The Lost Tools of the Witch
Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
When you ask your average neo-Pagan or Wiccan what tools are on their altar (or are important to their craft) , you typically get the following list: athame, wand, pentacle, chalice, besom, cauldron, candles, incense, sometimes herbs and stones, sometimes a “white-handled knife” or boline. That’s about it though. A great number of the tools are things that would have been common household implements during the early-Modern Witchcraft trials. Every household needed a cup, a knife, a pot, a broom and firelight to see by (whether by candles or an oil lamp) . It’s interesting how the common daily tools became associated with witchcraft (it also made it exceedingly easy to tell the magistrate you suspected your neighbor of witchery and for “proof” of said witchery to be found) .
What I find interesting is that some of the most common tools that are also mythologically associated with magic are not mentioned amongst the tools of today. These are the tools of the textile industry; which in older times were the distaff, spindle and loom. Often, in Viking women’s graves, these tools are found amongst the grave goods, meaning they were important enough to be taken to the afterlife. Often, they were noted as the “women’s weapons.” Since they aren’t likely to be physically good at inflicting bodily harm, this must mean something else. That something else is magic.
Since these tools aren’t listed among modern witch and/or magician tools, we have to look to lore, myths and fairy tales to find their significance. This isn’t as hard as it might sound because the fairy tales we were told as children are filled with this information. The most famous example is Sleeping Beauty, but we’ll talk about that story later.
The most famous spinners in folklore are the spinners of fate, the three Fates of Greek mythology and the Norns of Nordic myth. The Fates spin the thread of your life, weave the story into a tapestry and cut the thread at the end of your life. Clearly, the tools of old textile work are deeply connected with fate. A lot of neo-Pagans blanch at the concept of fate; I know I used to be the same way. We make our own destiny and nothing three biddies can do can change that (sticks tongue out for cheeky emphasis) ! The truth is that both are correct. There are some things we cannot change; we will all die someday (after-all life is sexually transmitted and always fatal) . Basically, the choices you make throughout your life bring you to certain places where you make more choices. Now, based on your past choices there is a great likelihood that you will make specific choices at this new crossroads. However, once you become aware that you have a pattern, you can work to change that pattern. It’s a bit confusing, I realize, but it makes sense when you really think about it.
Now, if the Fates or Norns spin your fate and you are seeking to change it, how would you go about doing that? Well, sympathetic magic works wonders in other ways so why not here? If you are willing to concentrate on the fate you want and spin (with either a drop spindle or spinning wheel) , you may be able to spin that fate into existence yourself. In essence, you are replacing the thread spun by Fate with the thread of your choosing. I will admit that I am a failed spinner. I either cannot get fresh enough roving (unspun wool) so that the natural oils can hold my thread together, or I’m just plain rubbish at it. Spinning is hard and it may take years to master, especially in a society where you can just go out and get yarn and thread without the hassle. However, I think spinning will be worthwhile in the long run.
The Norse goddess Frigga, the wife of Odin, is also associated with fate. She knows all fate, but speaks nothing of her knowledge. She is also associated with spinning and some see her as the source of the master material from which all fate is spun. As far as I know, Frigga interceded on the fate she saw but once. Her son, Baldr, was doomed to die and she tried her best to prevent that from happening. She failed and his brother killed him. Baldr’s death might explain her silence, for if she cannot change fate, why speak of it at all? The story of Baldr mirrors the Greek vision of fate as shown in the story of Oedipus: everything done to try to prevent the fate is what brings it about. However, if we go through the thought that our choices bring about our fate, then Oedipus’s father was already patterned to throw his son away at the first sign of trouble (which may have been why he wanted his son’s fate read by the Oracle to begin with, to foresee any trouble) .
Beyond the usefulness of spinning (and by connection, weaving) in regards to fate, there are other uses magically. It is a common held belief that it is better to use natural materials; and that tools have more power if you make them yourself. By spinning your own thread and weaving your own fabric, you can make sure to use only natural fibers for your cords and cloths and you can put your intent into the very fibers of your creation. You may also be able to connect with ancestors that would have spent much of their time with the spindle and at the loom. (Now I am going to be realistic here, most of us have jobs and not as much time to spend on crafting — of any sort — as we would like. I would hazard that you can take shortcuts by mock-spinning pre-spun thread and yarn, as long as you visualize and focus intently.)
So, back to Sleeping Beauty. The spindle was very important in the tale, just as it was important to the very clothes on anyone’s back during the era from which it came. The bad fairy (having been slighted by not being invited to the baby princess’s party) curses her to prick her finger on a spindle on her sixteenth birthday and die. The only good fairy that could do anything to help (the rest having somehow used their blessing allotment for the princess, though what law only allowed each to give only one gift is not stated) only had enough power to put her to sleep if the events should come about rather than die. The King attempted to prevent the fate of his daughter (again with trying to out-maneuver fate) ; rather than keep spindles around and telling his daughter to be careful of them (you know, so she would know it’s not a good idea to play with the pointy ends) , he outlawed spindles, having all the spindles in the kingdom burned (thus, forcing his subjects to wear rags or spend exorbitant amounts of money on imported cloth and thread) . As an added bonus, this also effectively crippled women. If the spindle and loom were the weapons of women, outlawing them put women at an even lower status. So what does our princess do when she sees a spindle for the very first time? She touches its pointy tip, falls asleep, and has to be rescued by a handsome prince willing to fight his way through the briar-patch of doom. He kisses her, she wakes up and they live happily ever after. The spindle? Well, a good look at the Industrial Revolution lets you know its fate.
Fraue Holle is often associated as a witch goddess in Germanic lore and she, too, is associated with spinning. I mentioned in my Yule piece that if you hadn’t finished your years’ worth of spinning by the Solstice, she would come by and befoul it. If a witch goddess thought spinning was important, then it was once an important part of magic and is worth delving into even in this technological age. It’s not easy, but whoever said magic had to be easy?
Our Troth Volumes 1 and 2 edited by Kveldulf Gundarsson
The Poetic Edda
Hedge-Rider by Eric De Vries
Mythology by Edith Hamilton
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Sleeping Beauty collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm