I’ve made no secret that I think crochet is absolutely magical; Its good for body* mind and soul as well as being a useful tool in the witches toolbox, but I thought it was time to consider spinning both magical and mundane. As well as my own use of spinning in my magical practice I’m going to look as spinning and the spindle whorl fïrom the perspective of the Greeks and Plato. Although there are many other cultures around the world that utilise the drop spindle and have their own myths and beliefs that surround it the Greek culture dovetails nicely into my own praxis and interests, and means I’m responding to a kick from the Universe through a series of fortuitous circumstances.
In this post when I talk about spinning I am referring to the process of making thread using a drop spindle. As a method of producing thread for weaving and cloth making it is far older than the spinning wheel process and obviously is the method that appears in ancient contexts. Although I do use a spinning wheel, and love both the process and the speed, I am not yet proficient in its use to allow my mind to wander freely though I have experienced that time vortex associated with its use.
I feel a very deep connection with the drop spindle, particularly wooden whorls. I find that the plastic ones are very beautiful but lack resonance when wanting to combine my practical activities with magical intent. I have not experienced metal, stone or clay whorls at this time but long to do so.
As I like to draw a fine thread when working individual ply and prefer to have a longer spin on I work mainly with heavy whorls, my heaviest being 50g and made from three different woods from around the world (Africa, North America and South America if memory serves, all ethically sourced). Having the longer spinning time means that I don’t have to concentrate so hard on ensuring that the spindle in indeed spinning and can focus on the ply I am working on and the subject I am considering the intent I am working into the ply.
A future aim is to both make my own clay whorl which resonates on a Neolithic level and experience a lead weighted spindle, which is more in keeping with medieval processes. My ultimate aim is to process fibre from field to finished product including carding, blending, dying etc but that is all for another day.
A Brief History of Spinning
Its quite possible to claim that spinning has existed for 10000 years as a method of making textiles and ropes. Early examples of whorls found in the middle east have been dates to 5000 BCE. This pre-dates the widely accepted invention of the wheel, 3500 BCE, and it is conceivable that the spindle inspired the creation of the wheel, taking the observation of a horizontal spinning disc and turning it vertically.
The earliest tools for spinning may have been a simple rock with a leader thread tied around it set spinning. Whilst it is nice to imagine that particular types of stones (for example what we now know as Hag Stones, stones which have been perforated by water action) it is unlikely that stones would have been transported by nomadic peoples. More likely a stone which had even weight distribution would have been identified at a particular site and left behind when the tribe moved on. Some nomadic tribes in the remote parts of Asia still use stones for spinning fibre although we are not able to fix a point when this method was first conceived.
Another ancient method, also without a point of origin, is the use of the hooked stick. The fibre is attached by a leader to the hooked end of the stick and the stick rolled along the length of the thigh to apply the twist. At some point the idea to combine the hooked stick and stone weigh was conceived and the drop spindle as we recognise it today was born. This innovation improved both the spin of the tool as well as the speed at which thread could be created. Whorls used included stone and clay although as the process of spinning evolved so did the material and style of whorl. For a more detailed look at the evolution of spinning I suggest reading A History and Evolution of Spinning by Heather McCloy
Spinning in Ancient Greece
Lets look at the Ancient Greeks and spinning specifically for a moment. Very little evidence of the finished product remains in the archaeological record, and what does exist tells us little of the process of its production. Most of what is known about the process of making textiles comes from poets and artists.
Artwork on pottery either shows ladies** participating in the processes of preparing roving, spinning and weaving (or directing slaves in the process) or workshops in which women work within a cooperative within an independent farmstead. Generally these images represent how women found their place within independent communities which were primarily pastoral. Women would take the raw fleece which was produced on the lands and spin it for use both at home and for trade.
This wasn’t just an activity for the hard working general masses. High born women were expected to be proficient In the processes of making yarn and turning it into finished products. In their role of Mistress of the House they would be expected to be able to direct household women and slaves in making goods for the household. The equipment of spinning, such as spindles and distaff, were sometimes given as gifts between women of standing. For example Homer reports that Helen of Sparta was presented a golden distaff by Alexandra of Egypt and the secondary processes of weaving appear both in epics and mythology as skills both desired and celebrated by women of all classes.
The Spindle of Necessity
This beautiful image, the Divine Spinner, was created by Georgiv Mishev and is what set me off on thinking about the Spindle of Necessity. Georgiv originally drew my attention to the chapter on the She Wolf in his book Thracian Magic – Past and Present (a book I highly recommend for those interested in all things Hekate) and the Orphic connection of the Spindle of Necessity.
The Spindle of Necessity is mentioned in the Myth of Er, the closing myth of Plato’s Republic (10.614-10.621). The word “myth” here should be read as the original meaning of the word “speech” or “account”. This tale is an account of the experiences of a soldier after his death on the battle field and miraculous return to life days later.
Unlike most of the content of Plato’s Republic, which focuses on Justice and the role of the city state and of the just man, Book X looks at the order of the Universe. The Myth of Er in particular considers not only the nature of the Underworld and the indestructible nature of the Soul but on the natural order of the Universe. Whilst the concept of the afterlife examined by the Myth of Er is interesting and deserving of its own post we are more concerned with the Spindle of Necessity. The Myth itself can be read in translation here.
Who is Necessity?
The goddess Necessity, or Necessitas in Roman mythology, is the Goddess Ananke (Ancient Greek: Ἀνάγκη, from the common noun ἀνάγκη, force, constraint, necessity). Ananke is the personification of Fate, she is even the mother of the Moirae; Clotho, the spinner of the thread of life; Lachesis, who measures how long that life should be and Atropos, who at death uses her shears cuts the thread of life. She was considered a pre-eminent force, even amongst the other Gods, who was the ultimate director of Fate and Circumstance. Like Clotho she uses her spindle to create the threads of life and existence and wholly controls the process of fate.
Ananke is a primordial goddess who, according the to Orphic creation myths appeared fully formed at the beginning of Time. She is the consort of Khronos (Time, not to be confused with Chronos the Titan) and they are both depicted as part human part serpent. Together they created Aether (Αἰθήρ), Chaos (Χάος) and Erebus (Darkness). Aether, Chaos and Time combined and solidified the primordial mists into the Cosmic World Egg, from which the God Protogonus (Πρωτογονυς) would be born. Together Ananke and Khronos surrounded the Egg with their coils causing order out of the chaotic matter, dividing it into Earth, Sea and Sky and causing the ordered rotations of the Universe.
The image of the Orphic Ananke, “incorporeal, her arms extended throughout the universe and touching its extremities” (Orphica, Theogonies Fragment 54) who with Khronos was seen as “encircling the egg serpent-fashion like a wreath or a belt then began to constrict nature.” (Orphica, Epicuras Fragment) is a very different goddess to the one portrayed by Plato. There still remains a link with Ananke and rotation within these descriptions with the Epicuras Fragment referring to “… everything still being driven round by the serpentiform wind [Khronos and Ananke?].” however the depiction of Ananke herself is substantial different.
The fully human formed Goddess is shown seated, thread in hand and spindle at her knee. She sits within the rainbow of light described by Er, drawing the threads of Heaven onto Her Spindle and passing the finished thread into the Earth below. She is surrounded by her daughters, the Moirae, and the revolutions of the planets and stars.
The Spindle of Necessity
On the 12th day of his journey Er and his spirit companions behold a column of rainbow coloured light that extended from deep within the Earth to the Heavens themselves. A further day’s travel lead them to this great wonder where they found Necessity, sat within this beam of light holding her spindle. Er, or more accurately Plato, focuses the construction of the spindle itself, detailing the materials of hook, shaft and whorl.
In contrast to the spindles of us mere mortal women, who would use spindles made of a wooden shaft, clay whorl and if you were lucky a mental hook (more likely the hook would consist of a deep notch at the top of the shaft) the Goddesses of Fate got the up market model. The Spindle of Necessity consisted of a shaft and hook of steel whilst the whorl was made of various metals and materials. Unlike mortal whorls the Spindle of Necessity had a whorl made up of many pieces, eight in total that nested within each other to create the greater whorl.
The description of the whorl itself is rather detailed so I’m going to just pick out one quote and suggest you refer to the full myth as you go.
“The largest (or fixed stars) is spangled, and the seventh (or sun) is brightest; the eighth (or moon) coloured by the reflected light of the seventh; the second and fifth (Saturn and Mercury) are in colour like one another, and yellower than the preceding; the third (Venus) has the whitest light; the fourth (Mars) is reddish; the sixth (Jupiter) is in whiteness second.”
English Translation by Jowett of Plato’s Myth of Er
The names of the planets have been inserted by the translator to make it clear what celestial body is being referred to. The text goes onto describe that whilst the whorl spins as whole the inner bands also rotate with their own relative speed and at what relative speed in relation to each other. Plato is detailing the order of the Universe as he understands it based on the observations of the stars and planets available at the time.
As well as each band representing a Planet and the Starts Plato describes a siren seated on each rotating band, singing as they rotate, representing the eight notes of the musical scale. TheMoirae also join in this song, each guiding the whorl in one way or another, indicating how the movements of the stars and planets not only reveal insights into our past (Lachesis) or influences on the present (Clotho) but can be used to predict the future (Atropos).
The description of the Spindle of Necessity as a whole is an interesting insight into how Plato and his fellow Greeks understood the cosmos and the natural world. The rainbow of light representing the component colours of white light whilst the whorl represents the musical scale and the motions of the heaven. This sits within the larger myth which examines not only the indestructible nature of the soul and process of reincarnation but also the nature of the “just” man.
Once again, inspiration comes from my social network. Not only am I tapping into a craft that has served mankind for millenia I am able to contemplate deep subjects like the harmony and balance of the cosmos, the process of reincarnation and the meaning of the soul(to name just a few things) all whilst ‘twiddling a stick’ as my husband once described my drop spindle.
Not bad at all really.
Clay spindle whorls, dedications of women to the Sanctuary of Nymphe
6th and 5th cent. BC.
The Divine Spinner – artwork by Georgiv Mishev
Necessity and Her Daughters aka Ankane and the Moria – Artist Unknown
The Classical Heavens
*Okay it’s not exactly an active activity but there is research indicating that crochet and knitting not only helps keep the mind active but helps maintain mobility of the hands.
**sorry gents but spinning and yarncrafts were not considered an equal opportunity activities by the Greeks although there is nothing stopping you now.