“Once upon a time there was a girl whose father and mother died when she was still a little child. Her godmother lived all alone at the end of the village in a little house, and earned her living with spinning, weaving, and sewing.”
So begins the Grimm Brothers’ tale “The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle.” We learn later that this godmother has certain tools that enable her success as a spinner, weaver, and seamstress — gifts that she passes on to her goddaughter when the elder dies. When the girl picks up her godmother’s work, she finds that:
“It was as though the flax multiplied itself in her kitchen, and whenever she wove a piece of cloth or a carpet, or sewed a shirt, she always immediately found a buyer who paid so well that she was never in need and always had something to share with others.”
Not only that, but the magical objects also help the girl attract a prince as a husband. Impressed by her industriousness while riding through the countryside, the prince is lured back to her home by the spindle unraveling a golden thread of spun flax; the shuttle weaves a beautiful carpet of its own volition to welcome the prince once he reaches her home; and the needle cleans her house to receive him properly.
How does she accomplish this? By singing or chanting magical rhymes (much like Aschenputtel):
Spindle, my spindle, haste, haste thee away,
And here to my house bring the wooer, I pray.
Shuttle, my shuttle, weave well this day,
And guide the wooer to me, I pray.
Needle, my needle, sharp-pointed and fine,
Prepare for the wooer this house of mine.
As I mentioned in the linked post on Aschenputtel (more familiarly known as Cinderella), these rhymed songs may be descendants of the Germanic magical technique of galdralag, or songs employed in the use of galdr, a significant pre-Christian magical tradition — the first clue that the unnamed girl and her godmother are practitioners of an ancient magical craft.
What really interests me at the moment, however, is the eminence of cloth-making implements in magic. I’ve written before about the potential of these activities to induce trances in crafters, and it seems significant that in this story the magical songs — and the magic itself — only come about during the act of spinning, weaving, and sewing. In fact, the girl only remembers the songs when she is in the middle of her work:
“The girl sat back down in the kitchen and continued to work at her spinning. Then a saying came to her that the old woman had sometimes said while she was at work…”
This suggests that, if the implements are the keys to magic, and the songs are the fuel, then the act of transforming fibers into thread and cloth is the vehicle itself.
Tools or Helping Spirits?
One way to view the crafting implements is through the lens of household helping spirits. I’ve written before about the Old Norse gandr — essentially, a magical stick or staff that aids a magical practitioner in their craft — and its significance not only as a magical tool but as a helping spirit. It would be easy to view the spindle, shuttle, and needle in much the same light. After all, the girl addresses them through songs that are very much like prayers, and they respond to her wishes as though sentient. Rather than wielding them to do the magic herself, she requests that they help her, and they oblige of their own accord.
Germanic Goddesses of Spinning and Magic
There is a wealth of lore and myth connecting spinning and weaving to the divine and to magic in various Germanic cultures, and in many other cultures as well. The Low German figure of Frau Holle (Holda) is one, who rewards industrious spinners with gold and punishes the lazy, and who is credited with conveying the skill of transforming flax into linen to humankind. There are several stories of her bequeathing wealth to those who spin or help her in some other way, such as the less well known Grimm tale “Frau Holle.” She is also called a goddess of witches, leading them with her distaff (another spinning implement) through the night sky in one variation of the Wild Hunt. Farther south in the alps of Germany and Austria, Frau Perchta fulfills a similar role.
Among the Scandinavians, we have Frigg, who has a strong connection to spinning and is reputed to know everyone’s fate but keeps it wisely to herself. The Norns, too, are spinners who, with their threads, shape fate itself. Even the Valkyries, those demi-goddesses of fallen war-heroes, are said to weave with a giant loom composed of the body parts of the slain.
Spinning and weaving, therefore, are connected to fate itself. Even in contemporary cultures, people refer casually to “the threads of fate.” This image of fate as a great loom, with all of us led by threads to various destinations and to each other, is still with us. With this view, it makes sense that magic — the manipulation of the world around us, of fate and hearts and minds — would be the natural domain of spinners, weavers, and seamstresses.
Can We Call Them Witches?
Nowadays, anyone who employs magic is considered by most people to be a witch. The term has been destigmatized for many, lumping in healers with curse-workers. I don’t really have a problem with this development, but historically, the term “witches” was reserved for those magic-workers who stole, cursed, tricked, and even murdered with their craft. In Scandinavia, they were believed to steal butter and milk from their neighbors with the help of a familiar spirit called a buttercat (smørkatt in Norwegian, bjära in Swedish, and snakkur in Icelandic) (Lecouteux 131). Interestingly, considering the subject of this post, scholar Eldar Heide writes, “In Northern Sweden and Norway it looked like a ball of yarn, in Finland it was partly made of a spindle or spindles with yarn on them, and in Iceland it looked like a certain kind of bobbin used as a shuttle in the traditional, warp-weighed loom (977–78). These shapes all are variations on the theme of “concentrated yarn” (165). This certainly ties in with the concept of textile crafts as magical vehicles, and the buttercat is a good starting point for examining the historically “grayscale” ethics of magical practice.
It’s my belief that most moral designations of magic are relative. That is, whether a certain magical act is “good” or “bad” is determined by the beholder’s perspective — whether or not they gain or lose anything in the process. For those whose milk (a key to survival, especially in the past) was being stolen by the buttercat, that particular magic was evil and its possessor a witch. But for the witch utilizing the buttercat, perhaps it was the only plausible way of receiving that milk; therefore, it wouldn’t be evil but a necessity.
Similarly, I doubt any readers see a problem with the heroine of “The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle” drawing a prince to her house through magic, but it might be viewed as more sinister to the wealthier girl who was passed over by the prince in favor of the heroine, as well as to that girl’s relations. Who knows what they might have accused our heroine of? So yes, even in the older sense, our heroine and her godmother might have been considered witches (or would at least have been subject to the scrutinizing gaze of their neighbors, which may have been why they lived at the edge of town), and we can certainly consider them witches by our contemporary definition.
Unlinked Works Cited
“The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle.” The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Trans. Josef Scharl. Pantheon Books: New York, 1972.
Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Inner Traditions: Rochester, 2003.
Thus, her mirror represents the ability to see through the ‘veil’ that mystics say separates the visible and spirit worlds. – Skye Alexander, Mermaids (200).
When I spirit journey, more times than not I enter the Otherworld through glass of some sort — a mirror or a window — a technique that has a long history in European folklore. Mirrors and glass objects have been viewed as passages for spirits by many, many peoples, and there is lore all over the world about spirits being trapped in mirrors or glass bottles or passing in and out of the physical world through mirrors. Claude Lecouteux in Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies explains this association through glass’s — like still water’s — ability to reflect images and the correlation of the image with the soul. This idea has merit, which I’ll go into with more depth later. But first, I’d like to take a look at the various glass objects, especially mirrors, in European fairy tales.
Scrying is a form of divination that involves gazing into an object to induce a light trance, through which one receives images (or other sensory information) that inform the scryer of remote events of the past, present, and future. Scrying has been done with many tools, the most popular today being crystal balls, flames, and still water.
Mirrors are slightly less popular clairvoyant tools, but the association remains strong. After all, what would “Snow White” be without the Queen’s magic mirror?
“[The queen] had a wonderful looking-glass, and when she stood in front of it and looked at herself in it, and said:
‘Looking-glass, Looking-glass, on the wall,
Who in this land is the fairest of all?’
the looking-glass answered:
‘Thou, O Queen, art the fairest of all!’
Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the looking-glass spoke the truth” (Stern 250).
In most versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” including a German one called “Summer Garden and Winter Garden,” Beauty uses a magic mirror to look after her family:
“One day she said to [the beast], ‘I am afraid, and don’t know why. It seems to me that my father or one of my sisters is sick. Couldn’t I see them just once?’
“So the beast led her to a mirror and said, ‘Look inside.’
“She looked into the mirror, and it was as though she were at home. She saw her living room and her father. He really was sick, from a broken heart, because he held himself guilty that his dearest child had been taken away by a wild beast and surely had been eaten up… She also saw her two sisters sitting on the bed and crying.”
In both instances, a mirror is used to gain information that would otherwise be unknowable. These episodes in fairy tales convey a pervasive belief in European lore of the power of mirrors to see not only the true reflection of the subject who looks into it, but all truth past, present, and future. Lecouteux cites mirror-based clairvoyant practices from various European cultures, including this from Oldenburg, Germany:
If, between eleven o’ clock and midnight — the hour of spirits (Geisterstunde) — an individual appeared in front of a mirror while holding a lighted candle in each hand, and if this person shouted his own name three times, he would be able to see into the future. (146)
Lecouteux asserts, quite convincingly, that the ability to see into the future in this way originates in the invocation of the Double (the individual’s “other” self, part of a multi-spirit soul conception) via the mirror. Within this framework, the Double is invoked by the shouting of one’s name at one’s own reflection. Therefore, it is not the mirror itself that provides insight but the spirit that is invoked through it. In essence, the mirror is a tool for accessing one’s own innate spiritual power. Perhaps, then, when the Queen in “Snow White” and Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast” look into a mirror to see the future, it is their Doubles who race from the other side to retrieve the information they seek.
Bindings and Barriers
The tale of “Snow White” shows not just one but two uses for glass. When the Queen becomes jealous that Snow White is fairer and kills her with a poisoned apple, Snow White’s dwarf friends build a glass coffin for her. This coffin preserves Snow White, keeping her beautiful and unchanged for “a long, long time,” as if she were only asleep (256). The glass, then, acts as a barrier against harsh elements as well as the decay that follows death, preserving her body until the prince comes and (inadvertently) restores her to life.
“The Glass Coffin” has another maiden imprisoned by a malevolent magical worker, this time a spurned lover:
“I fell to the ground, and the stranger muttered some words which deprived me of consciousness. When I came to my senses again I found myself in this underground cave in a glass coffin. The magician appeared once again, and said he had changed my brother into a stag, my castle with all that belonged to it, diminished in size by his arts, he had shut up in the other glass chest, and my people, who were all turned into smoke, he had confined in glass bottles. He told me that if I would now comply with his wish [to marry], it would be an easy thing for him to put everything back in its former state, as he had nothing to do but open the vessels, and everything would return once more to its natural form. I answered him as little as I had done the first time. He vanished and left me in my prison, in which a deep sleep came on me.” (Stern 677)
In the end, the young tailor who comes upon the maiden hears her story and opens the glass cases to free the maiden, her castle, and her people who transform from smoke to their original forms.
In “The Seven Ravens,” a princess goes looking for her seven brothers who were turned into ravens, in the hopes of metamorphosing them back into humans and bringing them home.
“And now she went continually onwards, far, far, to the very end of the world. Then she came to the sun, but it was too hot and terrible, and devoured little children. Hastily she ran away, and ran to the moon, but it was far too cold, and also awful and malicious, and when it saw the child, it said: ‘I smell, I smell the flesh of men.’ At this she ran swiftly away, and came to the stars, which were kind and good to her, and each of them sat on its own particular little chair. But the morning star arose, and gave her the drumstick of a chicken, and said: ‘If you have not that drumstick you can not open the Glass Mountain, and in the Glass Mountain are your brothers.’
“The maiden took the drumstick, wrapped it carefully in a cloth, and went onwards again until she came to the Glass Mountain. The door was shut, and she thought she would take out the drumstick; but when she undid the cloth, it was empty, and she had lost the good star’s present. What was she to do now? She wished to rescue her brothers, and had no key to the Glass Mountain. The good sister took a knife, cut off one of her little fingers, put it in the door, and succeeded in opening it.”
She then finds her brothers in raven form and appears before them; they are transformed by the sight of her; and they all return home together.
“The Raven” is a similar tale but with the roles reversed: a maiden is imprisoned in a golden castle on a glass mountain. Her raven-formed Double appears to a man walking through the woods and tells him her story, and he promises to rescue her. After failing the initial trial set before him, he sets out to find the princess and rescue her another way. While on his journey, he meets a giant who tells him where the princess is located.
“The man journeyed on day and night till he reached the golden castle of Stromberg. He found it situated, however, on a glass mountain, and looking up from the foot he saw the enchanted maiden drive round her castle and then go inside. He was overjoyed to see her, and longed to get to the top of the mountain, but the sides were so slippery that every time he attempted to climb he fell back again.”
Fortunately, he meets three robbers who have stolen three magical items: a stick that will open any door that it strikes, a cloak of invisibility, and a horse that will carry its rider across any obstacle. The man tricks the robbers into giving him all of the items, and he rides up to the glass castle, opens the castle doors, and sneaks invisibly to the princess’s chambers to return a ring she’d given him as proof that he had come to rescue her. She goes outside, where she finds him waiting for her on the magical horse, and they ride off together to be married the next day.
While the above stories show good people held captive by glass, there are other stories involving bad spirits trapped in glass as well, such as “The Spirit in the Bottle”:
“The son [of a poor woodcutter]…went into the forest…until at last he came to a great dangerous-looking oak… Then all at once it seemed to him that he heard a voice. He listened and became aware that someone was crying in a very smothered voice: ‘Let me out, let me out! … I am down here amongst the roots of the oak tree…’ The schoolboy began to loosen the earth under the tree, until at last he found a glass bottle in a little hollow. He lifted it up and held it against the light, and then saw a creature shaped like a frog, springing up and down in it. ‘Let me out! Let me out!’ it cried anew, and the boy, thinking no evil, drew the cork out of the bottle. Immediately the spirit ascended from it, and began to grow, and grew so fast that in a very few moments he stood before the boy, a terrible fellow as big as half the tree.” (Stern 459-460)
Lecouteux mentions several similar mirror-related practices in European lore, including:
Not long ago people in Germany were persuaded that reading the Bible in front of a mirror would chase ghosts out of the house… the mirror has been seen as an open window to the other world, but also as a trap for the soul. In all of Europe, there was a very telling custom: that of covering the mirrors in a home where someone had just died. It was feared that the soul might remain stuck in them, or else that the spirit of the dead person would be reflected, resulting in dire consequences. (146)
Clearly, in European lore-based magic, glass — mirrors, bottles, cases, and coffins — can be used to protect and preserve, to bind and imprison.
Reflection and the Spirit Double
Lecouteux notes a belief in many cultures that the “soul passes out of its possessor, totally or in part, into every representation, pictorial or otherwise, which explains the fear felt by many people when they are faced with their own image… There is a second reason for this fear, closely linked to the first: If the soul passes into the image of the body, anyone who has sufficient knowledge and science can act on the living through the channel of this Double” (143). So perhaps it is glass’s reflective nature — which reveals to us and gives us access to our spirit Doubles — that gives it the qualities listed above.
Referring to mirror images specifically, Lecouteux cites German author E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “A New Year’s Eve Adventure, a.k.a. The Lost Reflection”:
“How could you keep my reflection?” he continued. “It is inseparable from me. It accompanies me everywhere, is sent back to me by all calm and pure water, by all polished surfaces.”
“So,” says Giuletta, “even in this aspect, even in this dream of your being that stays in this mirror here, you refuse to give to me, you who just a moment ago were yet speaking of belonging to me body and soul!”
“If I have to leave, may my reflection remain in your possession for ever and eternity!”
Giuletta held out her arms to the mirror. Erasme saw his image, independent of the movements of his body; he saw it slip into Giuletta’s arms and disappear with her into the middle of a strange vapor. (142)
At least in European folk belief, mirrors are passages and vehicles by which we can interact with our own and others’ spirits. As Lecouteux writes, “Connecting us to the other world — or rather, in accordance with the mind of our time, to the hidden side of the universe — the psychic Double has knowledge of the destinies of others through their potential alter egos” (129). With mirrors, Doubles can be both sent off and possessed, and they can be contacted and utilized for magical and prophetic purposes. Thus, the mirror functions as a medium through which we can come face-to-face with not only our reflections but our other Selves and the unseen world as a whole — and glass is a tool by which we can harness and direct those powers.
Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Trans. Clare Frock. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2003. Print.
Stern, James, ed. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.