While exploring the history of textile production in Iceland I stumbled upon some researchers who’ve been exploring northern tradition with a deeper interest in the female role in society within an interdisciplinary approach. One of them is the anthropological archaeologist Michèle Hayeur Smith who recently authored a book called “The Valkyries’ Loom – The Archaeology of Cloth Production and Female Power in the North Atlantic”, which is the result of a systematic comparative analysis of textile fragments spanning 1000 years. I haven’t read the book yet, but she’s been generous enough to publish articles, and give video lectures to dive into the topic in some way.
I discovered her work when I started to be interested in the historical path of local weaving practices, especially after visiting the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik and saw, for the first time, a warp-weighted loom.
This tool is a neolithic loom which used to be quite widespread in the Icelandic cottage based industry but it disappeared completely after the Danish took over and revolutionised local textile production starting from the 17th century. Up until then, even if textile production was a key industry, there was not a specific organisation or centralised production, or even guilds. Danish not only imported flat threaded looms and spinning wheels, they also took the production out of the hands of women centralising the work in cities and training mainly men:
“Throughout the first 800 years of Iceland’s existence, women were wholly responsible for making cloth and although men’s roles and women’s roles in the total system of wool production were complementary, it would not be incorrect to say that women were at the root of the Icelandic economic system, ensuring at a very basic level the survival of their people in this harsh land. Changes in technology in the 18th century must have brought on a complete reorganisation of women’s roles within Icelandic society, and the pride once gained from textile production carried out on farms by women overseeing other women and without the control by merchants or patrons decreased, becoming centralised and progressively integrated into the industrial world, even though much later than other European countries.”1
After the transition to the horizontal loom the contribution of women became limited to the spinning phase, while weaving became a job for men and by the 19th century, warp-weighted looms were literally forgotten:
“During the 1870s Jón Árnason, then Director of the museum in Reykjavík, made several attempts to obtain an old loom for the collections, and to find out how it was used. By that time, it was obviously obsolete. […] Sigúrður Vigfússon, Jón Árnason’s successor, also made investigations about the loom and received several replies to his inquiries. […] Thanks to these two directors, the National Museum in Reykjavík now has some very important data for the study of warp-weighted loom and its use in what must have been its most highly developed form: the weaving of twill. […] In addition to the drawing, the models, and the description, there is a complete loom in the museum of Reykjavík with an unfinished length of cloth, and also two beams and one upright. As far as is known, these are the only parts of warp-weighted looms that have survived in Iceland.”2
So, basically there was a period lasting more than 800 years when weaving was an exclusive women’s affair and the context was not simply a matter of domestic work because textile production had a central role in the Icelandic economy.
Before going into some more details of that period, let’s take a step back to the history of Iceland when it became unified around the end of the 9th century. In that moment, the different scattered inhabitants living on the island created one general assembly, called Alþing (Althing), gathering all the chieftains as a Commonwealth, and Alþing is considered today the oldest surviving parliament in the world. Thanks to this constitutive effort, a series of laws and norms have been documented, bringing us insights also around textile production and its economical impact.
The archaeological findings, overlooked for many years, show us that during the Viking Age there were a lot of different textiles, with many variations of colours and weave patterns. Spinning yarn and weaving fabric in the Norse society, especially during that age, was a time-consuming activity as it’s a very intensive labour to create woollen textile to be used for many daily uses.
Textiles were not made just for clothes, bags, curtains, but also as sails for viking ships and religious garments. After the conversion to christianity, around year 1000, there’s a shift to mainly two weave types, tabby and twill. Twill became dominant especially for a specific reason: the production of vaðmál:
“Vaðmál was a 2/2 twill produced according to guidelines for measurement and quality that were recorded in the sections of law (búalög) that governed agricultural production in the mediaeval Icelandic law code.”3
Vaðmál was not just a piece of textile, it was an object in which the relationships of price and value could be expressed in specific units in those times when Iceland didn’t have a proper currency. Its importance grew in the mediaeval time because it substituted silver, which was much more common in the Viking Age but became rare later on.
The term Vaðmál is composed by two words: vae, “woven cloth”, and mál, meaning “measure” or “unit” . It can be translated as “measure of cloth” or in a further monetary sense as “cloth-money”4. Vaðmál was mainly produced by women with warp-weighted looms and was the main currency to buy and sell goods locally and abroad but also to pay taxes:
“Around 1100 the transition from metal to woollen cloth became so well established that the Alþing inscribed a law that fixed prices for all imaginable items – including gold and silver – reiterating the previous ratio of “six ells5 new and unused homespun per ounce.” Likewise, numerous charters endowing churches and monasteries expressed donations in hundreds of homespun. The system was applied overseas as well. […] by the end of the eleventh century the previous silver standard, founded on men’s violent and sporadic activities as vikings, had been replaced by the homespun standard, based on women’s peaceful and steady work as weavers. This situation prevailed until around 1300 when dried fish replaced homespun as the leading export. By this time expression of values in hundreds of cloth was so well established that homespun continued as a standard of value, although in actual exchange it had been replaced by dried fish. Women were involved in the preparation and preservation of the fish, but men were the primary procurers of the new commodity.”6
If the role of these looms operated by women was central to Icelandic society for hundreds years, why did they disappear in such a way?
The reason could be not just economical or utilitarian, rather it’d seem connected with the symbolic dimensions of spinning and weaving and their connection with spirituality, life, death and the increasing influence of the Catholic religion on Icelandic society.
In Norse mythology the three Norns wove the life-thread of each being, assigning the destiny for each mortal and god. They are called Urd (the past), Verdandi (the present), Skuld (the future) and are analogous to our Moirai or Parcae of the Greek and Roman mythology and connected with textile crafting as magical acts intended to influence the present and the future through specific rituals.
In the most famous of the songs in the Norse language entitled Darraðarljóð, from the saga of Njáls, the Valkyries in addition to guiding the killed warriors in Valhalla, also chose those who died and survived in battle, and they accomplish it using magic and weaving. Specifically the poem describes the vision of a man witnessing Valkyries weaving the outcome of a great battle that took place near Dublin in the year 1014. He was walking early in the morning and saw 12 knights riding and entering a dyngja, the bower next to the house used by women to weave. Intrigued by the scene, he walked over and peered through the window. It was then that he realised the riders were women, who were then engaged in working with a warp-weighted loom, using human intestines as threads, an arrow as the shuttle, and human skulls instead of stones as weights at the bottom of the loom. After finishing the weaving process, they tore the woven textile into pieces in order to influence the outcome of the battle happening far away from their location and expressing the very pagan belief that there’s a spiritual force in some objects and that destroying them is an act of releasing the energy accumulated through making it.
These magic acts are part of a series of complex rituals collectively termed Seiðr, related to both the telling and the shaping of fate and adding a sacred dimension to mundane objects.
Seiðr is not a type of nordic witchcraft, like many contemporary new wave pagans are promoting, but it’s an ancient form of divination and has similarities with Sámi7 shamanism because it deals with states of consciousness acquired with trance techniques to reach hidden knowledge, influence positive luck, reshape the fate of someone pulling and pushing the strings. The word Seiðr is in fact associated with the words “Strings” and “Cords” which usually can be created by spinning wool to obtain yarn. This act of making the yarn from wool is the powerful initial process of creating culturally useful goods from raw material, through organising the random fibres into coherent threads which can be then woven into a cloth.
The tools used during the crafting processes embed a different meaning. For example distaffs were also used as magic wands, the wooden seat called kubbstol, used during weaving activity, had a function in rituals, and the warp-weighted loom became ”a symbolic ‘doorframe’ leading into another world, and the frame on which the fabric of human fate is woven”. 8
It’s not appropriate to define the practitioners of Seiðr as witches because it would imply negative connotations. It’s more correct to use the word seeresses which in Iceland were called Vǫlva, literally staff-bearer.
At the eyes of Norse society though, this type of divination was not appropriate for men, and those who practiced it were considered unmanly, effeminate, sexually passive probably because of – some scholars suggest – the type of sexualisation of its rituals involving staffs might have been used to obtain a state of ecstasy or orgasm through ritual masturbation. Only Odin, one of the principal gods of Norse mythology, was one of the few men who practised this magic because he learnt it from Freyja, the goddess of fertility, sex, love and war, and recognised as the archetipal Vǫlva.
The role of the seeresses was accepted in all early Germanic cultures and also mentioned in roman texts by Tacitus and Cesar, describing their political influence especially during times of war. Indeed many women’s graves of the Viking Age included distaffs, jewellery and other tools representing their social role and status in society:
“The staff of sorcery from archaeological contexts clearly reflect the form of distaffs. Seeress bearing such an item signifies her skills in spinning and shaping the threads of human fate, as well as her high social status, and a divine element which she herself embodies. In this reading, her staff is also an item closely connected to a number of other domestic practices — from shearing the sheep to the process of spinning and the act of weaving cloth on a loom. All those actions are a part of a greater process of premeditated ‘creation’ — that is, making something according to a strictly defined scheme or procedure.”9
In a paper on this topic, researcher Karen Bek-Pedersen explores the relationship between the concept of fate in Old Norse tradition, and textile work:
“In order to weave a piece of material, the loom must be set up with a warp — these are the threads running lengthwise that are attached to the loom itself — and the part of the process that is most relevant in this context is the threading of the heddles. […] The order in which the warp threads are drawn through the heddles forms the basis of the pattern on the finished cloth […] The pattern laid down in the warp, in fact, significantly limits the options for what the weaver can do with the weft because, once the warp has been set up, it cannot be changed. It is not possible to change the warp in the middle of a piece of weaving and, if there are any mistakes made in setting up the warp, these will carry all the way through the woven cloth, whereas the weft can, to some extent, be unravelled to correct any mistakes. […] Naturally, the weft is important as the force that actualizes the warp, but the weft is only co-creator and only has a limited number of choices at its disposal; it is in the interaction between warp and weft that a pattern emerges and the nature of the weaver’s decision becomes clear. […] This is where fate fits in so well. Fate, as that inescapable truth that already exists within a person before they act, can be likened to the pattern that is present in the warp already before weaving commences. […] Fate in Old Norse tradition is presented as a process of actualization, as an interplay between what one is given to work with and what one does with it; but rather than portraying fate as some inexplicable supernatural power imposing itself on people from the outside, it shows fate as something that comes from deep inside of people and is lived out as an integrated part of the individual’s personality. The interplay between warp and weft on the weaver’s loom is a good way of describing this, and this is, I believe, one reason why the metaphor fate-as-weaving works so well.”10
The symbolic fabric of reality is this complex ancient vision of the world in which past, present and future are threads woven together as a tapestry of events and it’s so connected with a pre-christian tradition that the three mythological Norns, influencing the life of humans and gods, embody it.
Seiðr’s relationship with spinning and weaving is built upon the sense of trance and concentration happening during the practice, in order to focusing on purpose in life, using chants and meditative techniques, trying to modify events by forcing will upon life itself and the life of others for good or bad, in a process of becoming aware of the structures that condition us and acquiring the ability to re-weave them.
Medieval Iceland was a unique culture with many pagan customs still widespread in society because the transition to christianity happened much slower starting from year 1000:
“The sorceress in Icelandic literature remains the dominant figure, in contrast to the sorceress in continental literature, where she has been changed into a witch with the traits of lasciviousness and cannibalism. The central problem is why this demonization of the sorceress took place on the continent and did not take place in Iceland. The answer is Christianity. This new religion denigrated paganism. Iceland converted to Christianity in 1000 A.O., whereas the Roman Empire became officially Christian at the end of the fourth century. Paganism was important in the culture of Iceland, and the continued presence of the sorceress in the literature is verification of this.” 11
The disappearance of warp-weighted looms can then be interpreted more as a transformation of women’s role in Icelandic society being slowly fostered first by formal Christian conversion and then with the switch to Protestantism in 1530:
“The sorceress was a complex figure in the early Middle Ages, a figure created by Judeo-Christian, Germanic, and Greco-Roman cultures that later developed into early modern Europe. Women became associated with sorcery because of their roles as midwives, nurses, cooks, and keepers of the household. As mothers, they were also connected with the life cycle of man and nature. Their knowledge of herbs helped them to produce potions that could cure or poison, or cause sterility or fertility. Christianity denigrated the witch; the new religion also changed the image of women in society.”
Within this interdisciplinary framework, connecting the various sources, a clearer picture seems to emerge. The role of sage women being weavers of currency, sorceresses, healers, midwives, and very often also political advisers, transitioned from being a key part of the community, to being perceived as witches under a new social and ethical code which became more widespread with the ecclesiastical literature of the fifteen century and then witch hunt.
This transformation is at the crossroad of a cluster of social processes involving, on one side the economic and social relations reshaped by the growing importance of the market, and on the other by the Lutheran takeover of the Catholic church in the 16th century, culminating in the mercantilist approach of the Danish–Icelandic Trade Monopoly which changed completely, as explained above, the way textile production was organised.
Silvia Federici in her books, helped us creating these connections and provided a broader interpretation of the witch hunt: “Naming and persecuting women as ‘witches’ paved the way to the confinement of women in Europe to unpaid domestic labor. It legitimated their subordination to men in and beyond the family. It gave the state control over their reproductive capacity, guaranteeing the creation of new generations of workers.” 12
Now it’s our turn to dive into the archives and extract more stories that haven’t been told yet. Only if we identify the diverse strings of our warp we can really weave our role and craft the fate we want to embrace in the new world that is coming up.
- Michèle Hayeur Smith “Weaving Wealth: Cloth and Trade in Viking Age and Medieval Iceland” – (2015)
- Marta Hoffmann – “The warp-weighted loom” – Universitetsforlaget, 1964.
- Michèle Hayeur Smith “Weaving Wealth: Cloth and Trade in Viking Age and Medieval Iceland” – (2015)
- Kilger, Christoph. “Wholeness and Holiness : Counting, Weighing and Valuing Silver in the Early Viking Period.” (2008).
- One ell is roughly the length of a grown man’s forearm from elbow to fingertips
- Jenny Jochens. “Women in Old Norse Society” (1995)
- The Sámi people are an indigenous Finno-Ugric-speaking people inhabiting the region of Sápmi (formerly known as Lapland). The Sámi have historically been known in English as Lapps or Laplanders, but these terms are regarded as offensive by some Sámi people, who prefer the area’s name in their own languages – Wikipedia
- Leszek Gardela – “Into Viking Minds: Reinterpreting the Staffs of Sorcery and Unravelling” (2008)
- Leszek Gardela – (2008)
- Karen Bek-Pedersen – “Fate and weaving: justification of a metaphor” (2009)
- Katherin Morris – “Sorceress or witch. The image of gender in Medieval Iceland and Northern Europe” (1991)
- Silvia Federici. “Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women” (2018)