As I get things started here on my new blog, I’ll occasionally be posting essays that I wrote for other publications. This essay was originally published in 2011 in the online journal Cabinet des Fees.
When Rumplestiltskin offers to spin straw into gold for the miller’s daughter, he reveals himself as an initiate of one of the oldest arts of humankind. Spinning has been practiced at least since the dawn of civilization, one of the first ways in which human beings learned to take disorganized, chaotic raw materials from nature and bring them into order through rhythmic activity, creating rope, yarn, or thread.
Plant and animal fibers were first twisted slowly and painstakingly by hand, and then a weight such as a flat stone was added to help speed up the spinning through gravity. Adding a shaft provided an easier way to balance and spin the weight, and a place to wind the strand.(1) With one simple tool came a major step from passive dependence on the given toward creative solutions to problems of survival, of shelter and protection from the elements — and also a source of beauty and artistry.
So valued was this activity that in fairy tales, the industrious spinner reaps a golden reward, while the one who is too slothful to complete her task is punished with a hideous fate. In the Grimms’ “Mother Holle,” for example, the good sister works so hard that her spindle is stained with blood. When she goes to the well to wash it out, she falls in and comes to a strange country. An apple tree asks her to help shake down its ripe apples; a bread oven asks her to take out the bread before it burns. She helps everyone who asks, and comes at last to the house of an old woman, Mother Holle, who takes her in if she will help with the chores. Mother Holle is so pleased with the girl’s work that when she asks to go home, a rain of gold falls upon her as she passes through the threshold to the ordinary world again.
Her sister wants the same good fortune, so she goes to the well. Too lazy to actually work, she pricks her fingers with thorns to make the reel bloody, then throws it in the well and jumps in after it. Of course she does not help the tree or the oven, and though at first she makes an effort at working for Mother Holle, she quickly tires of it and doesn’t bother any more. Mother Holle dismisses her, but instead of gold she is showered with pitch as she steps through the gate, “and the pitch stuck fast to her, and did not come off as long as she lived.”(2)
There is more here than a cautionary tale intended to frighten girls into fulfilling their societal roles. As Jacob Grimm himself described in his Teutonic Mythology, Mother Holle is a manifestation of a Germanic nature-goddess. She tells the girls, “You must take care to make my bed well and shake it diligently until the feathers fly, then it will snow in the world.” Tumbling into the well is a way of entering the world behind nature, the world of the elemental forces that cause snow and rain, growth and fertility. It is a realm where, as in natural cycles, everything has its rightful time to happen (as with the apples and the bread).
When the good sister recognizes and participates in this creative activity, she shows that she is worthy to receive the golden mantle of the spirit. Her diligence at spinning has been an outer sign of an inner quality, her ability to see and to participate in creative divine forces. When the lazy sister is covered in black pitch, it is not so much a punishment as an outward sign of what has been there all along: her blindness to and lack of reverence for the very forces that sustain her life.
The goddess Holle/Hulda is also the patron of spinners, demonstrating the intimate connection between this seemingly mundane activity and a higher realm. In fact, from the beginning people saw a divine quality in spinning. The circular motion of the heavens was equated with the turning of a spindle, with the shaft as the “axis mundi” connecting heaven and earth.(3) Life itself was spun by the gods: the Fates of Greek mythology determined the length and quality of each individual’s destiny as they spun, measured and cut the thread of life. The Norns of the Norsemen were seen as even having control over the threads of the gods themselves.
How did this mighty, divine activity come into the hands of a grotesque trickster figure like Rumplestiltskin, whose creative power is perverted into the wish to steal a child? As usual in fairy tales, the very first lines give us the “diagnosis” of the problem:(4)
There was once upon a time a poor miller who had a very beautiful daughter.
The mill, like the spindle, is a wheel that resonates with the cosmic motion of the heavens. But rather than a simple tool for bringing order into chaos, it is a huge machine that crushes and pulverizes the living grain into a useless powder, rendering the miller poor indeed. A further step is needed to return the grain to life again: the miller has a daughter, full of potential for the future. But before she can fulfill her task, another impulse comes in.
Now it happened one day that he had an audience with the King, and in order to appear a person of some importance he told him that he had a daughter who could spin straw into gold.
Gold here is the cold, lifeless metal that can neither feed nor clothe anyone, and merely serves as the focus of human greed and selfish ambition. The miller’s mechanical expertise has led him to seek mechanical solutions to his problems, and come up with wild schemes for exploiting nature. Rather than taking the responsibility for his actions himself, he puts them off onto the next generation, letting them deal with the consequences.
This is the context in which Rumplestiltskin appears: a personification of the moral poverty of the miller, the insatiable greed of the king, and the stifled potential of the daughter. Faced with an impossible task, unable to confess her inadequacy, the girl enters into a bargain with a subhuman creature.
Unknown to the king or the miller — that is, below the threshold of consciousness — he allows him to spin the straw into gold and presents it as her own work. In herself, she has the capacity for transformation, but her fears have led her to deny that power and attribute it to another. The end of this path can only be sterility and barrenness: so, quite logically, Rumplestiltskin claims her child. His shocking act is a wake-up call that serves to remind us of what is truly important:
The Queen was in a great state, and offered the little man all the riches in her kingdom if he would only leave her the child. But the manikin said: “No, a living creature is dearer to me than all the treasures in the world.”
How can the girl, now a queen, reclaim her life-giving power of transformation? The way is through language, through naming. She must name the unknown and feared element in her life, must know it intimately, in order to overcome it.
It’s no accident that spinning is associated with language, that we may be said to “spin” a tale or tell a “yarn.” Spinning brings a cosmic “twist” into the raw materials of nature, giving them strength and continuity. When we look at events with a higher awareness, we can perceive the links between them and weave them into an ongoing story, coming to an understanding of their true essence. The spinning of straw into gold can be transformed from a mechanical search for material gain into a quest for meaning and knowledge.
As anyone who has tried it knows, spinning is not a mindless task. It requires constant attention not to end up with a tangled mess or a broken thread. At the same time, the rhythmical balance of manual and mental activity, hand and mind working together to produce a continuous, even thread, is deeply satisfying and calming. The spinner often finds her thoughts becoming organized along with the fiber, leading to new insights or creative inspiration. An inner “golden thread” can be sensed, one that we can try to cultivate ever more strongly.
This is the thread that we can try to make of our lives, when we accept the materials we are given; on the other hand, we reject them at our peril. In “Sleeping Beauty,” for example, the king tries to avert the prediction that his daughter will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deathlike sleep by burning all the spinning wheels in the kingdom. He thus brings about the very fate he seeks to escape, when the princess’s curiosity leads her to touch the first spindle she sees.(5) Destiny cannot be averted through ignorance, but only transformed through knowledge.
In “Rumplestiltskin,” it is significant that the queen’s finds the knowledge she seeks only when she finally enlists the help of another person — not her father or her husband, who have failed to reach beyond their own narrow interests, but a “messenger,” one who travels far and wide to bring people together through words. From her denial of her own capacities at the beginning of the story, she has grown into the ability to spin threads of connection into the world. And thus she is finally able to overcome her fear by knowing it, naming it.
The name “Rumplestiltskin” seems comically ridiculous for a creature who has had such a devastating impact; it may come from a German word for a spirit who rattles sticks or wooden posts (literally, “little rattle stilt”), a goblin related to the poltergeist.(6) Perhaps in naming him thus the queen realizes how absurd it is to imagine that any power could truly break the bond between a mother and her child; the demon who has been threatening her can actually do nothing more than rattle harmlessly in a cupboard, compared with the motherly power to create and sustain new life. Freed from her demonic counterpart (who self-destructs when he is recognized) she can at last start to spin her own story, a fitting end to this strange and compelling tale.
(1) This tool, the handspindle, has been in use for over ten thousand years, and is still widely used today. The spinning wheel is only a few hundred years old. The many tales that feature spinning undoubtedly come from origins far earlier than their written incarnations, and would originally have referred to the older tool. This makes sense of a “Rumplestiltskin” variant in which the girl is spinning on the roof (easy with the highly portable handspindle).
(2) An interesting comparison of the 1812 and 1857 versions of “Mother Holle” can be found at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm024a.html. The 1857 version is the one that has been referred to here.
(3) This image is remarkably universal. In The Republic, Plato beautifully describes the “spindle of necessity,” suspended from a rainbow-colored shaft of light, with an eightfold whorl of stars and planets, all singing in eternal harmonies, while the Kogi people of Colombia conceived of the earth as a central disk on a spindle shaft, with four heavenly disks and four underworld disks.
(4) Gertrud Muller Nelson makes this observation in Here All Dwell Free (Paulist Press, 1999), p. 31.
(5) This tale may also have originally referred to a handspindle, or to the older type of hand-turned spinning wheel. Modern treadled spinning wheels seldom have sharp parts.
(6) See the annotated version of “Rumplestiltskin” on SurLaLunefairytales.com. The quotations from the story are also taken from this site.