Weaving goddesses of Japan and elsewhere in the world

Japan has several famous weaving myths:  the more significant and well known ones are the Amaterasu sun and weaving goddess, and the Tanabata Star Festival folktale of Orihime, the weaving princess and the cowherder prince Hikoboshi, or alternatively, Orihime and Kengyuu (Nojiri, 1973), thought to have been imported from China during the Heian Era (794-1185),based on the Chinese tale, “Tale: The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid/The Parted Lovers” Excerpted below is the version documented by Renshaw and Ihara’s “Orihime, Kengyuu, and Tanabata: Adapting Chinese Lore to Native Beliefs and Purposes“.

In Japan, the star Vega is often called Orihime Boshi (Weaving Princess Star), and Altair is often called Kengyuu Boshi or Hiko Boshi (Puller of Cows Star). … Members of royalty were, of course, associated with the heavens; Tentei (the emperor) being centered at the North Pole. One day, the emperor’s daughter, Orihime, was sitting beside the river of heaven (Milky Way). She had been weaving because her father, the emperor loved the beautiful clothes that she made. On this particular day, she was very sad because she realized that she had been so busy that she didn’t have time to fall in love. Her father, Tentei, the ruler of the heavens, felt sorry for her and arranged a marriage with Kengyuu (who lived across the river, the Milky Way). Their marriage was one of sweetness and happiness from the start; and everyday thereafter they grew happier and happier. But Tentei became very angry, because in spending so much time in her happy marriage, Orihime was neglecting her weaving. Tentei decided to separate the couple, so he placed them back in their original places, separated by the Milky Way. On only one night of the year would he allow them to meet, the 7th day of the 7th month. Every year on that day, from the mouth of the river (the Milky Way), the boatman (of the moon) comes to ferry Orihime over to her beloved Kengyuu. But if Orihime has not done her weaving to the best of her skills and ability, Tentei may make it rain. When it rains, the boatman will not come (because the river is flooded). However, in such a case, Kasasagi (a group of magpies) may still fly to the Milky Way to make a bridge for Orihime to cross.

Tanabata may be translated as “weaving with the loom (bata) placed on the shelf (tana)”, and the festival celebrates improvement of technical skill and ability. As in China, ancient Japanese added specific values to their wishes that Orihime hone her skills and work hard so that she could meet Kengyuu. In modern celebrations of Tanabata, people throughout Japan write wishes (generally for themselves or relatives) to the kami (deity) Orihime on colorful strips of paper. On the evening of Tanabata, they tie these paper wishes to freshly cut bamboo. 

Depending on regions, the Tanabata Star Festivals celebrated on July 7 or August 7 (which is around the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar) in Japan.

Excerpted from “On the Mythology of Weaving” (A Loom With A View blog)

Often the weaving goddesses are also teachers of wisdom and midwifery. Ixchel is the 16th century name of the Mayan goddess of weaving and childbirth and, it seems likely, the moon. She was worshipped on the Isla des Mujeres (the Isle of Women) and is often seen with a hare.

The people who have become the modern day Berbers, renowned for their weaving, were present in North Africa before the Phoeniceans founded Carthage. They worshipped Tanit as the goddess of childbirth, weaving and the moon. Tanit was later equated with Astarte, the northwestern Semitic goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war.

At least two goddesses of weaving were seen as sun goddesses. In Japan, Amaterasu is the Shinto goddess of weaving and the sun. In the Balkans, it is Saule who spins and weaves sunbeams. However, the usual association of weaving goddesses is with the moon.

Among the ancient Egyptians the men did the weaving, but it was Isis who taught the women to spin, without which there would be no weaving. And one of the oldest gods of Egypt is the goddess Neith, who was a weaver. Her name means “one who is,” and, according to E. A. Wallis Budge, weaving is synonymous with “being” in the Egyptian language.(2)

In Greece it was Athena Ergana who was the goddess of weaving and of the strategy of warfare. In one legend, Athena defeats Ares by weaving a trap and then stretching it across the charging warrior’s path. Those who spun for Athena were the Moirae (the Fates). The Moirae spun, measured, and cut the thread of human lives. They were often personified as three ugly and sometimes lame old women.

In Norse and Viking mythology, the Norns spun and wove the lives of humans. In The Fafnismol, Sigurd asks Fafnir: “Who are the Norns who… the babe from the mother bring?”(3) The Norns almost seemed a class of priestesses, tending the world tree and being of human, elvish and dwarven races. In The First Lay of Helgi Hundisbane they are described as three women who:

Mightily wove they
the web of fate,
While Bralund’s towns
were trembling all;
And there the golden
threads they wove,
And in the moon’s hall
fast they made them.(4)

Sometimes, weaving goddesses are associated with the stars. In Germanic lore, it is said that what we call Orion’s Belt was really Frigga’s distaff. Holda knew the secret of turning flax into linen, but Frigga (her name means “the Beloved” and we remember her in the word “Friday,” which was Frigga’s day) wove the destiny the Norns had spun and was of help during birth.

The idea of three mysterious women spinners is repeated in so-called “faerie tales” from Germany to Puerto Rico. Although sometimes the girl is a princess and sometimes she is a poor orphan, she is always set to spin flax (sometimes into gold) by a cruel woman. Three grotesque old women rescue her by doing her spinning for her in exchange for an invitation to her wedding. At the wedding, they blame their ugliness on the hard work of spinning flax. This influences her father (whether he be merchant or king) to decree that, to save her beauty, she may no longer spin.”

Excerpted from  “Goddesses who weave” (Crystalinks website)

Native American Grandmother Spider Woman | Teotihuacan Spider Woman (Mayan) | Arachne Greek Goddess, Superior weaver to  Athena The Goddess of Weaving | Nit, Neith, Egyptian Goddess of Weaving and War

The Moi rae, the Fates are the three crones who control destiny, whose fate is unraveled it is the art of spinning on the distaff the thread of life.

Penelope the faithful wife of Odysseus was a weaver, weaving her design for a shroud by day, but unravelling it again at night, to keep her suitors from claiming her during the long years while Odysseus was away. Penelope has a high lineage that melds human and divine, and is she perhaps secretly Odysseus’ own weaving goddess-nymph, like the two weaving enchantresses in the Odyssey, Circe and Calypso

Baltic myth, Saule is the life-affirming sun goddess, whose numinous presence is signed by a wheel or a rosette. She spins the sunbeams. The Baltic connection between the sun and spinning is as old as spindles of the sun-stone, amber, that have been uncovered in burial mounds. Baltic legends as told have absorbed many images from Christianity and Greek myth that are not easy to disentangle.

China, In the Tang Dynasty, the weaving goddess floated down on a shaft of moonlight with her two attendants, showed to the upright court official Guo Han in his garden that a goddess’s robe is seamless for it is woven without the use of needle and thread, entirely on the loom. The phrase “a goddess’s robe is seamless” passed into an idiom to express perfect workmanship.

The Finnish epic, the Kalevala, has many references to spinning and weaving goddesses.

Germany In the Germanic mythology the spinner is Holda. Her patronage extends outward to control of the weather, and source of women’s fertility, and the protector of unborn children, without ever losing her role as the patron of spinners, rewarding the industrious and punishing the idle. A Grimm tale, “The Spindle, the Shuttle and the Needle,” embeds social conditioning in fairy tale with mythic resonances, rewards the industrious spinner with the fulfillment of her mantra. It recounts how the magic spindle, flying out of the girl’s hand, flew away, unravelling behind it a thread, which the Prince followed, as Theseus followed the thread of Ariadne, to find what he was seeking: a bride “who is the poorest, and at the same time the richest.” He arrives to find her simple village cottage magnificently caparisoned by the magically-aided products of spindle, shuttle and needle.

Hindu Maya is the Virgin aspect of the triple Hindu Goddess, symbolized by a Spider, spinner of magic, fate and earthly appearances. The spider’s web was likened to the Wheel of Fate and the spider to the Goddess as a Spinner, sitting at the hub of Her Wheel. Mother of the Enlightened One, Buddha.

Romans continue to regard the processes of spinning and weaving with superstitious awe. In many parts of the Roman empire, laws banned women from holding a spindle in public: should anyone lay eyes on such a woman, it could mean exceptionally bad luck perhaps even the failure of the harvest”

According to Maori tradition, weaving was a gift from the Gods, specifically, one of the Treasures of Hine-te-iwaiwa, the female personification of the moon (Marama) and also the Maori goddess of weaving, plaiting and other arts (source).

Further readings:
Miller, L. Alan “Ame No Miso-Ori Me” (The Heavenly Weaving Maiden): The Cosmic Weaver in Early Shinto Myth and Ritual, History of Religions
Vol. 24, No. 1 (Aug., 1984), pp. 27-48

The following  passages  from Amaterasu, the Cosmic Weaver are  notes on Alan L. Miller’s “Ame No Miso-Ori Me (The Heavenly Weaving Maiden): The Cosmic Weaver in Early Shinto Myth and Ritual,” in History of Religions 24.1 (August 1984): 27-48.]:

In Japan’s Shinto religion, Amaterasu is first among the gods. She created the cosmos and all the other gods
and the clothes they wear.

Ancestor to the Emperor, she gave
to humans two skills that are especially prized:
the art of weaving hemp and silk.

miso-ori: garmet weaving

hatu: to weave, especially on a loom
oru: to weave
umu: to shread or tear into thin strips

kami: sacred
kami-dana: Shinto home shrine; literally, “god-shelf”
tana: hand
tanabata: handweaving
festivals throughout Japan celebrate handweaving
poems in honor of cloth and weaving are recited
when new cloth is given to the temples every year

when a person seems about to die, a relative is to go up on the root of the house and stand calling the name of the dying one while shaking his or her clothes in the air

tamamusubi: tying or binding one’s soul
kyoto: after a sneeze, one ties a knot in a cord in order to bind the soul, which has been expelled with the breath

For the renewal of Amaterasu’s shrine buildings at Ise, Japan, undertaken every twenty years, Amaterasu is presented with a miniature sacred loom, together with thread boxes, spindles, and reeds.

Japanese ceremonies honor Amaterasu for her creative process, not for a single creation:

“[T]he divine weaver continually creates the order of the cosmos. It is a process, never finished, … never codified…. It is the goddess that one serves and not the order that she creates. The interaction of warp and woof, and indeed the knots so formed, reated the beautiful brocade of the world, whose skies, mountains, plains and seas are permeated with the essence of the kami, or the sacred.”

Miller compares this sense of the sacred in Shinto to Hopi, African, and Greek/Roman parallels (p. 44):

    • Arachne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Greece, Italy)
    • the Dogon, West Africa:

“Spirit speaks and its words fill all the interstices of the cloth; they were woven in the threads and make the body of the cloth. They were the weaving itself ad the weaving was the words. And that is why cloth is called soy, which means, `It is speech.'”

the Tewa, a branch of the Hopi people:

Then weave for us a garment of brightness:
May the warp be the white light of morning,
May the weft be the red light of evening,
May the fringes be the falling rain,
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Thus weave for us a garment of brightness,
That we may wealk fittingly where birds sing,
That we may walk fittingly where the grass is green,
O our Mother the Earth, O our Father the Sky.”

—quoted by Miller as recorded by Herbert J. Spinden, Songs of the Tewa (New York, 1933), p. 94.

Vala and Iwato – the Hidden Myth of the Sun by M. Witzel, provides perhaps the most extensive survey of the Vala-Iwato sun emerging from a cave/house/vault type myths and the various cognate versions, and tracks their origins to an Indo-Iranian and Central Asian Eurasian steppeland homeland.

“The Heavenly Rock Grotto Myth and the Chinkon Ceremony” Asian Folklore 39 no. 2, 1980: 10

The significance of the mirror , and connections with soul-trapping-or-recalling practices and the moon is noted by  posted by Robert Moss’ “Mirror for the sun goddess: secrets of soul recovery from Japan” who also observes that Amaterasu is “is drawn, irresistibly, to this beauty, and comes up out of the darkness – to discover that the radiant being is her own beautiful self, reflected in the mirror the gods have hung in a tree near the cave.”

Amaterasu’s being tricked by her own image in the bronze mirror has shades of the Greek tale Narcissus/Narkissos who fell in love with his own image looking at his self-reflection in  the pool.

Despite the above excellent expositions on the Amaterasu deity, no Vedic/Celtic or Proto-Indo-European prototype mirror-welding weaver goddess has yet been suggested to be the model for the weaver goddesses of the East, such as Amaterasu (and possibly the prototype for the prehistoric shamanic queen Himeko figure mentioned in Chinese historical chronicles).

There are few such parallels, but we note here that there is  Lasya, (aka Lasema, Sgeg-Mo-Ma)a Tibetan Goddess of the moon and beauty who carried a mirror (source: Tibetan Goddess Names). Goddess of Beauty and Dignity of the Body. Normally depicted wearing white and carrying a mirror, she obtains her power from the light of the sun and of the moon (source: Q&A – LasyaInc).

Also wife of the Tibetan mountain god is a sky-weather-hail-thunder controlling goddess:

“is the goddess rma-chen, also known by the names gungsman-ma and rma-ri-rab-vgyams rdo-rje-dgra-mo-rgyal, and she has her own extensive mythology. She originally lived on the anyesrmachen mountain and was considered the greatest of the twelve goddesses (bstanma-bcu-gnhyis). Tibetan ritual texts describe her in this way: she rides a stag as white as a conch, and her body is as white as the snowy mountains. She is extremely beautiful, and her hair is plaited with colorful ribbons. In her right hand she holds a magical mirror, in her left a lasso and an iron hook. Dressed in a silk coat, she is adorned with a golden crown decorated with diverse gems atop her head. She also wears a pearl necklace, bracelets, and anklets; a shining bell is fixed to the belt around her waist.” — Xie Jisheng’s “The Mythology of Tibetan Mountain Gods: An Overview

In addition, mirror-bearing goddesses appear to be rather common with the Tibetans, for they also possess accounts of :

“The myth of the Five Sisters of Longevity (tshe-ring-mched-lnga) is popular in the Mount Everest region. The five sisters are identifed with particular mountains in the area. The greatest of them is bkra-shis-tshe-ringma, who oversees the welfare and longevity of mankind. Iconographically, she is young and beautiful, and rides a white lion. In her left hand she holds a sacred arrow used for taking auspices; dice made of white conch and mirror are tied to the tail of the arrow. She wears white silk garments, a cloak made of peacock feathers, and a white scarf wrapped around her head.13

Bkra-shis-tshe-ring-ma belongs to a group of guardian goddesses who offer cleverness and wisdom to mankind. Among the sisters of longevity are mting-gi-zhal-bzang-ma, typically represented as a green goddess holding a magical mirror and riding a wild horse;…..The Five Sisters of Longevity live on the peak of Mount Everest.”

The above imagery ring a bell since according to Japanese myth, Amaterasu is deeply offended by Susanoo’s wild behavior by throwing a flaying horse into her sacred weaving halls … the horse being a sacred animal of hers.

In the local context of Japan, Michael Como reminds us that the images of Amaterasu figure are tied to the immigrant background of the Hata weaver and sericulture clan  as well as the Ise populist cults that were tied to the Toyouke Hime legend and imported Chinese and Taoist ideas of immortality — see “Weaving and Binding: Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient Japan

It is suggested here that the significance of Amaterasu as not only Cosmic Weaver, but also as a Mother Goddess of Western origin, stems from traditions from the Central Asian pastoral steppelands. Amaterasu may have a cognate in Umay and Umai, who are weaving goddesses of fertility. Studies of weaving traditions in Japan have been recognized as coming from China, as well as the Silk Road, and ultimately out of Anatolia and Mesopotamia where sheep were domesticated and woollen weaving begun, we note the obervations made by Üzeyir ÖZYURT in his “The Language of Kilim of Anatolia” that symbols of the Mother Goddess and many other mythical magical or sacred as well as taboo motifs have been transmitted through a secret code of the women weavers, secret even from their men.  Ozyurt mentions that the traditions similar to those of nomadic tribes of the Middle East as they spread and covered the pastures of the Steppes, were adopted by the Mongols of Hitay (i.e. Mongols of the Kara-Hitay Empire) which include the cosmologies of ram-bull, Sky gods and moon, sun and stars, and thunderstorm gods, as well as of their iconic Mother Goddess:

“In agricultural societies, the myth of the Goddess Mother was always a virgin and generator of life, as a result of the understanding of the male role in conception, this was modified with the appearance of the celestial ones, to which was attributed the role of lover or son. These were born in spring and they coupled with the Goddess Mother fertilising her. They died in the autumn, the time of harvest and returned to the sun then returned the following spring. This myth had differing names in different cultures.

In order to guarantee the rebirth of the Earth in spring, the agricultural societies sacrificed to the Earth Mother, animals with horns like bulls and rams, attributing to them the force of the celestial ones. The blood was a substance that offered life, therefore the force that the blood possessed fortified the earth and fertilised it for an abundant harvest. In Summer, the nomadic Turks of Asia Minor went back to the plateau’s (Yaylak) and in winter came down towards the sea to their winter quarters (Kislak), were the inheritors of the pastures and plains that nourished their animals, sacrificed a horse for the celestial God and a ram for the divinity of Yersu.

The agricultural societies had their celestial ones who fertilised, and identified with the sun and clouds, carriers of rain and were indispensable to the rebirth of life. The typical natural events of spring, to grow tall during the days the sun reheats the soil and with frequent rains, were understood by these cultures like the mystical wedding between sky and earth. The Goddess Mother becomes a spouse. In the writing of Gökturk, it is told of Yersu and Göktani, the sacred two’s union gave origin to a concept of divinity, monotheist. The spirit of this divinity, in mythology of Gökturk. 
Ilteris Kaghan and it’s woman in the task to reunify and strengthen the Turkish descendants.”  

In support of the above view of the legacy of pastoral nomadic influences, we draw from Jeannine Davis’ writings on evidence from Pokrova burials of Sauromatian and Sarmatian warrior-priestess females and of their high status and roles in ceremonial rituals and as diviners for their tribes:

“Data indicated that priestesses were 7% of the population, warrior-women 15%, warrior-priestesses 3%, while women of the hearth held the majority at 75%.[27] As revealed by the large number of artifacts, primarily imported beads, pottery, and spindlewhorls, including pseudo-spindlewhorls carved from soft chalk, many of the hearth women must be considered above average in wealth for the time period[28] and, therefore, women whose rank within their society was relatively high. The presence of pseudo-spindlewhorls, implies that in ancient times spinning must have had a special significance, possibly even of a mystical nature. It may not be a coincidence that there are mythic connotations tied to fairy tales, such as spinning straw into gold.

Warrior women’s burials contained the same types and styles of artifacts in various quantities as those of the hearth women with the addition of mostly bronze arrowheads and frequently other armament such as iron daggers and swords, and occasionally, iron armor elements (Figures 6 and 7). A priestess was heralded by her possessions that substituted a bronze mirror, a kubok (ceremonial vessel),[29] and fossilized seashells for armament. The latter could have been used to mix colored ores for ceremonially painting designs on textiles or her body. The mirror as well as the shell might have been used for scrying, the art of seeing spirits or hearing voices from the Otherworld. Nomadic women, as priestesses, were sought to perform rites of passage within the family, clan, or tribe as well as to attending to gods or representing goddesses and, to perform prognostications and divinations that resulted in decisions benefiting the welfare of the aul or tribe.

Perhaps closer to the Japanese islands, more significant are her descriptions of the Saka warrior women of the Tien-Shan and Almaty-Ural mountains:

“Summer headquarters for a branch of the Saka Confederacy, possibly the Massagetae, was located at Issyk, some 60 km. east of Almaty, southern Kazakstan, near the base of the Tien Shan Mountains. Today the looted remains of gigantic kurgans signal burials of great chieftains dating to the middle of the first millennium BCE. In 1969, a gold plaque plowed up at the edge of one of these burial mounds revealed the lateral undisturbed burial of a high status personage. [77] Small on-face lion head plaques were sewn to decorate the hems of the caftan while the field fabric and knee-hi boots were embellished with small geometric plaques. Two elaborate gold plaques, one in the form of a horse, the other a moose, and both with twisted bodies, ornamented the dagger sheath while gold belt plaques were cast as fantastic deer.  Because of the small, non-robust size of the skeleton and the ceremonial gold and iron sword and dagger found in the burial, the initial reconstruction was that of a “young warrior” (Figure 18).[78] However, the tomb also contained items normally associated only with females of the early nomadic period, e.g., large imported beads and earrings.[79] The personage also wore a triple gold torque similar to the one worn by the priestess on the Pazyryk wall hanging.  Another item worn by the deceased that would indicate a female burial included the tall conical headdress. It was elaborately decorated with gold foil branches and floral shoots at the front, referencing the Tree of Life, the hallmark of fertility rituals. In addition, addorsed ibex heads flanked two heraldic horned-horse protomes (Figure 19), a motif that echoes rituals associated with sacrificial horses found in the Pazyryk burials and again repeated on the Tamgaly petroglyphs.[80] Gold plaques attached to the sides of the hat include Tien Shan snow leopards winged like deer and twisted in the Pazyryk style as they poise over mountain symbols as well as small birds in flight over the Tree of Life. These images are precursors to contemporary shamans’ headdress complex, but also may have come into the Early Nomads’ repertoire from more ancient Siberian female shamans.[81] Two silver bowls (the smaller with an undecipherable inscription), a silver ritual spoon, a second ritual spoon carved from wood along with wooden dastakhans and a silver mirror in a leather case further define the burial as that of a priestess. Even though no skeletal remains are available for testing, with the distinctive iconography and the elaborate ceremonial weapons, it should not be doubted that the burial was that of a young high-status warrior priestess”

The above burials provide close enough models for the burials of elites in Japanese kofun burial mounds, some of which have turned up similar tall crowns with tree-of-life and bird images, as well as large quantities of ornate Chinese or Korean mirrors.

Sources and readings:

Eurasian Warrior Women and Priestesses | Petroglyphic, Funerary, and Textual Evidence for Women of High Status by Jeannine Davis

Hindu Kush: Prototype Vedic/Tibetan deities and Kunlun’s mountain fairy and apsara legends of the ancient Kalash people?

The Goddesses’ Mirror: Visions of the Divine from East and West By David R. Kinsley

THE LANGUAGE OF KILIM OF ANATOLIA by Üzeyir ÖZYURT

Weaving and Binding: Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient Japan” by Michael Como

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