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)