Norse weaving and textile work, its mythological framework

by Michele Hayeur-Smith
(see also Artist and Researcher page)

From the Darraðarljóð

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The Three Norns by Michelle Maiden, 2008.

…”Blood rains

From the cloudy web

On the broad loom

Of Slaughter.

The web of man

Grey as armour

Is not being woven;

The Valkyries

Will cross it

With a crimson weft.

The warp is made

Of human entrails;

Human heads

Are used as weights;

The heddle rods

Are blood-wet spears;

The shafts are iron-bound,

And arrows are the shuttles.

With swords we will weave

This web of battle….” (Njal’s Saga, Magnusson and Palsson, p. 349)

Norse mythology linked the concept of fate with spinning, as is illustrated in the popular belief, that the three Nornir sitting under the world tree Yggdrasil were spinning the fates of men.

The Nornir, Urð ,Verðandi and Skuld are generally interpreted as the present, past and future and creating the destiny of men before birth (Norrman, 2008). These three Nornir were not alone, Norse mythology describes additional good and bad Nornir (ibid). According to Snorri’s Edda, it is the evil Nornir who were the ones who gave bad lives and good Nornir who shaped the lives of the lucky (ibid.). According to Wayland Barber (1994) the connection between thread, spinning and fate, while not unique to the Norse world, stems from the action of women creating thread out of nowhere just like babies too, are created out of nowhere (Wayland Barber, 1994; in Norrman, 2008). The connection between the giving of life and creating thread is clear, even the expression life-span, contains the word “spin” initially meaning to draw-out (ibid.).

Spinning is also deeply connected to witchcraft both during the Viking Age and  medieval period. The idea that fate or the giving of life may come from a thread also entails that this life can be manipulated through spinning. An example from the sagas reflect women who harm others through the act of spinning (and practicing sorcery) such as Laxdaela saga when Bolli married to Guðrun, returns having killed Kjartan (the man that Guðrún truly loves though he has married another woman) and Guðrún replies “morning tasks are often mixed: I have spun yarn for twelve ells of cloth and you have killed Kjartan” (Magnússon and Pálsson 1987:176, Ellis Davidson 1998:101, Heide 2007 ). While she has not killed her lover directly, many have argued that Guðrún´s spinning is similar to the spinning of the Nornir and that it was a magical act intended to influence the outcome of a fight between these two men.

The poem listed above, called the Daraðarljóð is taken from Njál´s Saga, and addresses themes about the control of others’ fates through textile work and the making of cloth. In Caithness, Scotland prior to the battle of Clontarf, a young man called Dorrud, notices twelve female riders approach a woman’s hut and disappear inside. He peers through the window and sees Valkyries who are weaving cloth on a warp-weighted loom made from the entrails of men fallen in battle.

These  warrior women use their weapons and human body parts as components of the loom- the looms weights are human heads, the heddle rods are their spears, the shuttle their arrows, and their swords the beaters. Some scholars feel that the Valkyries were working in a similar capacities to their related sisters the Nornir in determining fate as it was the Valkyrie present on battlefields who collected the dead and returned them to Valhalla (Bek Pedersen,2007; Guðjonsson, 1989). The text is said to occur in the context of dream foreboding the death of several men in the upcoming battle (Norrmann, 2008;Bek Pedersen, 2009). Here like the spinning imagery, are depictions of weaving, textile work and the weaving implements themselves, that are linked to the body, to fate and the giving and the taking of life. The threads may symbolize the fates of each man about to die in battle and interestingly their heads suspended from loom weights are reversed such as infants in the womb.

Towards the end of the poem, the cloth woven by the Valkyrie is cut down, and divided into 12 pieces for each one of the Valkyrie to take with them. They leave the weaving hut the same way they arrived after which terrible things occur to various Christian priests and men across the North not to mention the terrible outcome of the battle. The final verses seem to remind the reader of the strength of the old Norse religion, deep, powerful and capable through its magic to overcome even the new Christian fate. But the poem also suggests that it was through textile production and in the Viking Age female weaving huts, also known as Dyngja -that the deepest of magic, and the control of fate would be carried out.

Because of these associations, men never engaged in textile production (in fact there are countless references in the medieval literature of men approaching  female weaving huts, or trying to spin and terrible things happening to them) in Viking Age or Medieval Iceland  even when textiles were transformed into a form of currency . Textiles always remained in the hands of women, and despite the fact that textiles had become central to the economic structure of the island, men oversaw the legalities of its production and distribution, while women made it. Woman made money, but women also were thought to control fate through its production and one can begin to imagine the  respect that they gained from producing this critically important commodity.

Even though I gave this talk at Bridgewater University in Anthropology three years ago,  it covers some of these themes and more:

 

 

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