Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Spinning on All Hallows

There are some forces on this earth far older than written language, far older than any religion, older than mankind's ability to reckon by the stars and tell tales by the fire, older even than the first creatures to mate and migrate according to these ancient rhythmns.

The ebb and flow of the seasons is something acknowledged at the primordial level within each of us, regardless of our conscious beliefs. Long before human beings were able to measure the year by the length of days and the progress of the sun, the dying back of green things and the onset of cold weather must have been an ominous thing indeed. A time of death and ending -- certainly it marked the end of the year.

Imagine youself in a place far away, deep in the past, wrapped in animal skins and sleeping close to the fire at night in a cave or some other makeshift shelter. You are so far back in the past that there are no humans yet in places like Australia and the Americas. Your people are newcomers in the northern lands. You must live by your wits, following the herds you hunt for sustenance, and supplementing your diet with the seasonal bounty you find along the way -- fresh greens in springtime, fruit in the summer, nuts in autumn and roots in the bitter depths of winter. Imagine how miraculous the appearance of each of these things must seem to you, an early hunter and gatherer. Imagine how sacred a fern-clad spring must seem -- life-giving water bursting forth from the ground, water that doesn't make you sick from the intestinal parasites passed along by the mammoth and reindeer who graze along the banks of rivers.

The mammoth and mountain sheep leave other things behind -- tufts of their coats snag on twigs and branches when they rub against the bushes in the spring. You collect these fibers, make padding out of them, and save them for warmth in the winter.

The females of your people bleed in harmony with the changes in the moon, yet magically do not become weak or die, and babies erupt from the place where this mystical bleeding occurs. The women feed their babies with nutrients that spring forth from their own breasts. You do not understand how these things happen, but they happen only to women, and you suspect that being female is a very powerful thing.

The males of your tribe avoid you when the mysterious bleeding is going on, but when you give birth, you are given special status for awhile, and the tribe celebrates. Females seduce the males of other tribes and by doing so, bring fresh genetic material into the bloodline of your small group. Perhaps the males of the other tribe offer a hide, a flint blade, or some meat in appreciation of this mating opportunity.

Lineage is traced through the female, because everyone knows who their own mother is.

You do not know of the tilt of the earth being responsible for the change of the seasons. You simply know that there is a rhythmn that brings forth bounty at some times and dearth at others. When autumn comes, the leaves fall, and the last fruit disappears, you have no way of knowing for certain that spring will come again. You know only that as the days get shorter and the nights get colder, death creeps in from all sides. The onset of cold weather, from your point of view, is a very bad thing, fraught with ill omens and evil spirits.

By daylight, death is real and tangible, and sometimes visits in the form of wolves or cave bears. By night, the wolves who watch from the shadows seem far more mysterious than they do in daylight, and their eyes glow when they dare to come within reach of the firelight. Your own eyes do not do this. Perhaps the wolves have a special power that you lack. Perhaps the spirits of the dead can shape-shift into wolflike form. It is easy to imagine these things in the dancing shadows cast by the fire.

Huddled around the fire at night, your people begin to tell tales of death and the underworld as the leaves fall around you and the cold fingers of frost tease at the mouth of your cave. Your shaman dons skins and a fearsome animal skull, and dances to frighten Death away.

Now imagine yourself in another life, thousands of years in the future. Your people no longer hunt and gather. Instead, they have learned to plant crops along the banks of rivers, in time with the seasons, to take advantage of the fertile soil deposited by the spring floods. Goats and sheep graze in verdant pastures along the riverbank, and your people eat their meat, drink their milk and make cheese from it.

Somewhere along the way, your people have learned that the hair from the backs of sheep and goats can be twisted and wrought into thread, and this in turn can be woven into cloth. The same is true of some of the reeds that grow near the river as, also in time with the seasons, they grow, fall, and rot, to reveal the fibrous material hidden within their stalks.

We do not know who first twisted a lock of wool into a thread, but I like to think it was a young girl, bored silly as she tended the sheep, who found a tuft of wool clinging to a twig and who began to twist that twig and to pull on the resulting strand of yarn, using the same idle gesture with which she twirled her long hair to relieve the dullness of sheep-tending. I like to imagine her running home through the fields, to show her mother what she has made. She has no idea that she has just changed the history of the entire human race.

By now, the language of your people has become far more complex, and the changes of the seasons have names. The forces that cause these changes are still not understood, but now these forces carry the names of gods and goddesses who rule over them and who protect fertility, the harvest, the wind and the rain. And these gods and goddesses seem responsive to the rituals that have grown up around the changes of the seasons, the harvesting of crops and the birth of children.

A goddess also rules over the ancient, sacred spring in the valley, and she must be appeased with offerings of flowers and wine when fresh water is taken, lest the source dry up.

Women have learned new powers. By twirling a stick and flicking our fingers, we turn a handful of fluff into fine thread, and this we turn into cloth. These actions of creating clothing to cover and warm ourselves has become so terribly important that trade with other tribes revolves largely around these things, and a whole host of goddesses and spirits must be appeased at each stage in the spinning of fiber and the creation of cloth.

Skilled dyers grind dried insects and plant roots and create color in the depth of winter when no flower blooms. The making of color, the transformation of wool into thread and then into cloth -- these things are no less than magic, and the tools of the spinner, weaver and dyer become infused with the power of those who wield them.

Someone in your tribe has made the association with the whirling of a spindle, the turning of the stars above, and the cycle of the seasons. Your potters and artisans begin to draw circles and spirals, and to make these important marks upon vessels, perhaps even upon your own skin. This is done in acknowledgement of the importance of cycles -- the cycles of the moon, the pivoting sky, the waxing and waning moon, and the change of the seasons.

People sit around the fire in a circle in which everyone has equal status, and some tribes make their huts in the shape of a circle as well. Your people begin to place stones in a circle, to mark the spot where the sun rises during the course of the year. Inside these circles, creation myths are told, and in many of these myths, this world and the cosmos were spun into existence by a spinning goddess.

But there is change in the wind. This new, agrarian society requires that your tribe stay in one place most of the time, and this place must be defended against invaders from less verdant valleys, invaders who would raid it for the bounty of its rivers, fields and flocks and for the fertility and skills of its women. For the first time, specific weapons are forged, not for hunting boar, but for killing men.

Inevitably, someone has discovered that brute force and weapons also hold another power -- the power to keep women in check, the power to supress those who, for so long, have been surrounded by a mixture of awe and tabu. Control over when and with whom they will mate is taken away from the females, to assure the continuation of the leading warriors' and landholders' genetic material. Matriarchal lineage is supressed, and male lineage is imposed in its place.

Patriarchal lineage requires absolute control over every aspect of the behavior of women, lest someone else's blood creep into the ruler's line. Women become the property of their husbands, fathers and brothers. Women are compelled to cover their hair and disguise their figures, constraints are put upon their daily activities, and they are largely removed from political power. Even a queen has little real power except for her ability to being forth sons, raise them to be royalty and to manipulate politics favorably to ensure the prosperity of her offspring.

The need for weapons and organized defense of the valley also requires the development of new deities to rule over this developing business of war and power, and these deities are given male form. In the worship of the male-warrior-deities, it becomes important to view the simple powers of women, not as life-giving and beneficial, but as something to be deeply feared.

One day, a leader of warriors notices that, after a night of bedding down with women -- perhaps after a seasonal celebration in honor of the fertility goddess -- his men are too fatigued to perform well in battle with a maruading tribe. He decides that women somehow steal power from men through the act of sex, and declares that frequent mating must be avoided if the marauders are to be kept at bay.

Generations later, when written language emerges, these behavioral prohibitions are written into law and inscribed into the texts of holy books. By then a story of its own has grown up around the origin of these behavioral controls, and they have become, not the code of men, but the word of God.

Sexual sin has been invented, and women have been placed in charge of it.

Now imagine yourself much closer to the present, in a dark and unforgiving time. It has been a few thousand years since your womanhood was revered and respected; instead, you are feared and despised. The men who enforce their own interpretation of the rules of a male god are now in charge of the land, and a high council of this church's leaders has given you a soul by the margin of a single vote.

These men have made it a crime to honor the old ways, but still, they cannot avoid them. Instead, they impose upon the old celebrations the rites of the new male deity, but these rites are still tied to the seasons -- the new rites are simply superimposed upon the old days of the calendar.

The saints of this new religion are conveniently assigned patronage over spinning, weaving, farming, sheepherding, and other aspects of daily life previously guided by local gods and goddesses. There is constant and dramatic struggle for control over land and people, a struggle ostensibly for the salvation of souls but actually for the centralization of power.

The greatest crime is to display any power that may, even in the smallest way, rival the power of the male deity, his priests, and, by extension, the king or emperor. As a woman, you are feared for the simple magic of home and hearth, for the magic of dye, spinning, weaving and herbal healing. If you are young and pretty, you are feared for your ability to seduce men, and other women become jealous, and accuse you of using evil spells and consorting with spiritual enemies of the male deity. If you are old or unappealing, or if you have a gentle way with animals or a special touch at brewing ale, you are feared for this magic, and are accused of unspeakable acts.

The same accusations fly if you are a man perceived as being "different." If you step outside the boundaries of your assigned social role, you can be disposed of as well.

A whole host of superstitions now surrounds women who are skilled at the business of making yarn or fabric, and, in fact, except for the act of spinning and providing homespun fabric for the family, the fiber arts now are largely forbidden to us, with these valuable activites having been usurped by men, and the powerful guilds they forge to retain control over the lucrative businesses of dyeing, weaving fine cloth, felting, fulling ... and a new, profitable way of making fabric called "knitting."

If you are a woman, and you upset anyone, you are easily disposed of. All anyone has to do is to cry out, "witch!"

By now, the new religions have trodden down and taken firm hold over the old ways, but certain undercurrents are too powerful to remain supressed. In the rural places, the peasants still light fires and drink ale to mark the changes of the seasons, and young couples still tryst in the old places of fertility. Tales are still told 'round the fire, but now the fire is in a stone hearth, and the spinner of yarn tells the tales passed on to her from many generations of grandmothers. As she speaks, the turning of the drop spindle holds magic of its own, and many people also believe that the turning of the newly invented spinning wheel enchants the spinner, placing her into a trance through which she can see visions of things to come.

And now bring yourself back to the present. Maybe you are Catholic, Methodist, Jewish or agnostic, but your life still hangs on the turning of the seasons, whether you dwell in the city or on the land. Several times during the course of the coming year, you will prepare special foods, light candles, and make lighthearted purchases of holiday lights and decorations, because your insistent subconscious mind is reminding you that it is Time. Time to acknowledge the change in the season and the slant of the light.

Halloween, the Eve of All Saints, or, under its old name, Samhain ... this is one of the oldest holidays in human history. Like the ancient belief that this is the night when the dead walk the earth on their way to the other side, the Christianization of this holiday -- All Soul's Day -- also honors all who have died during the year (saints are honored the following day, November 1st).

But the old traditions still remain, and rightly so -- it's important to remember our roots, regardless of what you believe or practice in your workaday life.

Our current celebration is not so different from the practices of days gone by. People in days of old carved a crude lantern from a turnip or gourd and left it at the doorstep to light the dead on their way to the other side on this night, and offerings of ale and sweets were left on the stoop to keep the dead from entering the home in search of refreshment. Noisemaking and merriment were believed to keep the terrifying spirits of the dead at bay.

I always spin on Halloween, to honor the countless generations of women who spun by the fireside, women who passed down the old stories from one generation to the next -- it's where we get the term to "tell a yarn."

Celebrating Halloween is an important way to honor my Irish ancestry -- Ireland was, and still is, one of the few holdouts of the old ways, and the Celts were the last among Western peoples to succumb to the patriarchial and expansionist supression of their cultural roots, a culture in which the affairs of women were of prime importance.

I also spin to remember the women who burned at the stake, not because they were evil, but because others were jealous of their arts and skills, or simply because they were different, or unpopular. They need to be remembered.

Finally, I always spin a bit on this ancient day to connect myself to the countless generations who have held a bit of wool in one hand while a whirling stick dangled from the other. It isn't so hard to imagine an endless thread tying generation to generation, a thread disappearing far into the shadows of time, passing from the hands of one woman to another, all the way back to the first woman, the woman who spun the sky.

Happy Halloween.

Many thanks to all who sent warm thoughts about my cousin. I am working on the chemo hat pattern, and will post it in two or three parts during the course of the next week or so.

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At 6:53 AM, Blogger Suna said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. Made my Samhain morning complete. You've inspired me to at least spin a little this evening as my family does our usual Samhain things (we like to do a New Year's tarot reading).

I feel lucky to be able to honor the traditions of my past and to honor the earth by paying heed to the miraculous changing of the seasons.

At 7:32 AM, Anonymous Em said...

What a great idea for a mew tradition for me. Tonight I will spin.

Happy Samhain!!

At 8:28 AM, Blogger Faren said...

I really like this post.

At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Krista said...

I found this post linked from a friends site, and wow, what lovely thoughts for this day. I love halloween and now I love spinning, so today I will spin. Tonight I give out candy,but today spinning.

At 10:07 AM, Anonymous elizabeth said...

Wonderful. I will find time today to spin and will remember your words.

I'll never forget the feeling of connectivity I had when I breastfed my son. Such an ancient act, practiced by so many women before me, life-giving and powerful.

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Somewhere Else said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you

At 10:46 AM, Blogger jenifleur said...

Very powerful. Thank you!

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Lorna said...

I don't keep in touch as much as I'd like, but I do appreciate your facility with language on a day like today. Thank you for sharing a train of thought which I will continue.

At 9:56 PM, Blogger Arleta said...

Dez, this particular blog is a keeper! Thank you! I don't spin, but never say never. I feel so connected.
We in Southern California have been through so much recently, and now is the time for healing and for appreciating our past, present, and future.
Thank you for the gift of your thoughts, words, and actions.
Lee M.

At 1:41 PM, Anonymous earthday said...

What a wonderful post! This is my first visit to your blog and it certainly makes me want to come back. I am new to spinning but did happen to spin on Halloween. It sounds like a good tradition. Keep up the fantastic writing.

At 11:38 AM, Anonymous oneken said...

pardon my not-french, but holy shit batman -- i believe you have written a classic. this piece will fly around the net quicker than the moon herself.

that's the best blog entry i've read in years

At 4:23 PM, Blogger ButterflyKnits said...

This post is so beautiful... Thank you.


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