Perhaps, like me, you also know the term spinster as one used to identify unmarried older women? In times past, it was applied to girls and young women skilled at spinning. Spinning was a way to create a dowry1, an independent income or to help sustain a household. The ability to spin, among other crafts, was considered a valuable asset. In folklore, particularly throughout Europe, there are many tales in which the importance of spinning is highlighted.
It was also thought women attracted all kinds of magical beings through spinning. Not all beings were easy company and sometimes help with spinning came at a high price. In The Good Housewife2 and The Horned Women3 both women receive help, but one had to put up with her pantry being emptied by other-world beings and was nearly driven to the edge of despair by their shrieking, while the other suffered at the hands of ten horned women who demanded equally huge amounts of food and proved to be silent but eerie company. These women were spinning late into the night and swore they’d accept any help they could get. Latvian folk wisdom held that some tasks, spinning was among them, should not be done once Saule, the Sun Goddess had left the sky (nightfall and through the dark months of winter) as it would attract the wrong spirits. In the story of Rumplestilskin4 the help the miller’s daughter receives couldn’t come at a higher price when she is nearly forced to give away her first-born child, while in Tom Tit Tot the heroine narrowly escapes marrying a troll.
Skill in spinning, compassion and ‘mindfulness’, or the lack thereof, go hand in the story of Mother Holle. Here the spindle is the link between the other-world and the world of mortal women. The Fairy Ointment5, Whipperty Stoury6, Finist the Bright Falcon7, Three Ravens or Seven Raven8, Twelve Wild Ducks9, Six Swans10, The She-Lynx11, One-eye, Two-Eye, Three-Eye12, and so on are all folktales in which spinning heroines lift curses, save lives and take control of their own circumstances. Spinning or the spindle play a central part in these stories and there are many others. The tale of Briar Rose13 is an exception as here the spindle carries the curse. However, in most tales, success is directly, if not exclusively, linked to the heroine’s ability to spin, to draw disparate fibres together and form a single, strong thread.
That is why I find it particularly interesting that in both Habitrot14 and in The Three Spinners15 we meet an ‘idle girl’ who refuses to learn how to spin. She not only gets away with it, she receives help by magical beings and she is rewarded with a marriage to a prince or laird.
In Three Spinners, the girl is ‘lazy’; she simply won’t spin. No reason is given or further description of the girl offered. We hear that anger and impatience overcome the mother and that she beats her. The queen, driving by, hears the crying and asks the mother why she’s thrashing her daughter so. The woman, ashamed to reveal her daughter’s laziness, claims she is too poor to buy flax, but she cannot make her stop spinning. The queen loves to spin. The sound of the wheel humming is music to her ears so she offers to take the girl. The palace has plenty of flax. The girl can spin all day. The mother agrees. At the palace, the queen takes the girl upstairs to three rooms filled from the bottom to the top with the finest flax. She tells her she doesn’t mind her poverty, as her ‘untiring industry will do for a dowry’. If she spins all the flax, the girl shall have the queen’s oldest son for a husband. As soon as the queen leaves the girl sits down and weeps. Her circumstances are dire; she has never learned to spin and the queen will soon know she has been deceived.
In the Scottish tale, Habitrot, we hear of a girl who ‘loved play better than work, wandering in the meadows and lanes’ better than sitting indoors spinning. This girl seems full of life. Unlike the girl in Three Spinners, she is not ‘lazy’ or passive; rather, she is someone with clear preferences and a will to live life her way. The mother too is subtly different. She is ‘heartily vexed’, which means, her heart is in it. She is troubled because ‘no lassie had any chance of a good husband unless she was an industrious spinster’. The emphasis seems to be on ‘good’ rather than on ‘any’ husband. The mother’s concern for the lasting wellbeing of her daughter drives her to ‘cajole, threaten, even beat her’.
There are obviously similarities between the stories, but at this point they part ways to some extent. The mother in Three Spinners hands her daughter (and her responsibility) over to the queen and disappears from the story altogether. The Habitrot mother acts. She takes control. She gives her daughter ‘seven heads of lint, saying she would take no excuse; they must be returned in three days spun into yarn.’ This creates a shift in the girl who ‘saw her mother was in earnest … but her little hands were all untaught and by the evening of the second day a very small part of her task was accomplished.’ A reality check for the girl, as the mother’s actions force her to recognise her incompetence, means she sees the consequences of her own lack of skill.
The girl in the Three Spinners also has a reality check but the amount of spinning she must do is so unrealistic it relates closely to the demand to ‘spin straw to gold’ in Rumplestilskin. For ‘she would not be able to spin the flax, not even if she had lived until she was three hundred years old, sitting at it every day from morning until evening.’ It figures then that the girl in the Three Spinners reacts similarly to her Rumplestilskin counterpart, she responds with despair, ‘she began to cry and just sat there for three days without moving a hand’.
The girl in Habitrot cries too, she cries herself to sleep. But in the morning, despite her despair, ‘she strolled out into the fields, all sparkling with dew’. This image is beautiful, calming and shows that she can connect to something beyond despair – the things she loves, the things she chooses for herself.
I’ll digress here to make a few remarks about other-world beings (elemental beings). In my understanding these beings appear most readily where elements merge. In other words were, for instance, a clear stream (fluid/water) sprays over a rock (solid/earth) and moss (gaseous/air) thrives in dappled sunlight (fire/light & warmth). Such places touch our hearts and our imagination whether we believe in other-world beings or not.
In her sorrow, this girl heads intuitively straight to such a magical place. She reaches a ‘flowery knoll, at whose foot ran a little burn, shaded with woodbine16 and wild roses; there she sat down, burying her face in her hands. When she looked up, she was surprised to see by the margin of the stream an old woman, quite unknown to her, drawing out the thread (spinning) as she basked in the sun.’ This girl is interested in the world, in the encounters she has. She notes the length and thickness of the old woman’s lips and that ‘she was seated on a self-bored stone17’. She approaches ‘the good dame, and gives her a friendly greeting’ and she asks ‘what made, her so long lippit’. The old woman ‘pleased with the girl’s friendliness’ tells her it comes from spinning, from constantly wetting her fingers with her lips, as she draws the thread from the rock or distaff. The girl responds truthfully, ‘I should be spinning too, but it’s a’ to no purpose, I shall ne’er do my task.’ The old woman offers to do it for her. Help is at hand.
The girl in Three Spinners takes a more convoluted route. The queen returns after three days and finds that nothing has been spun. Frightened, the girl lies. She tells the queen she is so homesick, she hasn’t been able to work. The queen accepts her excuse, but says, ‘tomorrow you must begin my work.’ What if the girl had found the courage to tell the truth? It might have been the end of her or it might have put and end to her plight – it would certainly have been a different story. Despite her passivity and her lack of courage this girl also gets help. She, too, turns to the natural world. She can’t leave the room, but she does the next best thing. She goes to the window in her distress. She sees three women coming toward her. ‘The first one had a broad flat foot, the second one had such a large lower lip that it hung down over her chin, and the third one had a broad thumb.’ Consistent with the more passive heroine, the three old women take the initiative and ask the girl what the matter is. She ‘bemoans her troubles’ and they ‘offered her their help’. It feels so easy; perhaps it really is.
In this tale, the spinning women set conditions. As I see it, there are three conditions: to be invited to the wedding (invited into a community); not to be ashamed of us (to see beyond their “grotesque” one-sidedness); to call us your aunts and let us be seated at your table (recognise kinship with us and bring us into your individual life). Their request is beautiful; they want to help, they also want to be part of the girl’s world (and via the story part of ours), to bring the other-world to her wedding. A moment in time where there is already a will to join two separate beings, through a sacrament, to create a third entity greater than the sum of its parts. These other-world beings are asking to be welcomed in, to be accepted unconditionally. Isn’t this the very thing the girl, too, is asking for? She understands: being judged and ridiculed means despair. She can probably imagine how wonderful it would feel to be accepted for who she is. Her response is: ‘With all my heart. Come right in and begin the work at once.’ I catch a glimmer of something healing and the passive girl changes; she ‘cleared out a space in the first room where they could sit down and begin their spinning. The one pulled the thread and peddled the wheel, the second one moistened the thread, the third twisted it, then struck the table with her finger. Each time she struck, a skein of the most finely spun thread fell to the floor.’ The girl is changed; she is active and in control. She has her wits about her and ‘keeps the three spinners hidden from the queen and shows her the great quantity of thread that had been spun.’ Here the story simplifies, the three women finish the work, the girl shows the queen the empty rooms and agrees to marry the prince if her aunts can come to the wedding.
The girl in Habitrot has run ‘to fetch her lint and places it in her new friend’s hand, asking her name and where she should call for the yarn in the evening, but she received no reply.’ The girl must watch ‘the old woman’s form pass away from her among the trees and bushes.’ Here, the other-world being disappears back into the spirit world behind nature. The girl is left bewildered. Where her counter part needs to learn to take control and be active, her lesson is different. She must sit still and wait and trust. That she knows how to trust is shown when she falls asleep by the little knoll.
I’d like to draw attention a significant difference between the two tales here. The elemental beings in Three Spinners come into ‘human space’ while in Habitrot, the girl takes her lint to the edge of the other-world. Perhaps that is why this tale continues in a more complex way. The girl awakes at a special time. It is twilight – two light – between the day and the night, not entirely one or the other but both. Causleen (Venus), the evening star, beams with silvery light, not yet ‘lost in the moon’s increasing splendour’. Without the moon or the sun the sky is “timeless”. The girl is watching, conscious of this still space, which is why she is ‘awake’ to hearing the sound of an uncouth18 voice, which seemed to issue from below a self-bored stone’. She lays her ear to the stone, and hears “Little kens the wee lassie on yon brae-head that ma name’s Habitrot.” We could be fooled into believing the girl is stealing forbidden knowledge, but folklore has it that only those invited will ‘see’ or ‘hear’ Habitrot. And ‘see’ this girl does, straight into the other-world of magical beings. As soon as she looks through the self-bored stone, she recognises her friend, moving about ‘in a deep cavern among a group of spinsters all seated on colludie stones19, busy with distaff and spindle. An unsightly company they were, with lips more or less disfigured by their employment, as were old Habitrot’s.’ One among them sits in a distant corner reeling the yarn. Her grey eyes seemed ‘staring from her head’ and she has ‘a long hooked nose.’ This being’s name is Scantlie Mab. As she reels she counts and measures the spun thread, “Ae cribbie20, twa cribbie, haith cribbie thou’s ane; ae cribbie, twa cribbie, haith cribbie thou’s twa,” and so on. Habitrot tells her sister Scantlie Mab to bundle up the yarn, for it’s time ‘the young lassie should give it to her mother’. Delighted the girl runs home. When Habitrot places the yarn in her hands, she thanks her and asks, “Oh, what can I do for ye in return?” Here is another significant point of difference between the tales. Habitrot asks for nothing in return. Her advice to the girl is “but dinna tell yer mither whae spun the yarn.” Here, the other-world being doesn’t ask for recognition; she asks that her secret is kept.
The girl’s mother is sound asleep, weary from making sausters21 all day, but the girl is very hungry. She eats seven before going to bed22. The next morning, the mother finds the sausters eaten, but ‘seven hanks of yarn lying beautifully smooth and bright upon the table. She is so vexed and delighted it’s too much for her. She runs outside crying out, her daughter has eaten seven and spun seven “and all before daylight!” A passing laird hears the commotion and asks the woman what it all means. She takes him into the cottage, where he admires the yarn so much he begs to see the spinner. The reversal is interesting here, compared to the start of Three Spinners, where the queen enters the cottage because she hears the beating and sobbing. The mother fetches the girl who wins the laird’s heart. Here is the problem: he is not only looking for a wife, he has ‘long been in search of one who was a good spinner’. The wedding takes place but the girl knows she has lied and will not ‘prove so deft at her spinning-wheel as her lover expected’. Once more old Habitrot offers her help, “Bring your bonny bridegroom to my cell,” said she to the young bride soon after her marriage, “he shall see what comes o’ spinning and never will he tie you to the spinning-wheel.”
In the Three Spinner’s tale the marriage feast is in full swing. Enter three women, dressed in strange clothing; the bride welcomes them as dear aunts. The bridegroom is curious and asks the one with the broad flat foot, how she came to such a foot? The aunt answers it comes from peddling the spinning wheel. The bridegroom asks the second, how she came to her fallen lip? She answers, from wetting my fingers to moisten the fibers for spinning. Then he asked the third, how she came to her broad thumb? She answers, that it comes from twisting thread. Alarmed the prince says his beautiful bride ‘shall never again touch a spinning wheel.’
Back to Habitrot; the bride has led her husband to the flowery knoll and asks him to look through the self-bored stone. He sees Habitrot dancing and jumping over her rock, singing to her sisterhood, while they keep time with their spindles. The husband hears Scantlie Mab asked Habitrot what she meant by her last line, ‘Unseen by all but me alone.’ Habitrot answers that she invited someone ‘to come here at this hour and he has heard my song through the self-bored stone. So saying she rose, opened another doer, which was concealed by the roots of an old tree, and invited the bridal pair to come in and see her family.’
The laird is astonished by the weird-looking company. He, like the prince, enquires of one after another the cause of the strange distortion of their lips. Each answers in ‘a different tone of voice, with a different twist of the mouth, that it was occasioned by spinning.’ While ‘Habitrot slyly hinted that if his wife were allowed to spin, her pretty lips would grow out of shape too and her pretty face get an ugsome look. Before he left the cave he swore his wife should never spin. Instead, she wandered through the meadows by his side and rode with him over the hills, ‘and all the flax grown on his land was sent to old Habitrot to be converted into yarn’.
It would be easy to believe these stories are about being freed from things we hate doing, but is that all? There are many tales about Habitrot and her sisters, in every tale she appears as a helper, healer and protector. One folklore belief is that whosoever wears garments made from lint spun by Habitrot that person will never suffer from sickness. If so, the ‘idleness’ of the heroines in these two tales creates a gap, an opening that calls to Habitrot. In the end, the girl’s so called idleness brings about a great gift for their communities as they are now rich in skeins spun in Habitrot’s cavern, even more so as Habitrot promised to spin ‘all the flax grown in this land’.
I find further clues when I return to the flowery knoll. Honeysuckle is part of the Celtic Ogham23; it represents hidden secrets. Whereas ivy is concerned with the search for the self, the honeysuckle shows the way in which to achieve this. It offers the step that leads into the labyrinth of inner knowledge, according to Liz and Colin Murray24. John Michael Greer25 speaks of ‘subtle, seemingly insignificant messages’. For John Mathews26 ‘woodbine the strong’ represents discovery. Perhaps Habitrot herself says it clearly when she sings to her sisters,
But ever bright and ever fair
Are they who breathe this evening air – the ones who will stand in twilight, in the in-between spaces lit by the evening star, by Venus, after the sun sets, before the moon rises –
And lean upon the self-bored stone – the ability to see and hear into the spirit world behind nature
Unseen by all but me alone.
Perhaps the healing and protection the heroines receive from Habitrot is something she would give us today, whether we are spinsters or not, so that we can extend it to others, use it to heal our communities, the natural world and our relationship to the other-world.
1 (accumulating skeins for later use, barter or sale)
2 Barbara Ker Wilson. Scottish Folk Tales and Legends, Oxford University Press, 1954
3 W B Yeats. Fairy Tales of Ireland, Collins, 1990
4 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. “Rumpelstilzchen” in Kinder- und Hausmärchen, vol. 1 (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857) [Children’s and Household Tales, Grimms’ Fairy Tales], no. 55, pp. 281-84.
5 W. Jenkyn Thomas, The Welsh Fairy Book, London: Fisher Unwin.1907
6 Grant Cambell. Scottish Fairy Tales, Scholastic Pub.1980
7 Wheeler, Post. Russian Wonder Tales, New York, The Century Company, 1912.
8 Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales, Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884.
9 Asbjornsen, Peter Christen and Moe, Jorgen. East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, George Webbe Dasent, translator. Popular Tales from the Norse. Edinburgh: David Douglass, 1888.
10 Andrew Lang. The Yellow Fairy Book, republished 1996
11 Latvian Folktale, AT 409 The Mother Lynx; She-Lynx
12 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm No. 103
13 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. “Little Briar Rose” in Kinder- und Hausmärchen, (Children’s and Household Tales), no. 50
14 Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, by George Douglas, , at sacred-texts.com
15 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, “Die Drei Spinnerinnen” in Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales Grimms’ Fairy Tales), 7th ed. (Berlin, 1857), no. 14.
16 Old name for Honeysuckle; represents hidden secrets.
17 A self-bored stone is a stone that has a hole, made by tumbling in the waters of a brook (not a holed stone found on a beach). Looking through such stones it is said that one can see other-world beings distinctly. Habitrot says in the story that only those she chooses can see her through the self-bored stone.
18 Etymology: un – not and cunnan – known; a strange or unknown voice
19 a kind of white pebble found in rivers
20 a cribbie is once round the reel or a measure of about three feet; the reel being about eighteen inches long
21 black pudding; sausages
22 moving between this and the other world seems to creates mighty appetites; see The Good Housewife and The Horned Women
23 Tree Alphabet
24 Celtic Tree Oracle; A System of Divination, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1988
25 The Druidry Handbook, Spiritual Practices Rooted in the Living Earth, Weisner Books, 2006
26 The Celtic Shaman, Element Books Limited, Shaftesbury, Dorset, 1991