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Weavers and Spinners of Destiny in Northern European Mythology

At the end of the Njáls saga — the Icelandic epic written in the 13th century — one can read this description :

“He saw that it was women who were in it, near a loom. This loom had men's heads for weight, and human guts for weft and thread. The uprights of the craft were swords, and the shuttles were arrows. And the women sang:

- See, our web is tight for the warriors who are about to fall. (...) Here is Hild coming to weave, and Hjörthrimul, Sangrid and Svipul; how their craft will resonate when the swords are drawn!”

These women, weaving the threads of war and death, are the Norns. In Northern mythology they preside over the destiny of not only men but also gods. There are many of them, but Verdandi, Urd and Skuld are the most famous. Their names respectively mean “what is currently happening”, “what happened” and “what should happen”.

Spinners and weavers of destiny seem to be a recurrent pattern in European mythology, and the Norns could be compared to the Fates (Moirai in Greek, Parcae in Latin) or to the Völvas of Germanic and Scandinavian mythology.

The Fates are three spinners. Clotho (literally “spinning”), the youngest, is usually represented holding a distaff going from the sky to the earth. She creates and keeps in hands the thread of life. Lachésis (“drawing lots”) unrolls the thread, putting it on the spindle. The oldest one, Atropos (“the inevitable”), cut the thread of mortal’s life. Around her are bails, whose size indicates the length of each life.

The Völvas were the Germanic enchantress or seeress. They are “wand bearer” and their name itself is likely to come from the vǫlr, the distaff they carry. They have different kinds of esoteric practices such as prophecy (spá ) and sorcery (seydr). In Old English, another term to designate these practitioners was wicca or wicce, which later gave “witch” in Modern English.

In their case, mythology truly blends with history, as völvas were both mythological and real women of Germanic and Scandinavian societies. They were described by Tacitus in the book 4 of his Histories (1st century AD):

“The legionary commander Munius Lupercus was sent along with other presents to Veleda, an unmarried woman who enjoyed wide influence over the tribe of the Bructeri. The Germans traditionally regard many of the female sex as prophetic, and indeed, by an excess of superstition, as divine. This was a case in point. Veleda's prestige stood high, for she had foretold the German successes and the extermination of the legions.”

Before Christianity, Völvas were women who broke ties with their families and lived independently. They wandered the countries and were called to solve dangerous or important matters. They were thus very respected and well paid for their services.

Their role is also significant when it comes to war, as they were thought to be able to start and end them. The loom is one of the mediums of their power : they can stop a whole army by tying a knot on their weaving or free the arm or the leg of a warrior by untying it.

The main Volva is probably Freyja whose mastering of magic was such that she is the one who taught it to Odin, god of war.

At the turn of the millenium the Christianisation of Norse societies took place, and Volvas started being persecuted and killed until they fully disappeared. Hence, the Anglo-Saxon Canon law enacted under King Edgar (10th century) stated:

"If any wicca (witch), wiglaer (wizard), false swearer, morthwyrtha (worshipper of the dead) or any foul contaminated, manifest horcwenan (whore), be anywhere in the land, man shall drive them out."

Male practitioners existed but they were rarer. As Christianity expanded, they started being despised even among the pagan society, for being effeminate. Hence, while women were burnt as witches, men were treated like beasts and tortured to death.

Christianisation brought the end of pagan practices and beliefs, and therefore of the Norns and Völvas. But it looks like literature, films and pop culture of the recent decades have rehabilted them. Tolkien - eminent philologist - was deeply inspired by Icelandic epics and Norse Germanic mythology in creating The Lord of the Ring and Middle-earth.

The Fates, the Norns, and the Volvas are some of the many myths that inform us about the origin of textile and about the social roles of women at the time. The topic was tackled in a previous Woman Interwoven article, “Arachne, the weaver who challenged the gods”.

Sources :

-Njáls saga, attributed to Sæmundr fróði 13th century

-Histories, Book IV, Tacitus

Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.

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