May 13, 2014

Three Sisters

Once there was a mother who had three young daughters. To her youngest daughter she handed a tuft of wool. “Pull it apart,” she said, and it pulled apart easily. “Now twist the fibers together, and try to pull them apart again.” And the daughter did that, and the fibers held together. “This is how you and your sisters much be. If you work together, stand together, dance together, you cannot be torn apart.”

And she taught the youngest daughter to spin. The elder two had learned to spin long ago, and they helped their sister.

The mother turned to her middle daughter and she taught her to wind the warp, measuring each thread to the correct length, though they might be different colors and weights. “Each must be equal, or the web will shift and the cloth be ruined. So, too, must you and your sisters all count each other equally, and not stand above the others, for you all have work to do, and all of it is necessary to make the project work.”

The eldest had learned to measure the warp long ago, and she helped her sister. Their younger sister watched and learned.

The mother turned then to the eldest, and handed to her the sharp blades she had never been allowed to touch before. She showed her daughter how to cut the threads evenly and safely. “All things must end, and every thread must be cut. A thread without an end is no use. But the blades you use to cut the thread can turn in your hand and cut you, too. Your sisters are too young yet to handle them safely, so until they are older, you must cut the threads yourself, and that will be your work. When they are old enough, though, you must teach them to wield these safely, and not deny them knowledge that can keep them from hurting themselves. You are older, but someday they will be as old as you are now. Remember that.”

Now both younger sisters watched the eldest, and learned by watching.

Then their mother put together the loom, and she hung the warp herself, as none of her daughters could reach high enough to do it yet. But she showed them all how to pass the shuttles back and forth, and push the weft into place to make an even cloth, and now all the sisters learned together and worked together to make one thing. When the cloth was finished, their mother made them all dresses cut from the same cloth, and each knew that her sisters’ hands had helped to dress her.

This is sort of my answer to the story about the father who showed his sons that they could break one stick, but not a whole bundle, so they were stronger together than alone. In theory, that’s a good moral to end on, but it doesn’t actually teach them to do anything useful, to work together, either by each taking on a single task that contributes to the whole or by working on a single task together. Before the Industrial age, any length of fabric took many many hours to make, and usually many hands, especially since spinning could be done by much younger girls and required much less skill than the actual weaving. It seemed an excellent example of how to work together. Plus a length of fabric is useful for a lot more things than a bundle of kindling. And I got to work in the process of spinning, measuring and cutting the thread, the functions of the Fates, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The girls are not intended to be the Fates at all, just mortal girls, but part of the power of the symbolism of their actions was the universality of them. Every woman wove, so every woman knew how to do those three things, and their simple, everyday actions then echoed those of the Fates, to whom even Zeus must bow, imbuing them with meaning. Every woman knew the physical motions of the Moirai, even though only the Goddesses had the power to shape the course of mortals’ lives by their actions.