Tracing Back the Threads from Witches to Viking Age Seiðr
“Are you doing Voodoo?!”
The cashier looked at me with a mixture of incredulity and fear, her hands frozen mid-scan. I looked to my own hands, to the perfectly innocuous spindle and fiber, and then looked at her again. The line had been long and so I’d taken out my spindle and started to do a little spinning – some lovely soft Shetland wool with which I was going (am going) to knit a traditional lace shawl.
For a moment, I was stuck for words, I mean, how *do* you respond to an obviously scared cashier accusing you of doing ‘Voodoo’ in the checkout line when all you’re doing (at least that time) is spinning yarn? Part of me was amused, but another part of me was a little saddened that as a society we’ve become so ignorant to the processes involved in the production of clothing, that someone doing something that would have been commonplace not all that long ago ( especially in the grand scheme of things) was now suspect and participating in ‘Voodoo’.
I decided to try and go for the teachable moment, to explain that I was spinning, turning wool into yarn that could then be knitted, woven, or crocheted into hats, sweaters, blankets etc. From the look on her face though and talk of how she was going to leave her register and run away if it really was ‘Voodoo’, I’m not quite sure I got through; she did seem genuinely scared. I’m guessing the ridiculously dramatic Hollywood depictions of ‘Voodoo’ are probably to blame for that, because real Vodou as I understand it, is a beautiful faith centered around family and community (read ‘Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn’ for a lovely portrayal of this very misunderstood faith).
In spite of the mundane nature of the spinning I was doing that day though, it really cannot be said that spinning and witchcraft are entirely unconnected. No, if anything, there is a connection there that runs very deep and is still yet largely unexplored by modern practitioners.
The only exception that I’ve found to this has been potentially among those belonging to the 1734 tradition of modern Traditional Witchcraft. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m not involved in 1734, or any of the modern tradcrafter groups. I come at my craft from a different angle – albeit one with quite a few similarities with some modern Traditional Witchcraft.
From Witches to Seiðr
According to Cochrane, there are three branches of witchcraft: One pertaining to the male mysteries, one pertaining to the female mysteries, and the other pertaining to the mysteries of the Dead and Underworld. Those female mysteries based in spindle and distaff (or stang, in yet another use) are what I’m going to concentrate on in this post. In ‘On Cords’, Robert Cochrane wrote that, “The so-called ‘sacred object’ held in such reverence by some witches was in fact a weaver’s distaff–and could easily be mistaken for a phallic symbol. The weaver’s distaff, bound with reeds or straw, appears frequently in rural carvings and elsewhere. It again has reference to the Craft and supreme Deity. It would appear that the witches were not in the least influenced by Freudian concepts.”
As I’ve already said, I’m not involved in any of those modern traditions mentioned above, if I were, I may feel differently about claims of ancient origins for these traditions. Personally I’m not really sure how much I buy, however there are most definitely ‘threads’ (no pun intended) that *can* be traced back through history; it just so happens that the connection between spinning and witchcraft is one of them.
Moving backwards in time from when Cochrane was writing, we easily find a tradition of depicting witches riding distaffs on woodcuts and in drawings from the 15th and 16th centuries.
If we continue to trace that thread further back, especially in Northern Europe -the place where much of our modern witchcraft is rooted – if we go as far back as the Viking Age, we find mentions of a type of magic called Seiðr.
For most people nowadays though, Seiðr is about the High Seat and seeing, there’s very little though to connect that practice with Seiðr as it was shown in the primary sources. Even the oft-cited Erik the Red’s saga doesn’t feature a Seiðkona but a spá-kona (spae-wife, seeress). You see, Seiðr was in all likelihood a spun form of magic.
Let’s begin with the etymology – or at least Seiðr’s etymological equivalents in Old High German and Old English (which are on far surer footing than the etymology itself) that mean ‘snare’, ‘cord’, or ‘halter’. In support of this is one example of skaldic poetry in which the word ‘seiðr’ is used to refer to ‘cord’, ‘girth’, or ‘girdle’. Moreover, multiple accounts in the primary sources involve spun Seiðr (check out the paper by Eldar Heide linked below for more). Seiðr is a magic that can not only bind, but can also attract things, in fact roughly half of the accounts involving Seiðr in the primary sources are related to attracting things; be those things fish, people, or resources.
This concept of using thread based magic to attract things is one that was retained in later folklore too – as was the tradition of linking spinning and weaving implements with prophecy and magic in general. For example, a witch was believed to be able to steal a neighbor’s milk by milking a length of rope, and the spindle remained the symbol of the witch in Germany until quite late on.
But *why* spinning and witchcraft? Why does such a link make sense, and what can we learn about how spun magic can be used?
Spinning, Fate, and Death
It might be said that there is a common thread (again with the threads) running through many Indo-European descendant cultures, which associates the act of spinning with ‘fate’ (for want of a better word). This is a connection that was reflected linguistically in many older versions of IE languages (Old English among them) and the verb for ‘to be’, a verb which often had connotations with ‘turning’ or ‘spinning’. What is now is what is being turned or what is being spun. Multiple IE cultures also had groups of numina who were often associated with spinning, whose role it was to spin the fates of men. Among the Hittites there were the Kattereš, Underworld goddesses who spun the lives of kings; among the Greeks there were the Moirai, or ‘Apportioners’, one of whom spun the lot of men; among the Slavs you had the Sudice or Rodzanice; the Parcae among the Romans; and the Nornir (who differ in that they’re not explicitly shown to spin) among the Norse. There is also a reference in the Atharva Veda hinting at a similar concept among the Vedics:
“The goddesses who spun, wove, and stretched, and who gave the ends (of the thread) let them wrap you together to old age; as one long-lived, put around you this garment.”
And then there is Death to consider, Death who ensnares and pulls the Dead down to the Underworld of the Dead, using cord, rope, or a snare – in other words, that which is an end product of spinning to complete her task.
“The ropes of Hel Came swiftly; They swung at my sides. I wanted to break them. But they were tough. Light it is to fare when free!”
“You who are richer than the unrifled Treasuries of the Arabs, and the wealth of India – You may fill all the Tyrrhenian and the Apulian sea with the foundations [for your villa], [But] if grim Necessity drives Her adamantine nails in the highest heavens, You’ll not free your soul from fear Nor your head from the snares of Death”
Horace Ode 3.24 lines 1-8
“What awaits goodness, or chaste loyalty, or worship paid to heaven? The dark snares of death encompassed around the wretched woman, the Sisters’ ruthless threads are tightened, and there abides but the last portion of the exhausted span.”
Statius Silvae, V. I. 129-157
Again, these were ideas which were retained in later folklore too. Mirjam Mencej wrote an amazing paper about spinning lore and beings associated with spinning in European folklore. She wrote about how birth and death are conceptualized as being spun into life and then your fibers falling undone when dying, about the idea of womb and burial mound as the wool basket from where one begins and ends, about the crossing to the Underworld of the Dead over a strand of wool, and the incidence of dead appearing as balls of yarn (sometimes leaving trails of blood!) in various European folklore traditions.
With all this in mind, and the historical connection between women and spinning (seriously, ladies used to spin pretty much constantly when not otherwise engaged), why *wouldn’t* any women’s mysteries in witchcraft revolve around spinning? It’s a magic of fate, of pulling, of binding, and at times, even of creation!
Stangs, Staffs, and Distaffs, oh my!
To return to the distaffs, although it’s not a ‘weaving distaff’ (weaving and spinning are distinct, dammit!) Robert Cochrane (who died in 1966) seems to have been right at least about the importance of the distaff. More recent work by archaeologists on the so-called ‘staffs of sorcery’ found in (mostly) Viking Age graves has highlighted the resemblance between many of the ‘staffs of sorcery’ (many of which were made of iron, making them too heavy for work use) and distaffs of the same time period.
Admittedly, those distaffs/staffs didn’t look like stangs, but I rather suspect that the function of distaff may have been added to the stang’s already multi-purpose nature (as much as some people may disparage them, they are the original ‘port-a-witch’ kit). Then there are the crooked staffs to take into account – but more on those another time.
Unfortunately this topic is far too big to be covered fully in a blog post, so I’m including some links to sources for any of you that are interested in exploring this topic further. If there are any specific points you would like clarifying, or a specific source citation, please feel free to mail me and ask. In my next post, I’m going to talk more about the nuts and bolts of working spun magic, and some of my experiences in this kind of work.
Suggested Further Reading:
Eldar Heide – Spinning Seidr George Giannakis – The “Fate as Spinner” motif: A Study on the Poetic and Metaphorical Language of Ancient Greece and Indo-European (Parts I and II) (may be obtainable via ILL) Bruce Lincoln – Death, War, Sacrifice Mirjam Mencej – Connecting Threads Leszek Gardela – Into Viking Minds: Reinterpreting the Staffs of Sorcery and Unravelling Seidr (or anything by Leszek Gardela on the Staffs of Sorcery – go find him on academia.edu)
When I was a little girl, I was the kind of girl that learned more from her father than her mother. Although my mother did try to teach me to knit and sew, I had no interest whatsoever. I devalued fiber arts, I didn’t understand what they were, I looked down on them. In my nascent feminism, Germaine Greer’s words were ever in mind, “Women have frittered their lives away stitching things for which there is no demand.” In those early years, my interest was always in being outside, in travelling, being out in the wilds, and well basically being some feral little savage that wandered the moors like Ibn Fadlan’s proverbial swamp donkey.
I would learn the value and sacredity of fiber arts later in life.
Fiber Arts and the Sacred
My first fiber art was embroidery, which I came to after finding my grandmother’s silks and hoop in the attic. For days, I’d heard the intermittent song of a music box. Trying to track it down, I turned my room upside down, but found nothing with the same tune. Eventually I decided to go into the attic and look there. Finally I found a box containing a music box, my grandmother’s silks, and her hoop. The song from the music box matched the song I’d been hearing. I never seemed to need teaching, my mother never embroidered or cross stitched, but it was easy to me. My first use of fiber arts for the sacred was embroidered pieces dedicated to deities, magical house protections incorporating the ALU charm, and shrines that could be folded away.
The next fiber art was knitting, which I came to reticently – at least initially, but ended up teaching myself via YouTube videos and copying a woman on the train when I lived in Germany.
While in Germany, it was our habit that I would find local folktales, translate them, and then we’d visit the place. This hobby rendered some interesting finds, including a place that folklore held to have been a cultic place of Wodan’s, an amazing site called Druidenhain, and eventually, Frau Holle. Around the same time, I developed an interest in spinning, and this pull to Frau Holle and spinning developed hand in hand. Over time, and through research, I found that aside from my UPG, that bone-deep certainty that Frau Holle is far far older than her medieval tales, that there was also a lot of very solid and thorough scholarship that supports this in the form of Erika Timm’s ‘Frau Holle, Frau Percht, und verwandte Gestalten‘. Through her in-depth study, Timm presents her theory that names like ‘Frau Holle’, ‘Frau Gode/Wode’, and ‘Frau Herke’ were regional ‘taboo names’ for the survival form of a far older goddess – the Germanic Frija – a spinning goddess, and whose functions,as Lotte Motz shows in her paper, ‘Nerthus: A New Approach‘, match those of the ‘Terra Mater’ of Tacitus’s description in his Germania.
Well, with the exception of the human sacrifice, but you know, times change…
Spinning to me, was now a sacred act. I learned about spinning taboos, and instituted some of my own to better understand what a taboo can be. I became a devotee of the ‘spinning goddess’, and over time, not only did I come to wear a symbol of her, and her image on my skin, but her connection (and by extension the connection of spinning) to Seiðr and prophecy.
Fiber Arts and Ancestry
Before I continue, and talk more about each of the different skills I practice in depth, I would like to talk a little about ancestry and the role of fiber arts in ancestral practice. When I work these traditional skills, my knitting, spinning, or even crochet, these skills from the ‘spindle side’ (and old term for the woman’s side of a family, usually denoting the women of a family line), several things are going on, at least for me. People belittle these skills, and consider them the domain of someone like Martha Stewart. I find this kind of insulting because, in my opinion, Martha Stewart is an ex-con that’s making money off these traditional arts by repackaging them in nice plastic simplicity and lifting them from all tradition and heritage. And while the argument exists that she’s potentially bringing new blood into old crafts, the new blood she’s bringing in is being introduced by the corporate mass-packaged version of what should be individual, heartfelt, and bespoke. It’s things like Martha Stewart, with her cookie-cutter versions of ‘creativity’ that leads to people seeing these arts as being mundane and producing the kind of ‘things for which there is no demand’ that Germaine Greer spoke of.
I realise that these are very strong opinions, and it’s not my wish to offend. In some ways, I’m impressed that Martha Stewart has managed to turn such a profit on crafts that are usually not particularly lucrative – at least not for the average stitcher.
However, aside from Martha and her cookie cutters, I find this form of belittling – especially by people that are supposed to grok the sacred and magical to be very short sighted and mundane in of itself.
If you just take a moment to think about what these fiber arts represent, the histories of things like the various traditional patterns (that even made it possible to identify the village or even family of the wearer), the various techniques employed, and how they related to the lives of the people that employed them, there’s something very tribal there. For example, the Fair Isle technique, as well as being colourful and providing a way to show local identity through specific patterns, also allows the knitter to layer numerous strands of wool upon each other in one garment, thus providing a far warmer garment. If you take into account the further consideration that wool garments can still provide warmth while wet (to a point), then it makes absolute sense that Fair Isle would be a part of the culture of northern fishing villages.
In these arts, there’s tradition, ancestry, there are wishes and intent, there’s knowing where you’re from and who you
are; there are stories, there are layers there. Every stitch you make, every length of yarn you spin, you are connecting with generations of women before you who, although you do this for pleasure, did this out of necessity. This is a way to connect with and honour ancestors.
Better still when you have something of theirs that remains unfinished or can be incorporated into something you’re making. That is when heirlooms are born, their stitches and intent nestling with your own, and joining those of your descendants.
Fiber, Magic, and Prophecy
Historically, and perhaps due to what I would call the ‘operative’ nature of Germanic magic (repeated actions carried out over time, integrated as part of daily function seem to have been preferred), the two main fiber arts connected with magic were, unsurprisingly, spinning and weaving.
The most famous examples of fiber magic are those of the raven banner, typically a banner woven by the mother or sister of the warrior in question, that was said to guarantee victory to the warband that carried it. The price of this victory being the death of the banner bearer (Orkneyinga saga, ch. 6, 11, 14, 17; Njáls saga, ch. 157).
Another famous example of weaving in magic is the killing shirt of the Orkney saga, which was a shirt woven with the intent of killing the wearer. This was a Seidr that was again, worked by women, and in the case of the killing shirt of the Orkney saga, was created by Helga and her sister Frakkok, who intended it for the Earl’s brother. However, the Earl himself found it and wanted it:
“..the sisters pulled off their bonnets, tore their hair and said that if he put on the garment his life would be at risk. Though they were both in tears he didn’t let that stop him, but no sooner was the garment upon his back than his flesh started to quiver and he began to suffer terrible agony. He had to go to bed and not long after that he died. “ —Orkneyinga saga, ch. 55
I can think of no examples of woven magic which do not include some kind of blood shed, or blood price. Like other forms of magic, the practice continued after conversion:
“Have you been present at or consented to the vanities which women practice in their woollen work, in their weaving, who when they begin their weaving hope to be able to bring it about that with incantations and with their actions that the threads of the warp and the woof become so intertwined that unless someone makes use of these other diabolical counter-incantations, he will perish totally? If you have been present or consented, you must do penance for thirty days on bread and water.”
-Corrector Burchard of Worms, ca. 1010
Spinning magic however, was more of a magic of creation and attraction, with archaeological evidence demonstrating a link between some of the various Seidr staffs found among grave goods, and medieval distaffs (Heide 2006, Enright 1996; 245). However, these distaff-like-staffs were usually made out of metal, which rendered them cumbersome and impractical for actual use. Many of these staffs have strong points of similarity with the staff described in Eirik the Red’s Saga (Price 2002). Metallurgical analysis has shown that many of these staffs were forged with the inclusion of organic matter, mostly bones of the dead, or of animals (Gardela 2009). Post mortem, these staffs were often symbolically killed, by means of being pressed by a rock – in this, they often shared the same fate as their owners (in a number of cases, the bodies of suspected Seidrworkers were crushed post-mortem by rocks). In numerous accounts in lore, the spindle, distaff, and act of spinning are linked to Seidr, such as the following:
* In Laxdoela saga, the Seidr which causes a storm that sinks a boat is called ‘harðsnúin frœði’, or ‘hardtwisted knowledge/sorcery’, suggesting a link between storms that are spun. * In Fóstbrœðra saga, a man is made invulnerable by a type of Seidr that involved working a kind of magic while spinning hanks of yarn that were then placed under the man’s clothes. * There are two accounts of spun magic used to create invisibility.
There are many more accounts that link spinning with Seidr, and I cannot recommend this paper highly enough for a far more in-depth examination of the link between Seidr, Gandr, and spinning.
It’s also worth mentioning that the spindle remained the symbol of witch or wise woman in German folklore, and witches continued to be depicted with distaffs (which conceivably had some crossover with brooms).
As the spindle and distaff was often the status symbol of the witch, or at least that which set her out in society as a witch in much the same way as the warrior his weapons, the same can be said for the tools of weaving too. Bracteates from the Fuerstenberg-B series that depict goddesses carrying spindles and weaving swords, are reminiscent of Fedhelm – the prophetess from the Táin Bó Cúailnge – whose symbol of status – whose *staff* was an ornate weaver’s beam. Fedhelm identified herself as banfhili (female poet), but is addressed as banfháith (prophetess) by queen Medb.
It’s interesting to note here that Fedelm regarded herself as a woman ‘fili’, or…roughly, a type of Irish poet that
originally prophecized and spoke her prophecies in poetry. Purportedly the fili composed their poems in the dark, or in other words, while ‘under the cover’ of darkness. This goes back to a wider theme of going under the cloak in order to speak prophecies (often in poetry) as found in Icelandic literature (Aðalsteinsson 1999).
While this is by no means an exhaustive blog post, I hope that the connection between magic and fiber arts is at least made clear. So much magic can be worked into fiber. Each stitch can be worked with intent, protective symbols can be worked in Fair Isle or stranded knitted pieces – a pair of mittens can become a prayer that is worn. The numerical patterns of lace can be an invocation or protection, in a shawl that’s worn while practicing Seidr, or as a way to ‘go under the cloak’. A thought form can be spun and put to rest as easily as burning a skein of yarn, and the lowly distaff may function equally well in the creation of a Gandus or as a holder for unspun roving.