A Spinning Tale
The Victorians had what they called “Red Letter Days.” Today is one of those. Well, perhaps this is a Red Letter Evening. Melissa is here in my study, reading to Thalia sitting on her lap, giving mine a rest. We are joined by Johannes and the fairy, a greater company than our study readings has ever had.
“In the old days,” Melissa reads, “when spinning was the constant employment of women, the spinning wheel had its presiding genius or fairy. Her Border name was Habitrot…”
Melissa reads from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, collected by Sir George Douglas.
A Selkirkshire woman had an only daughter, one not given to the distaff or wheel, but was wont to wandering through meadows and lanes. The mother challenged her to spin seven lints of flax within three days. After two days of trying and crying herself to sleep at night, she wandered off into the meadows, where she met an old woman with misshapen lips, sitting on a self-bored stone, drawing out thread. The girl engaged her in friendly conversation, and the ancient woman offered to do the girl’s spinning. Joyfully, the girl gave her the task and asked for her name. The old woman did not answer that and disappeared.
Confused, the girl lingered near the self-bored stone and fell asleep. At evening she awakened to hear voices rising from the stone. Putting her ear to the stone, she learned the old woman’s name was Habitrot.
At the mention of Habitrot, our fairy flutters into the air in a corkscrew motion of ecstasy.
“Friend of hers,” Johannes explains.
Looking through the hole in the stone, the girl saw Habitrot and her spinsters, all with deformed lips, spinning yarn for her. She also learned, when Habitrot addressed Scantlie Mab, who handled the reel, that they were about to deliver the yarn. Delighted, the girl started toward home, but was overtaken by Habitrot before she got there.
“What do I owe you?” the girl asked.
“Nothing,” was the reply.
“Ah!” puts in Johannes, “A typical brownie.”
The girl returned home, and having eaten nothing all day, fried up and ate the seven black puddings her mother had made. In the morning, her mother found the seven black puddings gone, but the seven lints of flax made into fine yarn.
Conflicted with the loss and the gain, she went out of the house crying, “My daughter has spun seven, seven, seven. My daughter has eaten seven, seven, seven. And all before daylight!”
A lord, who happened to be passing by, asked the woman about her gibberish. The woman took him into her house to show him the yarn and introduced him to her blushing daughter.
Guess what. He fell in love with the pretty and industrious peasant girl—with a good appetite—and proposed marriage. The girl worried that the lord would be disappointed in the industrious part of his perception of her. Again, Habitrot came to her aid, telling the young bride to have her husband peer through the self-bored stone. When he did, he saw Habitrot dancing over and around her spinning wheel singing:
“We who live in dreary den
Are both rank and foul to see,
Hidden frae the glorious sun
That teems the fair earth’s canopie:
Ever must our evenings lone
Be spent on the colludie stone.
Cheerless in the evening grey
When Causleen hath died away,
But ever bright and ever fair
Are they who breathe this evening air;
And lean upon the self-bored stone
Unseen by all but me alone.”
Scantlie Mab asked Habitrot about that last line and Habitrot brought the royal couple down into her underworld though a door in a tree. The lord, realizing the hardship that spinning would put upon his wife, protested that she should ever face the wheel again. All flax, thereafter, was given to Habitrot to spin.
Thalia applauds and Melissa applauds with her. Our fairy, returning to ecstasy, circles again in the air.
Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2018 Habitrot – Part Two
We sit in Miss Cox’s garden waiting for Sir George Douglas, at Melissa’s request. Miss Cox has set out a proper tea on the wrought-iron table in front of our wrought-iron bench.
Sir George, a pleasant-looking man with a mustache and goatee, appears at the gate, giving us a casual salute from afar. I would think the dead would be disoriented, being summoned back by the living from the grave. But in Miss Cox’s garden they never are. I will have to assume the dead have many requests for interviews and ours is just one more.
“Sir?” he addresses me. I point to Melissa.
“Madam?” he corrects.
I am Melissa Serious.”
“I am sure you are,” he quips.
“And I have some questions for you.” Melissa smiles with a bit of glimmer in her eye. Sir George is obviously a man with a sense of humor, which is worth a dozen men without.
“Tell me about Habitrot,” Melissa asks as she does the honor of pouring us cups of tea.
“Habitrot, yes. Some claim she is the goddess of spinning, but I can’t but feel this is too high a status. No, she is of the brownie ilk; always working, yet never accepting payment. The typical brownie will take nothing for its services beyond very humble offerings, such as a bowl of milk, a crust of bread, left without fanfare in a corner of the room. Nor do brownies like their names known, another sign that Habitrot is of their kind since she does not tell the girl her name when asked.”
“And Scantlie Mab?” Melissa takes a sip of tea.
“I have not come across her outside of this story,” Sir George reflects.
“Speaking of names,” says Melissa, setting down her cup, “Rumpelstiltskin comes to mind.”
“As does Tom Tit Tot,” Sir George adds. “Both are reluctant to reveal their names, just like Habitrot, but in their cases for sinister reasons.”
Melissa nods. “I can’t help but observe that if the magical helper is male, they are manipulative. If they are female, they are beneficial; it’s Habitrot’s benevolence that attracts me to the tale.”
“In that respect,” Sir George takes a sip of his tea, “our tale is similar to the Grimms’ The Three Spinning Fairies, the differences being that the fairies take small gifts and favors as payment—making them fairies, not brownies, in my mind—their names are not an issue in this story, and the tale goes for a laugh at the end.”
“Yes,” agrees Melissa, “but Habitrot has more than a joke. I feel it is a message about the tyranny of the spinning wheel over women. It’s a bit of a feminist statement before there was feminism.”
“Likely,” agrees Sir George. “These tales were often told by women for women to lighten their burden while they did repetitive, onerous tasks.”
“Another question, “Melissa’s eyes squint, “what on earth is a self-bored stone? How does a stone bore itself?”
Sir George raises an index finger in the air. “A valid question. They are, as you may guess, magical. More likely than not, they are glassy in appearance, can be of various sizes, the hole occurring naturally—perhaps from dripping water—or formed on purpose from the hardened saliva of dragons, which is my preferred explanation.”
Sir George winks, then continues. “They protect their owner from eye diseases, are a defense against evil charms, prevent nightmares, aid in the recovery from snake bites, and—for some reason—cure whooping cough.
“More importantly, looking through the hole allows one to see into the fairy world or see through fairy disguises. In the case of Habitrot, it is a window into her underground world and her spinster minions.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2018 Habitrot – Part Three
Frigga Spinning the Clouds, by John Charles Dollman
“Spinsters?” I say, “Are not spinsters unmarried women, that is women beyond the age of marriage?”
“That they are,” says Sir George.
“Is there an inference that if a woman isn’t married and has no children, then all that is left to her is spinning?” I venture.
“Or,” says Melissa, “without a husband, spinning is her only income.”
“In either case,” returns Sir George, “‘spinsters’ is a mildly derogatory term.”
“Why,” I declare, “do we look down on those who do the menial labor that the rest of us depend upon?”
Sir George looks a little embarrassed at my comment, and Melissa sits properly erect. “That is,” she says, “the history of women.”
Sir George sighs. “I wish it were not so. Women’s opportunities to do work, other than household drudgeries, during the time these fairy tales were evolving, was limited. I have my suspicions that these tales were more than being told by women for women, but were created by women out of wishful thinking.”
“Wishful thinking,” echoes Melissa. “I will put it more strongly: as a wish to escape and rise above their circumstances.
“If the tale centers on a heroine, she is trying to escape from something. In Habitrot, the girl is escaping the duties of spinning. Often the stakes are higher. In Cinderella, she is escaping the domination of her stepmother and stepsisters. In Snow White, she is fleeing the attempt to murder her. In Rapunzel, she is escaping her prison tower. Then there is The King Who Wished To Marry His Daughter, another Scottish tale that needs no further explanation.”
“Wait,” I say, “are they not, in your examples, fleeing toward marriage? Cannot marriage be another form of subjugation?”
“Of course,” she says, picking up her cup of tea, “but it was the only logical way for a woman to rise in status. The groom is rarely a wealth merchant, or a well-to-do farmer, but rather one of royalty, bringing the heroine into nobility or back to a station from which she had fallen.”
“Notice too,” says Sir George, finishing his tea, “the tales tend to depict a woman’s world. If there is a father in the story, he tends to disappear very quickly or play a minimal role. The conflicts are usually with the other female relatives or a witch, who is a stand-in for the evil stepmother.”
“On the flip side,” I speculate, “if the protagonist is a male, he is not escaping, but rather willingly entering into an adventure. In the Queen Bee for example, three brothers go off to seek their fortunes. They encounter an enchanted castle and free it from a curse. The young women in this story are the prizes for the young men’s deed. Again, it all ends in marriage to the protagonist’s advantage. In this case it is male wishful thinking.”
“Returning to the menial tasks,” concludes Sir George, “or any kind of labor for that matter, men could be farmers, merchants, tailors, shoemakers, lawyers, judges, soldiers, and more. Women were limited to being cooks, scullery maids, midwives, henwives, or housewives, and they would all know how to spin.”
At this point I realize I haven’t taken a sip of my tea and it is now cold. I wonder if I can get someone to warm it up for me.