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Mirjam Mencej:

The Symbolism of Spinning and Yarn in the European Tradition


The author attempts to throw light upon the symbolism of spinning and yarn, both of which are closely connected in European folklore about various mythical beings, including the impure dead. These beliefs all contain an implicit notion that yarn represents the connection between the world of the living and that of the dead. The same concept is indicated in the Indo-European notion about a bridge, often depicted as yarn, leading to the world beyond. Leading from the world of the living to the world of the dead, yarn or thread may also be directed in the opposite direction. It is believed that children, who according to traditional beliefs come to our world from the world beyond, emerge here by way of thread. Frequent are also allegorical notions about the "mother as the distaff " and the "child as yarn on the spindle" from which probably arose the metaphorical notion about the duration of a person's life corresponding to "spun yarn." The act of spinning, performed by the goddesses of spinning, thus possesses magical powers: the spinners spin a newborn's tissue. This skill can be misused in magic, for instance in the practices of techniques of 'turning human'. An awareness of the connection between spinning / yarn and fertility / techniques of 'turning human' / traversing from the aft erworld to our world helps one to understand the sexual connotation of spinning (and of several other activities connected with textiles, for example fl ax dressing). The end of spinning announces death, and death denotes the process of unwinding the yarn of life from the spindle of the body, or the spine. Furthermore, the concept which links unspun wool with life in the aft erworld can also explain the widespread custom of placing yarn, unspun wool, or raw textiles on graves. Consequently, this symbolism provides a better understanding of the process of life that is like spinning thread from raw yarn; beginning at birth, this process continues until death when the spindle of the human body is full, and spinning consequently terminated. This also signifi es the beginning of an opposite process when the thread once again starts to unwind, loosen, and disintegrate into unspun yarn.

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