For #FolkloreThursday although this doesn’t fit in with this week’s watery theme. Maybe it does a little, though. As spinners know, flax has to be wet to be spun effectively… Archaeologists often recognise a characteristic groove in the teeth of flax spinners’ skulls.
Here’s a small extract from my forthcoming book, ‘Their Darkest Materials’. The book is about material culture – not just knitting but all types of textile, and we’ll explore the dark side of textile history in what I like to think of as a kind of ‘Horrible Histories’ for grown ups. This comes from a chapter called ‘The Bewitched Spinning Wheel & Other Tales’ and examines folklore and textile-related ghost stories. I cover some super obscure stuff, but this section is about a fairly well known folktale… Rumpelstiltskin and Tom Tit Tot are classified as ‘The Name of the Supernatural Helper’ stories and appear amongst a tiny handful of stories academics have identified as the very oldest known stories told, possibly dating as far back as 6000 years.
Stories have been shared across cultures – vertically, down the generations and horizontally, via trade and other links. And making yarn and cloth was such a fundamental human activity that it may be inevitable that some of the oldest of all folktales, concern these activities.
When we think of folklore and spinning, we think of the story of Rumpelstiltskin, collected by the Grimm brothers in their 1812 edition of ‘Children’s and Household Tales’. There are several spinning tales in the Grimm brothers’ work, including ‘The Three Spinning Women’ which has an English variant. But there was also an English variant of Rumpelstiltskin – Tom Tit Tot, which I remember from my own childhood fondly, as my father bought me ‘Folk-Tales of England’ by Katharine M. Briggs and Ruth L. Tongue, which I re-read over and over, as a child. I liked the unsettling eeriness of the English folk tales. ‘Tom Tit Tot’ was classified as a ‘Tale of Wonder’ and it runs something like this…
Once upon a time a woman made five pies and left them to cool. Her daughter ate them all. When she found out, the woman sat outside the door on her spinning wheel, spinning flax, and singing to herself that her daughter ate all the pies (Vide the football song, “Who ate all the pies?” but probably not its origin!):
“‘My daughter have ate five, five pies today.
My daughter have ate five, five pies today.’”
The King was walking past and asked her what she just sang. Too ashamed to admit the truth, she sang:
‘My daughter have spun five, five skeins today.
My daughter have spin five, five skeins today!’”
The King was so impressed, he said he’d marry her daughter – so long as at the end of a twelvemonth, she spun five skeins of flax a day. If she didn’t – off with her head.
The girl married the King and had a great time for eleven months. On the first day of the twelfth month, he showed her a secret room in the palace, that had just a spinning wheel and a chair in it – and instructed her to spin her five skeins of flax.
The only problem was – the girl didn’t even know how to spin. She sat and cried. Then there was a knock at the door and there was an imp. It asked her why she was crying and when she explained, it said if she came to the window every evening with the flax for the next day, it would spin 5 skeins for her. It said it would take her for its wife as payment – unless she guessed its name correctly. It would give her three guesses each day for the whole month. If, by the end of four weeks, she hadn’t guessed its name – it would come to claim her.
Every night it kept its word. It appeared at the window and she handed it the flax, the imp handed her the spun skeins. And every night she guessed its name – incorrectly.
As the end of the month approached, the woman was panicking. She thought of increasingly ridiculous names, and every time she guessed, she was wrong and the imp reminded her she would be his, very soon, if she didn’t guess correctly.
Every day the King came to collect the skeins andhe’d tell the woman he wasn’t going to chop her head off that day, as he had the five skeins. Then he’d leave. But on the final evening, the night before the month was up, the King stayed to eat his dinner with her, and told her about a weird thing he’d seen whilst out hunting. He’d seen an imp at a spinning wheel in the forest, twirling its tail round as it spun at the speed of lightning and, he said, as it spun, it sang:
“‘Nimmy, nimmy not,
My name’s Tom Tit Tot!’”
Next morning, the imp came for its flax and that evening it sat on the windowsill as it passed her the skeins, its tail whipping about, a huge malicious grin on its face.
She asked it if its name was Soloman. It said no. And hopped into the room.
She asked it its name was Zebedee? It said no, and slithered closer, its breath on her neck.
Finally, she sang:
“‘Nimmy, nimmy not,
Your name’s Tom Tit Tot!’”
It shrieked, and the repulsive thing flew away into the night, never to be seen again.
I’m not sure whether the imp wasn’t preferable to the King, with his unreasonable spinning demands and menacing death threats.