Superstitions about the
Spindle in Russian Karelia

mariap.jpg (34970 bytes) Maria Petrovna has more than 70 years of expericene of handling the spindle. She lives in the famous open air museum Kizhi in Karelia in a traditional Russian timber house. Photo: Tomas Johansson, Oct. 1999.


The Karelian ethnologist Svetlana Zhulnickova gave this lecture 1999 when she was studying traditional techniques at Bäckedals folkhögskola in Sweden. Svetlana lives in Petrozavodsk in Russian Karelia.

There are a lot of fairy-tales in the world telling about the girl who spins and pricks herself with a spindle.

One Karelian fairy-tale tells that in Winter one girl sitting and spinning near the well cuts herself with a spindle then she washes her hands out of blood and drops the spindle into the water. She jumps into the well and gets to another reality. It can seem to be nonsense. It is impossible to cut oneself with a spindle. It means that it is not an usual accident but a symbolic action. The fairy-tale develops from the myth, so any detail has the particular meaning.

I wondered if some customs and superstitions connected with a spindle were kept up to our time. The things I am going to talk about are the result of two ethnological expeditions in Karelia.

There are some superstitious prohibitions that are connected with a spindle. For example, it is not allowed to present a spindle or to lend it to somebody even for a while. It could lead to death of cattle or misfortune. It is forbidden for children to play with a broken spindle. People hide such a spindle or burn it in the stove. The broken spindle as well as the broken mirror means that somebody in this family will die. Even nowadays some old women think that if you prick yourself with a spindle you can get blood poisoning and then die.

There is a special celebration in some villages, which is called Varvara's Day (Varvara is a Saint in Orthodox Church) when you should hide all the spindles, because "Varvara was killed with a spindle." I f you do not do it, snakes will crawl into your house, as it is believed. Besides, you should hide all the spindles on the 6th of May, the day when people drive a heard (cattle) to the forest for the first time, in order not to meet snakes in the forest.

There are a lot of days when no one is allowed to spin (on Sundays, 13 days after Christmas and so on). No one is allowed to spin on the day when Maria (God's mother), as people believe, got to know about her pregnancy (the 7th of April). That is done to prevent the accident of twisting the navel-string in her body.

When in the past girls and boys gathered together on the parties, girls took their spindles with them. A girl span and a boy sat on her knees and could pay attention to her, and moreover - to kiss her. There was a special game with a spindle on this kind of parties when the boy tried to catch a spindle like a fish.

If the girl did not attend such parties she had almost no chances to get married just because nobody saw her making the thread. It was connected with the fact that the thread always symbolised Life. Perhaps you know about the three Goddesses of destiny in Greek mythology: the first one spins the thread of life for every person, the second one measures it and the third one cuts the thread and that means the death of a human being. The spindle is like the axis of the universe, its lower end points at the underworld - the world of the dead, and its top points at the upper world - the world of the Holiness and spirits.

Now we understand why the girl in the fairy-tale pricked with a spindle fall asleep forever. One Karelian fairy-tale tells about a witch that turns a girl into the bird and then one hero breaks a spindle, throws it away over his shoulder and the bird turns into the girl again. The meaning of this action is breaking boarder between our reality and another reality.

There is also a custom in Karelia when a baby reaches the age of 6 months the mother makes a special ritual "banya" (sauna) for him. When people prepare the sauna for the baby they put a spindle into the stove together with firewood, that is because 6 month is the age when baby usually gets the first tooth, and that means own soul.

The spindle is usually associated with a girl. The parents wanted to have a daughter they used to put a spindle in the bed under the mattress.

If a girl didn't like a boy who chased her she put a spindle at the threshold by the door to prevent the unpleasant visit. The girl usually took a spindle into the new house after her marriage. Before marriage the future mother-in-low visited the girl to look at her spinning.

The word "spindle" in the old Russian language meant "the thing that constantly turns". It was like a symbol of the time and eternity, and the word "day" meant "that was woven".

These few examples are only about spinning but I can talk about customs connected with other techniques as well. But nevertheless they prove that any technology in the past was not only a craft, but it was a sphere of sacred magic knowledge at the same time.

Children in the prehistoric time learned handcrafts during a special ritual period (the rite of initiation), simultaneously studying magic songs, myths and secret knowledge.

Making any article in a magic way our ancestors programmed their happy future and prevented themselves from misfortune.

All this was in the past, but what is now? Aren't we losing anything?

Svetlana Zhulnickova

Start page

Institutet för Forntida Teknik / 1999-12-17