The Distaff: Fates, Fatas, and Women's Power

The distaff has been a symbol of female power for millennia. European cultures associated it with goddesses, fatas and faeries, saints and witches. The goddesses depicted with this female spinning wand include Athena, the Parcae and Matronae, and Gaulish and British goddesses, and Berthe Pédauque and Mother Earth among the Franks.

Rich folk traditions tell of women's offerings to faery godmothers, and of Habetrot (England), Lughia Rajosa (Sardinia) and Paraskeva L'nyanitsa (Russia). Scandinavian archaeology has revealed a pattern of völur (seeresses) buried with shamanic staffs, many of them shaped like distaffs. The tremendous significance of this discovery is not yet fully recognized; it links the Norse völva with the rich mythology of spinning Fates, and with women's ceremony in other European folk religions. Like the völur, witches in other countries were associated with the distaff, with its strong aura of female sovereignty, even as witch hunts gradually demonized its potency.

Medieval miniatures of women jousting with distaffs against men also depicted female rebellion. By the 1400s, artists had consolidated a somewhat humorous "battle of the sexes" motif into a virulently misogynist theme of the Emasculating Distaff, in which women assert rulership over men by riding on them and beating them with distaffs. Or men are forced to carry distaffs, as in the Skimminton and charivari processions that ridiculed non-dominating husbands.

Yet the Old Spinner survived in the French "Tales of My Mother Goose," the British women's holiday St. Distaff's Day, and in the goddesses and cosmological symbols carved into Russian and Lithuanian distaffs.


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