Posts Tagged ‘gandr’

Witches Incognito: The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle

spindleshuttleandneedle

“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.

Trancework

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.

To Ride Through the Air on a Very Fine Gandr: The Staff as a Magical Tool in Fairy Tales

esbenandthewitch

I’ve been reading Claude Lecouteux’s Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages, which I was lucky enough to find at my local library. It’s a fantastic examination of the Double (also variously called the fylgja, familiar, fetch, etc., depending on where you’re looking) and the role it played in medieval and premedieval pagan magical practice in Germanic cultures (primarily Scandinavia, but also dipping down occasionally into Germany). Lecouteux mentions the role of the gandr, which is an Old Norse word alternately (or perhaps simultaneously) meaning “stick” or “spirit.” The term gandreið can be translated literally as “stick ride” but was used to indicate the witch’s ride or spirit journey. Scholars believe that this is the source of the belief  that witches ride on brooms (or staves or distaffs). It could also be the source of the familiar nursery rhyme:

Old Mother Goose, when she wanted to wander
Would ride through the air on a very fine gander.

With “gander” being understood as a transformation of the word gandr, it’s pretty clear that this little rhyme hearkens to old beliefs in the witches’ ride. The play on goose/gander works, too — if the gandr is more than a stick but a spirit familiar, or Double as Lecouteux calls it, it may very well take the shape of a gander, or male goose.

The Gandr in Folk Tales

Magic sticks have a long history in the folk tales of the Germanic people — from Scandinavia to Germany to Anglo-Saxon England — and their use and treatment in these stories provides insight into clinging pre-Christian beliefs native to northern and central Europe. 

The featured image at the top of this post comes from A Book of Witches by Ruth Manning-Sanders, from the Danish fairy tale “Esben and the Witch.” Esben is the youngest of twelve brothers, and because he’s small and weaker than the rest, his father resents him. When the eleven older brothers are each given a horse, some food and drink, and money to set off in search of fortune better than their father’s farm can provide, Esben asks for his share, too. His father bitterly denies him, saying that if he could choose, he’d send Esben off but keep the other eleven to work the farm with him. As the poor and disenfranchised have historically done, Esben turns to magic — the subtle but powerful force that runs through these worlds — to supplant what he was denied:

Since he couldn’t get a horse, he went off into the woods and looked among the trees till he found a branch to his liking. And when he had found a branch to his liking, he cut it down, and chopped it and chipped it into the semblance of a horse, leaving four strong twigs for its four legs, a knobby end for its head, and a thin end for its tail. Next, he peeled off the bark and polished the wood till it shone more whitely than his brothers’ horses. And having done all that, he got astride it, and sang out:

‘Fly quick, my little stick,
Carry me into the world.’

And the stick kicked up the four strong twigs that were its four legs, and galloped away with him after his brothers. (46-47)

It’s with this animated stick — this gandr, in all senses of the word — that Esben eventually wins the favor of a king, saves his brothers’ lives, garners riches for his family, and finally wins the recognition of his father and brothers (his mother, of course, believed in him all along).

esbenandthewitch-detail

In the Grimms’ version of “Cinderella,” called “Aschenputtel,” there is no fairy godmother. It’s a hazel tree planted by her dead mother’s grave, watered with her tears, that provides all that Aschenputtel needs to win the prince’s hand in marriage. How does she come by the hazel tree?

It happened that [Aschenputtel’s] father was once going to the fair, and he asked his two step-daughters what he should bring back for them. ‘Beautiful dresses,’ said one, ‘pearls and jewels,’ said the second. ‘And you, Cinderella[sic],’ said he, ‘what will you have?’ ‘Father, break off for me the first branch which knocks against your hat on your way home.’ So he bought beautiful dresses, pearls and jewels for his two step-daughters, and on his way home, as he was riding through a green thicket, a hazel twig brushed against him and knocked off his hat. Then he broke off the branch and took it with him. When he reached home he gave his step-daughters the things which they had wished for, and to Cinderella he gave the branch from the hazel bush. Cinderella thanked him, went to her mother’s grave and planted the branch on it, and wept so much that the tears fell down on it and watered it. And it grew and became a handsome tree. (121-122)

Aschenputtel visits and cries before this tree whenever her step-mother and -sisters are cruel to her, and whenever she asks for something, a white bird descends on it and grants her wishes.

Tutelary Spirits, Protectors, and Guides

Lecouteux writes in his book: “The fylgja’s (the Norse tutelary spirit-double) primary mission is to protect the person to whom she has attached herself” (46). The fylgja often takes the form of an animal, depicted in “Aschenputtel” in the form of a white bird. It is significant that this bird is channeled through the hazel tree, which was grown from a branch cutting watered with Aschenputtel’s tears (which, of course, contain her DNA, coming from her own body). Thus, the gandr (stick) becomes a tree, which then serves as a channel for Aschenputtel to contact a corporeal Double. As in “Esben and the Witch,” it’s the Double that facilitates Aschenputtel in obtaining the material things she needs to achieve great ends — becoming a princess and, presumably in the future, queen. The fylgja, too, is associated with an individual’s luck or fate, preceding the individual’s body to its intended destination and sometimes appearing in others’ dreams before they meet the individual.

In the ninth century, the canon Episcopi declaimed against women who “with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company.” This, of course, refers to the classic ride to the Witches’ Sabbath, led (according to the canon Episcopi) by the continental Germanic goddess Holda. When the Christian veneer is peeled away, the witches’ ride is very clearly a spiritual journey — astral travel, in contemporary terms — to the Otherworld. The beasts being ridden, then, are the voyagers’ Doubles in animal form, which are known in Germanic folklore to leave the body and travel during dreams and ecstatic journeys to receive information, gain wisdom or power, fight enemies, transmit messages, etc.

The gandr, too, was believed capable of doing this. Lecouteux cites a chapter in the 12th century text Historia Norwegiae that discusses the magic of the indigenous Sami people, who according to the author worshipped a spirit called a

gandus…thanks to whom they make prophecies, see far-off things in space and time, and discover hidden treasures. A Christian doing business with them was sharing their meal when suddenly the hostess died. Not in the least disconcerted or affected, the ‘dead’ woman’s companions explained to him that she had been a victim of a hostile gandus and that they were going to bring her back to life. One of them was a magician… [He] started his incantations, ‘singing and leaping, then throwing himself on the ground…and with his stomach torn open and everything all red, he gave up his spirit.’ The other people then asked for the help of a second man, who proceeded as the first, but with success. The hostess then revived the dead magician, who explained that his gandus, having taken the form of a whale, collided with an enemy gandus that had metamorphosed into sharp stakes driven into the bottom of the sea, and these stakes opened up his stomach. (36)

This account illustrates that the gandr/gandus, or Double, can sometimes take multiple forms, depending on what is needed at the time. Thus, it’s not so far-fetched that a gandr could be, alternately, a stick or staff or broom on which to ride or an animal that (as with the fylgja) has a form that represents in physical form the character and fate/luck of the person to whom it is connected. This is subtly attested in the above-mentioned fairy tales as well — Esben rides his gandr over the river (bodies of water being portals to the Otherworld) to the witch’s house to steal her enchanted treasures for the king that holds his brothers hostage; Aschenputtel’s gandr helps her accomplish impossible challenges, manifests the objects she needs to gain access to her future husband, and in the end, pecks out the eyes of her enemies on her wedding day.

The Role of the Gandr in Magical Practice

Sticks in Germanic folk tales — whether they come as wands, staffs, riding sticks, cuttings to plant and grow into trees, or something else — do much more than transmit energy. By and large, they are shamanistic tools with which magical practitioners connect to their Doubles — the unseen companions that walk alongside us, or precede us, or follow us, goading us down our unique paths through life and aiding us when we struggle or lose our ways. It’s through this spiritual connection that magic is accessed and accomplished. The gandr is perhaps the most essential, and least remembered, magical tool — at least for those who draw from Germanic sources for their craft. Perhaps it’s time to reconnect with the gandr, to view it more as a comrade rather than a mere instrument, and to return it to its central place in magical practice.

 

Bibliography:
Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Inner Traditions: Rochester, 2003.
Manning-Sanders, Ruth. A Book of Witches.  EP Dutton & Co.: Boston, 1967.
The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Trans. Josef Scharl. Pantheon Books: New York, 1972.