told have absorbed many images from Christianity and Greek myth that are not easy to disentangle. The Finnish epic, the Kalevala, has many references to spinning and weaving goddesses.
In later European folklore, weaving retained its connection with magic. The daughter who could spin straw into gold and was forced to demonstrate her talent, aided by the dangerous earth-daemon Rumpelstiltskin was an old tale when the Brothers Grimm collected it.
In Alfred Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott", her woven representations of the world have protected and entrapped Elaine of Astolat, whose first encounter with reality outside proves mortal. William Holman Hunt's painting from the poem (illustration, left) contrasts the completely pattern-woven interior with the sunlit world beyond the roundel window. On the wall, woven representations of Myth (Hesperides) and Religion (Prayer) echo the window's open roundel; the tense and conflicted Lady of Shallott stands imprisoned within the brass roundel of her loom, while outside the passing knight sings "'Tirra lirra' by the river" as in Tennyson's poem.
In Inca mythology Mama Ocllo first taught women the art of spinning thread.
In Tang Dynasty China, the weaving goddess floated down on a shaft of moonlight with her two attendants, showed to the upright court official Guo Han in his garden that a goddess's robe is seamless for it is woven without the use of needle and thread, entirely on the loom. The phrase "a goddess's robe is seamless" passed into an idiom to express perfect workmanship.