Neither Toil Nor Spin
I don’t spin in the summer as I don’t spin flax, and handling wool in the heat can get uncomfortable. It’s like wearing a wool cap when it’s 96° and 80% humidity. I’ve been spinning a lot these last few days that it’s cool enough to be handling wool before the Summer sets in, and it seems to fit well with it being Rogationtide. Writing about Rogation Days and spinning the last couple of days has brought out some connections either ironic or inspired, and I’d like to share them here.
As part of the Rogation Sunday procession three days ago we read from the Gospel of Matthew. (Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow: they toile not, neither doe they spinne.) It is one of my favorite readings and I’ve posted on it before. I wonder if the lilies don’t spin because they bloom in the summer and it’s just too hot. The lilies may not spin, but apparently the Virgin Mary does, and some of the images of Mary spinning remind me of Our Lady the Undoer of Knots.
There seems to be a sense of order out of chaos: the tangled wool being made straight in the yarn that is spun, the tangled chord being made straight as knots are undone.
I’ve come across many images of the Virgin either in front of a spinning wheel, or with a drop spindle in her hand. They’re usually images of the annunciation, and Mary abandons her spinning as Gabriel distracts from her work, but what is the connection to Our Lady and spinning?
In the Greek world of myth and the Bible, spinning was not considered a virtuous craft. Penelope did not spin while Odysseus was away. She Wove. Penelope’s weaving was not portable; it kept her at home; it was the symbol of her virtue. Had she been a spinner, she still could have unwound her work in the evenings as her suitors slept, but her spinning would not have kept her at home, as her weaving did.
Spinning is portable. Gandhi spun on a small wheel that he would carry with him. His booklet chakra could be carried in to meetings where he would defiantly spin cotton for his own garments; a simple way to make a statement about self sufficiency and economic independence. A person spinning on a drop spindle can walk down the street spinning his own fleece or flax; making yarn on the move. However, a virtuous woman does not leave the house in the ancient world. It would have been a sign of infidelity if Penelope were seen spinning her way through the city square. So, why does the Virgin Mary spin?
She’s not a Gretchen am spinnrade; that’s a very different story. She’s not a kleine spinnerin am kreuz, that too, is a rather different story, although a story of faith and fidelity. Some of the depictions of Saint Mary spinning look to me like she’s spinning wool, however, and I think the connection to the virgin and spinning is in the flax that blooms blue. The colour of the Virgin in the West is, in fact, flax flower blue.
Jesus’ mother should not be confused with a goddess. She is not the Co-Redemptrix, but she clearly holds a special place in Christian legend (after all, she is the mother of the Lamb of God), and that legend holds much in common with earlier mythologies that Christianity encountered as it grew. The connections between the Queen of Heaven and the Queen of Asgard are unmistakable. Clearly, many of the attributes ascribed to Frigg were grafted onto Mary as Christianity encountered the Norse gods and Germanic Paganism. Frigg, like Mary, was identified with and called upon by women in childbirth. Frigg’s name means “love,” and she is the only goddess allowed to sit on the throne in Asgard. Flax flower blue and the plant itself are associated with Frigg, as is spinning. The constellation that the Greeks knew as Orion is Frigg’s Spinning Wheel in northern Europe. One of the many folktales about Frigg is The Gift of Flax:
A poor shepherd and his wife had lost their sheep and were on the verge of starvation. The shepherd went off looking for his sheep and, upon finding one, followed it up a mountainside to the edge of a glacier. He’d been there many times before , but this time there was something different: there was a door in the glacier. His curiosity got the better of him, and he abandoned his quest for his sheep and crossed the threshold.
Once inside the he could see that the there was a great hall carved into the ice. Its walls were studded with costly jewels that radiated light all around him. Suddenly before him appeared three figures whom he immediately recognized as the goddess Frigg, the Queen of Asgard, and her attendants. As he fell to his knees in awe, Frigg offered him a gift. “You may take one thing home with you from out of the hall.” His eyes darted all about. How could he choose? Which gem? Which ornament of great value would he request?
None. His attention kept being drawn back to the blue flowers held by the goddess. “May I take but one of the flowers you hold? As a gift for my wife?” The goddess was touched by his humility and his love for his wife. She gave him the entire bunch of flowers along with a handful of seed.
When he returned to his wife, she was astonished that he should ask for such a paltry prize from the goddess. “We could have been rich and fat in no time had you only asked for one of the jewels in her crown. Now we are sure to starve.” Despite the doubts of his wife he set to work plowing the field and planting the seeds. Soon green sprigs were pushing up through the loam. In what seemed like no time at all his field was blue with blossoms, and seed pods soon formed.
It was about this time that the shepherd and his wife were visited by the Queen of Asgard. She led them out to the field where she plucked a handful of the flax, and taking it to a nearby brook, she taught the poor couple to extract the fiber from the plants and spin the finest linen thread. She also advised them to keep the seeds for planting the following year. The couple followed her instructions. They worked hard: the man in the field, and the woman at her wheel. They grew quite rich producing the finest fabric to be found and lived to a ripe old age, at which time they were visited again by Frigg, who took them by the hand and led them to a bench beside her throne in Asgard.
This story sometimes has the goddess Holda, goddess of domestic arts and spinning, in the place of Frigg. Josef Grimm noted that the Virgin Mary and Frau Holda were often interchangeable in folklore, as many of the tales collected by him and his brother would have Holda in one version of the story and the Virgin in another. I could certainly see the story above with Mary in the place of Frigg.
Mythology, folklore and superstition are all things that enrich our culture. They give us a road map with which we may navigate our history. They illuminate our fears, our hopes, and our desires, but none of this should distract us from what is important. Whether or not a folktale about the Virgin Mary was originally a myth about Frigg, or Holda, or any other goddess, is not an issue, as long as that story reminds us that we should learn from the example of Mary to accept the grace of God freely given; that we are all called to be, like Mary, Theotokos.
Earth Day Rogationtide!
I suppose that with all of the Norse legends that I cannot get away without some Wagner, so here’s Spinnerlied aus Der Fliegende Holländer arranged by Liszt, and performed on the piano by Alexander Uninsky. I know it’s not from the Ring Cycle, but it is about spinning.
Oh, and back to those lilies: