27 November 2006

weaver, weaving, wife: Greek? victorian? Manusamhita?

ah metaphors. ah etymologies. how I love thee. let me trace for you (really for me to get this clearer in my head) the path of my afternoon's research:

I'm preparing a talk on spinning for the department. this involves a wee bit of panic and some cursing of myself in June when December seemed so far away, the autumn so ripe with research time and possibilities. ha ha ha.

and so I am reading and thinking intensively. this is good. I sat down to read Chris Bayly's article on 'The origins of swadeshi' in Arjun Appadurai's book The Social Life of Things. Good information, interesting, and I hadn't quite developed my critique of the article as a whole when:
According to the Laws of Manu, unmarried girls were the spinners ('spinsters'), whereas after marriage they graduated to weavers (becoming 'wives'). (293)
intriguing. no citation. I google the Laws of Manu, now out of copyright after a few millennia. I search through it for 'wife' 'weaver' 'unmarried' 'girl' 'spinster' 'spin' and a few other terms. nothing. I google the relevant terms in google books and come up with, you guessed it, Bayly's essay.

so, to the etymology: where does wife come from? I go to my handy on-line sanskrit dictionary, look up wife. not really sounding like weaver nor related, meaning-wise, to weaver. hm. wife comes from the old English wif. this is sometimes connected to weaver, but only anecdotally (read: in blogposts I found when googling in hour 2 of this ordeal). then I hit on the motherlode: late nineteenth century texts waxing lyrical about the role of women! It seems that John Ruskin wrote this awesome dialogue-based text (Ethics of the Dust--note to self: must write book in dialogue form at some point, with myself as 'Lecturer') about women as weavers, claiming an Anglo-Saxon etymology for the connection, and advising girls that their good-wife status will be measured by their ability as seamstresses and weavers. and this then led me to (of course) the Greeks! Ruskin was obsessed with the weaving connections--good wife/bad wife--in Aeschylus and others, where the positive force of the weaver is contrasted to the arachnid-based nefarious web-spinner. In some discussions of this, I found the weaver-wife thing repeated.

it is unclear from this whether the weaver-wife connection was something that Ruskin/19th century classicists came up with that doesn't in fact relate to etymology at all or whether it really is in the greek (help here?). there's also the anglo-saxon 'peace-weaver' role for women, in which a woman would be wed across enemy lines in order to bridge a political disagreement. but in many of the sites I saw describing peace-weavers, they were distinct from 'wives' more broadly. some anglo-saxon history sites made the connection between weaver and wife, but with no citations I could find, and thus it would be just as likely their source was our dear Ruskin.

So: thoughts? wife-weaver? Greek connection? certainly none of my digging supported the Laws of Manu contention. I'm down the rabbit hole, and I've forgotten now why this is important. gender? India? spinsters? spinning? hm.


Anonymous said...

I'm not clear on the topic of your lecture:

(a) spinning, i.e., Ken Mehlman did a good job spinning the election results?
(b) spinning, i.e., one part of the weaving process?
(c) spinning, i.e., a group exercise class involving music and stationary exercise bikes?
(d) spinning, i.e., the role of one of the three Fates?

Transient Gadfly said...

to be honest, i thought it was (c) too when i first read your post. not that that really makes sense.

anyway, i researched some of this for class last year when i was teaching The Odyssey and an of-sorts spin-off of The Odyssey about penelope. much is made of Penelope (quintessential wife) weaving and then secretly unweaving the shroud for odysseus' father all in an effort to be more faithful and wifely while presenting her suitors with an excuse suitably feminine, embodying a role somewhere between the married woman she considers herself to be and the single woman the suitors regard her as. there is also something in there about weaving being a communal female activity and so at once safe and subversive. i guess you don't get much more ancient and greek than the Odyssey. but it seems to me some of what i read links the weaving/wife connection to fairy tales and very old oral tradition -- so many fairy tales from so many cultures have weavers, weaving, and weaving plot devices at their center, and even when the story becomes unrecognizeable, it often still retains these weaving elements. unforunately, all of this is at school whereas today i am home, (theoretically) grading, but i will send you whatever i can find in the morning.

René said...

The "weaver" -> "wife" thing is also mentioned in the book "The Language Instinct" by Stephen Pinker.