Myths, folklore & symbolism
spinning: Frequently associated with supernatural female triads (fates, Moirae, norns) who spin, gather up, and cut the threads of fate. Women's spinning in general has often been associated with the moon, whose three major phases (full moon, first or third quarter, and new moon) suggest the three figures of Hecate (Hecate Triformis) [Graves]. (The weaving of the threads of fate is similarly considered to be the task of supernatural females.) Spinning and distaffs play an important role in the symbolism of fairy tales, where they are likewise associated with fate and death ("Sleeping Beauty") and often with triads (Brothers Grimm, "Of Wicked Flax Spinning"). Through the moon's apparent death and resurrection, the spinning goddesses of fate are associated with the themes of the underworld and rebirth. In Christian iconography the Virgin Mary is often portrayed holding a distaff (e.g., with the archangel Gabriel in depictions of the Annunciation); this is also a reference back to Eve, who was also frequently portrayed spinning. The association of Mary and the lunar crescent is frequent throughout the centuries.
Spinning was thought of as the domain of the goddesses and priestesses in a great variety of contexts. For example, in the ancient Mayan culture of the Yucatan, Ixcel (under the aspect of the goddess Chac-chel) is a moon goddess portrayed with a weaving stool; as Ixanleom, she is also associated with the spider.
In medieval Europe the spindle, a symbol of the contemplative life, is also an attribute of certain female saints (Joan of Arc, portrayed as a shepherdess; St. Margaret; St. Genevieve).
We speak idiomatically of spinning "yarns" and every other product of the imagination; here our association is not only with the spinning of thread but also with the spider's construction of its web. Even in present-day usage, the word "distaff" is used to replace "female": e.g., the "distaff side" of a family. (Biedermann)