Once upon a time there was a princess who pricked her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and she fell into a deep sleep – okay, you probably heard about that one before, or at least you have seen the animated movie. Made world famous by the 1959 Walt Disney film, the original tale can be traced down to Dornröschen by the Brothers Grimm (1812) or to Charles Perrault’s The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood (1699), and it has elements that are present in the story of Brunhilde and Genevieve de Brabant.
Today, I would like to focus on an element that weaves Dornröschen and the Sleeping Beauty together. It isn’t the prince in shining armor nor the transformational nature of sleep, but the role of the humble spindle.
Just like sleep, the activity of spinning has long been used as a metaphor for transformation – and transformation is intimately related to the Feminine. As Joan Gould tells us in Spinning Straw into Gold, yarn flowed from women’s fingertips “the way milk flowed from their nipples. They spun while they rocked the baby or herded the cows on their way to pasture … Spinning defined women so absolutely that we still speak of an unmarried woman as a spinster and the female members of the family as the distaff side.”
Throughout the centuries we can find many diverse and fascinating images of spinning, thread and spindles in different myths and tales, and they are mostly related to female figures. Here’s a brief selection of threading stories to ponder:
There are several ancient associations of thread with the web of life and death. Perhaps some of the best known are Penelope and Ariadne, though there are other fine examples such as Klothos or the nymphs.
Odysseus’ wife Penelope appears in The Odyssey working on a loom as a way to remain faithful to her missing husband and gain time against the claims of her suitors. Over a period of three years, Penelope spends all day weaving a shroud for Laertes, her father-in-law, only to unravel her work at night and never make progress. She is eventually found out and must choose a suitor, who turns out to be her long lost husband Odysseus who has returned in disguise.
Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, king of Crete, and she is associated with the tale of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. According to this myth, Ariadne is in charge of the labyrinth where the Minotaur lives. The bull god must be appeased, and for that seven young maids and seven young men are sacrificed every seven years. Young Theseus volunteers to join one of these groups and attempt to kill the creature. Ariadne, who falls in love with him, advises him to unwind a ball of red thread attached to the entrance of the Minotaur’s maze in order to retrace his steps and escape.
Klothos (“She who spins”) was one of the Moirae – better known as the Fates, the three divine sisters who personify the inescapable destiny of man. Klothos spins, Lakhesis measures, and Atropos cuts short a woolen thread, whose length corresponds to the duration of a mortal’s life. The tale of Meleager and the play Alkestis by Euripides are good examples of the Moirae’s role in allotting the time (thread length) of a person’s existence.
One last, curious example from Greek mythology is the sight of nymphs Kalypso and Circe who sing and weave sea-purple garments in their grottoes as they watch over the fate of mortals. Homer mentions this scene in The Odyssey: interestingly enough, Penelope’s mother Periboea also happened to be a nymph.
In Asia we find a few examples of using thread that aren’t necessarily related to female figures. In the Hindu sacred books the Upanishads there is a profusion of imagery related to threads. For example, Hiranyagarbha is also called sutratman, which literally means “the Thread Soul”, a concept that is said to link this world to the other world and to all beings. The thread is both the soul (atman) and the breath (prana). Also, the Rig-Veda sees weaving as a symbol of the rhythm of life and its endless alternation.
In terms of rituals, the Vedic rites mention the use of the Yajnopavita, a sacred thread made of hand-spun cotton that is commonly worn by Hindu priests. It is usually given to young boys (known as vatu or understudies) as a sign of their spiritual awakening and acceptance as religious students.
Threads are also used in multiple other rituals, for example in Buddhist praying ceremonies or the Baci tradition in Laos and Thailand.
While we may not always associate Biblical tales with mythology, there is plenty of imagery in the ancient Jewish and Christian texts that refer to weaving and thread.
Perhaps the most interesting case is the second-century apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, where there is a passage of the Virgin Mary spinning. According to this source, Mary was brought up in the Jerusalem Temple and was taught to spin wool for the veil of the Sanctuary. The colors purple and scarlet were assigned to her, as a sign of royal bloodline (Mary was promised in marriage to Joseph, from the tribe of David). While she was weaving at the Sanctuary, Mary was greeted by the Archangel Gabriel, who bore the message that she would conceive a divine child (*).
Many examples of early Christian iconography portray the motif of the Annunciation with Mary weaving, and oftentimes we find that in the paintings there is a strong correlation between the shape of Mary’s distaff and spindle (a symbolic crucifix) and the cross, where her son would later surrender his life for the sake of humanity.
My hope is that some of these tales will inspire you to go deeper into the symbolic meanings of weaving, as well as the stories and traditions that thread them together. Who knows, perhaps you’ll start thinking about them while you mend a pair of socks or knit a sweater by the fireplace…
(*) In the Protoevangelium of James there is also a second Annunciation motif that happens by a well. Here the link between water and thread is expressed in the purple color that Mary weaves and the nature of the purple dye, which in ancient times was derived from a mollusk.
Elisa Markhoff is a journalist, author and speaker from Uruguay who has lived and worked in Europe and the US for over 20 years. Her work as a foreign correspondent has appeared in several international media outlets, including radio and TV.