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?