Women’s Work 21

The Norns- figures cut from lithograph by Gehrts (Anduss)

Threads I span

These I weave

Then I cut


No one has any idea when weaving started. Perhaps it originated long before we were even human. Chimpanzees loosely weave branches and leaves into sleeping platforms in the trees. It is likely proto-humans wove baskets, not only to carry goods but also to fish. A fishing net made from willow is known from 85,000 years ago, while the first evidence of textile weaving is a 70,000 year old fabric impression.

Spinning and weaving came under the provenance of women’s magic. In cultures where men wove, such as ancient Egypt, they are believed to have usurped the woman’s traditional role. Neith, the Egyptian goddess of weaving, was viewed as an ancient mother to who the other gods went for advice, and one who provided mighty aid in war. This attribute resurfaced some two millennia later with the powerful Norse goddess Freya of the Vanir, whose name simply means ‘The Lady’, and her sorceress representatives, the Volva.

The Vanir were the original gods of the Northern forests. When Odin’s family tried to overthrow them, Freya used magic and prophecy to start a war with the Asgardians, eventually forcing them into peaceful power sharing. As part of the bargain, Freya kept half of all the brave warriors’ souls the Valkyries gathered.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, women’s skills were denigrated, except for goddess too ancient and powerful to ignore. Those such as the Graeae, the Muses, the Furies and the Moirai occupied a shadowy place in the minds of men. That they were originally three sisters, suggests they are revenants of the original triple goddess.


Atropos (Andruss)


The three Morai or Fates appeared three nights after a child’s birth to determine its fate. The sisters doled out the thread of life, wove destiny into the world tapestry and in the end cut you dead. They were: Clotho meaning the spinner; Larchesis- the measurer (who allotted the length of life) and the small but terrible Atropos, (the name means inevitable) who cut the thread when life was done.

As Norse myth claimed the gods came from the east, following the River Danube through the Black Sea from Byzantium, it is no surprise the Moirai are echoed in the three Norns. The origin of the word Norn may come from the verb ‘to twine’. The sisters are named from the verb ‘to be’. Wyrd- means both fate and the past tense – what was; Verdandi is the present tense- what is; Skuld is the future- what will come to pass, with an additional sense of ‘a debt to be paid’.

In Norse culture, magic and weaving were intimately linked with Seidr (sorcery) or elf magic. Although seidr was practiced by both sexes, it was considered unmanly. It left men cowardly, concealing, duplicitous and clever with their tongues, instead of forthright, open, reckless and brave. More damning it implied being the passive partner during homosexual encounters. During Christian times, seidmenn were often put to death by being tied to rocky outcrops at low tide and left to drown. On one occasion a group were burned alive inside a house by the king.

The trickster god of mischief, Loki, even accused the all-father Odin of its unnatural practice. Odin was the god of sorcery, the equivalent of the master magician Mercury. Yet it was Loki (wildfire) who was most mistrusted by the other gods for its practice. This might reflect how wildfire was tamed by women’s wiles to the hearth.

Greatly admired and feared were the travelling sorceresses called Volva. Often they were assisted by local women singing and dancing in circles at their rituals. Julius Cesar was the first to mention aged women dressed in white who sacrificed prisoners of war and sprinkled their blood in order to make prophecies.

The Volva’s most powerful magical instrument was a wand or a distaff, a long spindle used before spinning wheels to spin thread. Like the Norns, Volva could spin out a thread to bind a man, seducing and reducing him to illness. This suggests the sorceress, like a spider, could suck men dry of virility (from the Roman word vir: manliness).

Such power was not confined to Volva. In a society where men and women had distinct roles and spheres of influence, all women were skilled in varying degrees of magic. Men are warned not to let sorceresses seduce them: echoes still found in fairy tales.

Wives had a big a part to play in war as the Volvas. Unlike the Celtic wife who often accompanied her man into battle, Norse wives stayed at home literally weaving spells on the loom to paralyse an enemy by tying him in knots, or free her husband from other women’s spells by loosening the weave.


Freya & Hildisvini (Lorenz Frolich 1895)


This final aside is a glimpse into future topics.

In Norse myth, the witch Queen of Heaven, Freya, rides a pet boar, Hildisvini, who is in fact her enchanted lover Odr (divine madness). Myths of the Green Man say the dying and resurrected harvest god is often gored to death by a wild boar. The myth originates in the first civilisations of the Fertile Crescent. Attys is killed by the boar’s tusk of winter. Adonis is both born from and killed by a boar. In Irish myth the boar is Dermot O’ Dyna’s own brother under enchantment. One of the earliest independent tales of Arthur involves hunting a huge boar, Twrch Trwyth, through South Wales.

21 thoughts on “Women’s Work

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – Fevered Threads by Paul Andruss | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  2. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – Fevered Threads by Paul Andruss | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  3. Reply dgkaye Jul 30,2017 5:44 pm

    Fantastic read Paul. Love your stories and their origins.

  4. Pingback: Fevered Threads ← Odds n Sods: A cabinet of curiosities

  5. Reply Mary Smith Jul 29,2017 1:48 pm

    Fascinating article, Paul. Following on from Robbie’s comment above about the artistry in surgery, I had a friend, an eye surgeon, who did embroidery in his free time. He said it was to keep his eye in. He loved puns.

  6. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – Women’s Work by Paul Andruss | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  7. Reply Robbie Cheadle Jul 28,2017 7:40 pm

    Wow, Paul, this is a really fascinating article again. Unbelievable what people do to each other. Although I think the art of weaving is probably more a woman’s domain, there will definitely be some men that are very good at it. I often think about the artistry in surgery – the cutting and sewing that takes place. You need to have dextrous fingers for this job.

    • Reply Paul Jul 29,2017 12:50 pm

      I know Robbie, it is horrible the ancient Scandinavian (so recently converted to Christianity) murdered male practitioners of magic… probably as much for their perceived effeminacy as for their magical skill. But then the rest of Europe did the same with witches. There is evidence from Pre-christian times effeminacy was prized in priests and magicians, probably because they were seen as possessed by the goddess. In Neolithic European burials, where men are buried with flint arrowheads and women with beads, there is a class of burials of both sexes with both sets of grave goods. These are assumed to be the tribal shaman.. showing they transcended the expected role in society. Maybe such persecution in Christian times was more about religious control. However saying that, the first Anti-Gay persecution was in Constantinople during Justinian’s time… but I have never been able to find any details about its rationale.

  8. Reply sally cronin Jul 27,2017 11:37 pm

    By the way I meant to say that I will reblog Saturday this week.. tomorrow is launch day and something for my mother.. xx

  9. Reply sally cronin Jul 27,2017 11:36 pm

    Weaving spells again Paul.. I can just imagine 75,000 years ago my female ancestors huddled around a dim fire, making a patchwork quilt and gossiping. I would imagine that it might well have been a community activity and an opportunity to have a good natter and moan about your other half.. as always fascinating and when I think of the clothes I have knocked up on my singer.. I cannot imagine them being discovered in 75,000 years and recognised as being of any cultural importance.

    • Reply Paul Jul 28,2017 8:18 pm

      I had a mate who was derided when he said he learned to knit as a kid… but you know if it wasn’t for our mums knitting and making clothes half of us would have gone around bare arsed. Personally I think all this about making clothes and cooking it just fantastic. As a Left handed bloke who can’t cut straight with scissors and cannot bake a cake to save my life (anything over apple crumble is beyond me) women’s work seems like pure magic!

  10. Reply Shehanne Moore Jul 26,2017 11:02 pm

    I love how you have gone all mythological here in talking about weaving Paul. If it wisnae for the weavers indeed xx

    • Reply Paul Jul 28,2017 8:20 pm

      You know Shey you are absolutely right… from the earliest time weaving is what brought in the money in a lot of places .. as you have said about Dundee and also in Lancashire… and it was women doing it… their money keeping the family together. It is great that it has such a long and magical history.

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