Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Distaff

Frigga Spinning the Clouds
by J.C. Dollman


I learned something absolutely novel to me today. I googled the word "distaff" and was quite surprised to discover that, consistent with its domestic use as a noun, it is also an adjective, describing the female side of a family. It just goes to show how deeply interwoven was this activity of spinning and weaving in the role of women among my European ancestors.

A saga reader like myself knows how valuable the products of weaving were, because men used ells of cloth in trade in the same way they traded marks of gold. Cloth was even used for compensation at the death of a kinsman. A man who didn't have a wife to weave cloth for him was a poor man indeed. Farming, fishing and husbandry kept meat and bread on the table, but weaving represented wealth. In many ways, women, Germanic and Scandinavian in particular, ruled the roost, but weaving was their particular domain. A man, too, could run the farm as many women did, maybe even own the keys to the house, but only women spun and wove.

More than once I've run across the idea that it is a sign of a woman's favor if she produces a set of clothing for a man. Throughout the sagas, too, the quality and color of a person's clothing is indicative of his status. Red (or colored) duds represent a wealthy or high-born man. In one tale, a man's character is condemned because he cut away a soiled bit of his cloak and tossed it away. The Icelanders considered him a wasteful lout and vain.

When my ancestors contemplated the nature of their goddesses, they necessarily pictured them as spinners and weavers. Frigg, for example, spins the threads which the Norns weave into the fates of men. Frigg's symbol is the distaff. I learned something else new; I learned that another word for distaff is "rock." Frigg is the heavenly spinner, and the constellation Orion is named "Friggjar Rockr," Frigg's distaff. That puts a whole new spin on things, yes?

4 comments:

Heathen Mama said...

Take a look at the word "spinster". It's interesting how it's meaning has changed over the years from being a valuable member of the family to being a worthless old maid.

I do a bit of spinning, as well as weaving and knitting. I do it for fun though. If I had to produce enough cloth to clothe my family, provide linens for the beds, etc I'd probably be completely sick of it. I don't even want to imagine the amount of effort needed to weave a sail!

Morning Angel said...

"I don't even want to imagine the amount of effort needed to weave a sail!"

O, my, yes. The only way those women could have accomplished these things is cooperatively.

In that regard we can see how poorly the forces of social organization in the pre-industrial (and the earlier pre-Christian) eras are understood because our historians have not adequately identified the primary elements of cohesion in families and tribes.

Admittedly, the literature available concentrates on battle where men come to the fore, but it is evident that our Heathen sisters, before Christianity's conquests, were vital and respected members of these communities.

Thank you for your comments!

Bjorn Odinsson said...

Thank you for this wonderful article. Yes, Spinning is a sacred art. My girlfriend loves to knit and weave, do cross-stitch etc. I think that while the femininst movement was important for regaining the rights women deserve, also took a little bit away as many women refuse to knit or weave because they view it as patriarchal enslavement, but when viewed from the historical context it was actually a very empowering practice. One of my teachers portrayed it thus when she said: "The Viking men may have worn the pants out on their dragonships, but when they got home, they meekly handed their pants to their women folk, and then *they* wore the pants." Lol, women were respected as the rulers of the hearth, many major decisions about the household seem to have been the woman's domain, and many tribes would not dare go off to war or a-viking without the blessing and counsel of a woman seer.

Hail to our womenfolk for you are the wise and beautiful civilizers of men!

Morning Angel said...

Thank you for your comments, Bjorn. I strongly agree with your use of the word "sacred" here. There is sacredness to be found in the roles women assume around the hearth and garth.