Monday, September 7, 2015

Spinning, Hulda, and the Voynich

The Voynich Manuscript depicts the stages of spinning from distaff to finished spindle.
The women in the Voynich manuscript are depicted carrying implements that would not appear to belong in a watery cave. Two are from spinning: a drop spindle and a distaff. However, within the context of a ritual revolving around a deity associated with these arts, it makes perfect sense.

Drop Spindle

There are many old beliefs assigning powerful significance to the drop spindle. Svetlana Zhulnickova relates the following ritual:
There is also a custom in Karelia when a baby reaches the age of 6 months the mother makes a special ritual "banya" (sauna) for him. When people prepare the sauna for the baby they put a spindle into the stove together with firewood, that is because 6 month is the age when baby usually gets the first tooth, and that means [her/his] own soul. "Superstitions about the Spindle in Russian Karelia"


The word distæf in Old English meant literally "flax staff," from dis- "a bunch of flax" and stæf "staff." Because women usually did the spinning, the distaff came to be a symbol for women's work. The word distaff in time took on the meaning "women's work" and later "woman." The noun distaff is rarely used in this way today, but the female members of a family are still referred to as the distaff side. 
Berchta or Perchta, 19th c. engraving by Karl Jauslin 
Which deities were matrons of the art of spinning, weaving, and sewing?

Päivätär ('Maiden of the Sun'), is the goddess of the Sun in Finnish mythology. Described as a great beauty, she owns the silver of the Sun, spins silver yarns, and weaves clothes out of them. In Kalevala, young maidens ask Päivätär to give them some of her silver jewelry and clothes. Not only was Päivätär a goddess—she was the goddess of spinning, and her sister, Kuutar, goddess of the moon, was in charge of weaving.

Frau Bercht, Frau Percht, Striga Holda, Perchta, Frau Holda, and Frau Holle, among others, are names for an ancient deity once worshiped throughout Europe. She was the protectress of agriculture and women's handicrafts. Her name and the names Huld and Hulda may be cognate with that of the Scandinavian being known as the huldra or Huldra. The most steadfast connections are with Frau Holle and Hulda on one hand, and the Old Norse Hlóðyn, a byname for the Earth, Thor’s mother, on the other. This deity is also frequently equated with Nerthus, who also rides in a wagon, and Odin's wife, Frigg, from her alternate names Frau Guaden [Wodan], Frau Goden, and Frau Frekke as well as her position as mistress of the Wild Hunt. 
She was often depicted holding a distaff and/or drop spindle or sitting at a spinning wheel. 
The distaff frequently symbolized women's power, as in the medieval illustrations below.
  • German engraving (1450-1467) of a tournament between man and woman; to the left, a naked man rides a unicorn, holding a rack as his armour; his opponent is a woman on a horse to the right, equipped with distaff; the entire background is covered by ornamental foliage, on which three birds are placed.

  • Image from a French Arthurian romance, 1201-1300, Bibliothèque nationale de France,
    Département des manuscrits, Français 95, 226r. 

  • Above is a photo of Norse seidr staffs collected by Max Dashu. She says:
  • Seiðstaffs of the völur (Old Norse seeresses) are based on the design of distaffs. This symbolism ties in the shamanic staffs with the Spinning of the Norns, with fate-weirding actions, and it also helps to explain the intense female gendering of seiðr, the entranced ceremonies referred to in the Edda and sagas.,,  
Ynglingasaga says that Freyja "was a blótgyðja [sacrificial priestess]; she was the first to teach seiðr to the Æsir, as it was practiced among the Vanir.” [Ynglingasaga 4] In the same poem, Snorri claims this "greatest power" for Odinn; “But this sorcery [fjolkyngi], as is known, brings with it so much ergi that manly men thought it a shame to perform, and so this skill was taught to the priestesses.” [Ynglingasaga 7]  --Max Dashu, Witches and Pagans, forthcoming
  • Voynich woman holding staff and descending into cave
  • Spin-offs from distaffs and seidr staffs include a staff with snakes winding about it. Eileithyia, a Minoan goddess of childbirth and labour, is probably one of the earliest deities shown handling snakes. It is conjectured that this goddess (Alauta) was adopted from an early Indo-European culture.
Engraving from Le immagini de i dei antichi (Images of the Ancient Gods) by Vincenzo Cartari, 16th c.
In German legends, 'frau Holda' was the protectress of women's crafts, but none so much as spinning, traditionally a woman's task strong in magical connotations and links to the other world. Holda first taught the craft of making linen from flax. The legend of Frau Holle is found as far as the Voigtland, past the Rhön mountains in northern Franconia, in the Wetterau up to the Westerwald and from Thuringia to the frontier of Lower Saxony. The fairy tale of Mother Holle as recorded from local German folk by the Grimm Brothers contains the following elements: spinning, a well, Frau Holle's feather bed, the belief that shaking it makes it snow on earth, harvesting, and a subterranean realm where Frau Holle, (as folk must have witnessed in bits of green remaining beneath bark, soil, and snow) dwells. Running throughout the tale is this underlying theme of seasonality--sunny blooming meadow-> apple harvest->feather winter->Persephone-like emergence of the "golden girl."
People prayed to Frau Holle for protection, abundance, and healing.

To blow = to heal

The woman inside the sun below right looks like she is blowing out air. To the left of her is a scene from the movie "The Cuckoo." In it, the Sami widow Anni blows on near-death Finnish Soldier Veiko to turn him back to the land of the living.
Below is Veiko's soul being beckoned toward the land of the dead.

Here is a scene from the movie Khadak, in which a Mongolian shaman takes a rather eye-opening approach to a similar situation.

Below is an excerpt from Vladimir Napolskikh's "Seven Votyak Charms" from Estonian Folklore.
The common Votyak word for the healer (or witch-doctor) is emjas'kis' "healer" - a participle (= nomen agentis) from emjany; "to heal" - or pel'l'as'kis' "blower" - a participle from pel'l'as'kyny "to blow"; the last word describes one of the main ways of magic treatment, well-known throughover all the Europe, when the healer blows upon the water with charming and gives it to the patient to drink. 

Women "in the know" were also known as the vǫlur, tietäjä, seiðkonur, vísendakona, vǫlva, seiðkona, seiðr, noita, cailleach,  emjas'kis' or noaidi.


  1. All the Finns I know are either Swedes but proud to be Finns or Karelians who are most definitely not Russian. Stalin hated them so much for defeating four Soviet armies that he abolished the Karelian SSSR and so their number dropped from 16 to 15. They stole 1O% of Finland and destroyed Karelia in revenge. They in turned moved here to Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay.
    From them I learned about potkku kelku kick sleigh and wife stealing and sauna and piirkkala a wonderful rye cookie but not sweet.
    When I went smelt fishing stocky women in rubber boots said disparagingly eksi keksi kala as they were getting not a bucketful but only one or two fish which I immediately understood egy két hal.
    An old Finn cooked up a bunch of badly smoked fish and I was trying to get a gavage tube down his throat when his grandson said nyele veszi which I also understood as nyeld a vizet ie drink.
    So nobody can tell me that the Finno Ugric theory is dead.
    Yet I cannot say that I understand any Sumerian or Etruscan phrase without prompting. Nor Turk.
    I heard a strange language which I couldn't place nor catch any phrases.
    These male smelt fishermen turned out to be Friulian. I couldn't find a trace of Villanovan nor Etruscan. Not that I know any.

  2. Fascinating, Algohun. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. The Anglo-Saxon word dis for a bunch of flax on the stæf is still known in Germany. In the Saxon Harz territory, in the village of Zilly formerly has been said: “At Sylvester (New Year's Day) it is not allowed to spin, otherwise Fru (lady, woman) Frieseke (originally goddess Frig, Freja) comes and she does something with the Dieseke (= Dieße - the Low German word for a bunch of flax)”.

  4. The Anglo-saxon word dis for a bunch of flax on the stæf is still known in Germany. In the Saxon Harz territory, in the village of Zilly formerly has been said: “At Sylvester (New Year's Day) it is not allowed to spin, otherwise Fru (lady, woman) Frieseke (originally goddess Frig, Frija) comes and she does something with the Dieseke (= Dieße - the Low German word for a bunch of flax)”.