Where crafts appear within stories and folk tales, they’re often more than just a craft. Weaving in mythology and legend tied into ideas around fate and creation.
Take ancient Egypt. Some consider Neith to be the first creator of ancient Egypt (though Ptah, the god of smiths we briefly met last week, also held this title). She was the goddess of, among other things: weaving, water, mothers and childbirth, wisdom, hunting, and fate.
Neith is one of ancient Egypt’s oldest deities, though the earliest depictions focus on her warlike aspects. The Greeks absorbed the Egyptian myths and identified her with Athena (also a goddess of weaving, wisdom and war).
And speaking of Athena…let’s delve into our first tale of weaving in mythology. We’ll start off in ancient Greece, move to the Norse pantheon, swing by to meet the Lady of Shalott, and finish up with ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.
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Athena and the Spider
The ancient Greeks had several myths that involved weaving – and we’ll cover one about spinning next week.
Perhaps the most famous involved a talented young weaver named Arachne. All who saw her work considered her a marvel. Arachne eventually boasted she was a better weaver than Athena, the goddess of weaving herself.
One day, Athena appeared in Arachne’s dwelling to take up the challenge. During the competition, she weaves cautionary images of what happens when the mortals challenge the gods. Arachne weaves images of the gods taking advantage of mortals – hardly the most sensitive subject matter. Athena erupted in anger when she saw Arachne’s finished work.
Some say Athena was furious that Arachne was better. Others point out that Athena was enraged by Arachne’s presumption and disrespect of the gods.
Either way, Arachne was done for. In some versions of the myth, Athena turns Arachne into a spider out of spite.
Other versions see Arachne run outside and hang herself in shame after realising how she disrespected Athena (Fry 2018). The goddess turns her into a spider to preserve her weaving ability for all time.
The Romans adopted the myth around Minerva, Athena’s Roman counterpart. Arachne keeps her name and gives us the root of ‘arachnid’.
Penelope was the wife of Odysseus, left behind while he undertook his Odyssey. He was gone so long that other suitors vied for her hand.
Having no desire to marry again, Penelope put her weaving skills to good use. She promised she would take another suitor when she finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law.
Penelope dutifully carried out her weaving by day…and unravelled her work by night, keeping the shroud unfinished. She manages to keep this going for three years until an idiotic maid betrays her. Her advantage is that she knows the men have no clue about weaving. Seeing it as “women’s work”, they take her at her word that she’s still working on it.
I wonder how Athena felt about such a slight against her great craft.
A Robe for Hera
Weaving also comes into play around the goddess Hera, celebrated at Olympia. John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro discuss a form of Olympic Games for “maidens” held at Hera’s temple (2001: 10). While the games, called Heraea, took place, women wove a robe for Hera.
The practice dated to a period when the tyrannical ruler of Pisa died. The Pisans decided to abandon his destructive path and make peace with the Eleans. A noble woman was chosen from the sixteen cities in Elis to find a peace to peace. These women also ran the Heraean games and managed the weaving of her robe.
To Scheid and Svenbro, they negotiated peace so well “that only the collective weaving of a cloak for the statue of Hera at Olympia seemed adequate to commemmorate it” (2001: 11). They liken the way that threads fall into place during weaving to the progress of peace talks.
They repeated the weaving every four years, and this new weaving represented a continuation of peace. Scheid and Svenbro continue the political metaphor, with the “disorder” of the “raw wool […] replaced by an organized fabric, in which each fiber is in place” (2001: 12).
Weaving cloth becomes a metaphor for unity, harmony, and peace itself. Given Hera was also goddess of marriage, you can see why she’d be an ideal deity to represent this kind of unity woven from conflict.
The Norns were the weavers of fate in Norse mythology. There doesn’t appear to be any set number of Norns, and they don’t fit into any ‘category’ of being. They’re not gods, elves, dwarves or anything else. Consider them a category on their own.
That said, the poem Völuspá claims there are three. The first is Urdr, the second is Verdandi, and the third is Skuld. They represent Past, Present, and Future respectively (1999: 208).
The Norns also represent the idea of Fate, and correspond to the Three Fates of Greek mythology (who we’ll meet next week). Different versions of the legends see them creating ‘fate’ in a variety of ways. The one that concerns us here is weaving. They’d weave reality itself. Human sorceresses might be able to embellish this tapestry. Yet they couldn’t change the picture and thus alter someone’s fate.
Daniel McCoy points out that no one actually worshipped the Norns (2016: 75). But the idea of fate gave the Vikings a way to make sense of seemingly random or chaotic events (2016: 76). Throughout the Viking poems, people blame the Norns for situations they don’t like. Like the Fates, the Norns don’t make up destiny just to annoy people. They simply wove it in their tapestry. The job of the Vikings was then to meet their fate with their head held high – “to go down fighting” (McCoy 2016: 76).
The Lady of Shalott
While we’ve been looking at weaving in mythology, it spills over into folklore-inspired literature. The Lady of Shalott is one such example. She appears in the Arthurian legends as Elaine of Astolat. She gained wider fame when Alfred Tennyson reworked the legend into a lyrical ballad.
The mysterious Lady lives in a castle on an island in the middle of a river. A strange curse means she cannot ever look out of the window at the real world. She can only see what’s going on outside by looking at the world’s reflection in a mirror. The Lady in turn weaves scenes of daily life on her loom. Eventually, she spots Lancelot in the mirror and is so taken with him that she abandons her weaving to look out of the window.
The curse cracks her mirror and she leaves her castle. The Lady heads to Camelot on the river but she dies before she can get there. Her death at not looking in the mirror is almost the inverse of Perseus defeating Medusa. He only wins because he looks in the reflective surface of his shield. One day, I’ll write more about that.
So what does it mean?
The critical response to Tennyson’s poem largely concerns its handling of the female experience and even female empowerment. That lies beyond the scope of this post. I’m not even that interested in the liberties Tennyson took with the original Arthurian legend.
What I am interested in is this addition of weaving. Not only does she consume the world as a series of images, she also creates images through weaving. Her position as a creator of images recalls those creator deities who ‘weave’ the world into being. The Lady of Shalott’s issue is weaving what she sees in reflections, not the real world. That essentially makes her tapestries a copy of a copy, like making a copy of a photograph.
Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt paints her caught up in the threads of her work.
Here, she’s tangled up in the threads of the curse, literally caught in the images that make up her experience of the world. Once she sees ‘reality’ outside of the mirror, she can no longer create her world into being, and so she dies.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
In this classic story by Hans Christian Andersen, the Emperor wants to show off that he has the best clothes in the kingdom. He finds a pair of weavers who claim that the fabric they weave will be the most beautiful fabric he ever sees. Even more, it will only be visible to those who are fit to practice their profession.
The weavers ‘make’ the fabric, and of course no one can see it. It’s a clever ruse because no one wants to admit as such because people may think this means they’re no longer fit for their position in society. Everyone goes along with the gag in a drastic case of ‘keeping up appearances’ – even the Emperor. It takes a young child’s cry that the Emperor is naked to make people realise the fabric isn’t invisible – it doesn’t exist at all.
While it’s not a folk tale itself, this story may have origins in older folk tales, hence its inclusion here. ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ was published in 1837, but Tudor Folk Tales relates a very similar tale from Tudor England! In the older tale, a notable swindler swaps fine fabric for a beautiful painting. No one wants to admit they can’t see this fabulous painting, so the conman gets away with it (Tonge 2019)!
Andersen’s story focuses on the pitfalls of pride and vanity. But why choose weaving? While there’s no way of knowing if he ever heard the Tudor variant, painting would equally make sense for the period.
Yet 1837 falls towards the end of the First Industrial Revolution. Before the introduction of machinery, crafts like weaving were done at home (or in small workshops). The flying shuttle and power loom, among others, made it faster and cheaper to create cloth in factories. Weavers lost their status as skilled craftspeople in the face of new machinery.
Weaving as a political dig?
I have no idea what Andersen’s politics were, but could he have chosen weavers on purpose? Their intention was to con the Emperor out of fine silk and gold thread. Yet in so doing, they humiliate him in public.
Was this a literary form of revenge for the working class who lost their industry? Emily Petsko notes that Andersen worked in a factory when he was 11 to help support his mother (2019). Maria Popova also points out that Andersen spent his childhood listening to old women telling each other folk tales (2013). Could a variation of this Tudor tale have been part of his childhood ‘education’?
There’s no way of knowing but it’s an interesting thought. Either way, it reminds us of the great power held by weaving.
Weaving in Mythology: A Way to Create Reality
What these tales of weaving in mythology have in common is the ability to manufacture reality. Whether it’s Neith creating the world into being, the Norns weaving the fabric of fate, or the Lady of Shalott recreating the world anew, weaving becomes the supreme craft of creation.
It’s a highly skilled endeavour, both art and craft, largely misunderstood by those who cannot weave.
Penelope uses her skills to dumbfound her suitors. The swindlers masquerade as weavers since no one can question their ‘work’ for fear of being unmasked as unworthy.
Some may see this aspect of weaving as being fraudulent or tricksy. But I see it as a way to preserve the skill of weaving, even as industry (men’s work) threatens to sweep it away. Yet the women continue weaving the world…
Which are your favourite tales of weaving in mythology? Let me know below!
DuBois, Thomas (1999), Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Fry, Stephen (2018),Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, London: Penguin.
McCoy, Daniel (2016), The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion, CreateSpace.
Petsko, Emily (2019), ‘7 Surprising Facts About Hans Christian Andersen’, Mental Floss, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/579239/hans-christian-andersen-facts.
Popova, Maria (2013), ‘How Hans Christian Andersen Revolutionized Storytelling, Plus the Best Illustrations from 150 Years of His Beloved Fairy Tales’, https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/11/18/taschen-the-fairy-tales-ofhans-christian-andersen/.
Scheid, John and Jesper Svenbro (2001), The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric, translated by Carol Volk, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tonge, Dave (2019), Tudor Folk Tales, Cheltenham: The History Press.
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