antique textiles handspinning

Fortune Favours The Spinster

Soon I will be working on a project replicating some Roman linen, found in a stone sarcophagus a metre from my childhood garden.

Turns out, a lost Roman road ran along the width of our old orchard and high status burials were found along it. Thereby hangs a fascinating tale but I’ll tell it sometime soon.

Altar to Fortuna Conservatrix

Whilst I work on that, here’s something not irrelevant.

Last summer, making our way back from holiday, we passed through Chesters Fort, Hexham, Northumberland. It was once a Roman cavalry fort and the site is probably the richest Roman English Heritage site we’ve seen.

The altar of Fortuna Conservatrix caught my eye for one reason. In the Fort’s little museum – full of the most interesting exhibits – this altar was billed as showing the goddess Fortuna Conservatrix – a favourite of soldiers – with “a cornucopia“. There are other extant altars to Fortuna, associated with the military, where she is thought to be depicted with “a wheel” and/or “a cornucopia”. I suspect this is a Victorian antiquarian kind of error. This particular altar shows something else entirely.

Fortuna is a goddess that seems to have been associated with protection and fate or chance. Other European fate goddesses – for example the Norns – are usually associated with handspinning, and weaving.

In ‘Sacred Britannia The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain’, Miranda Aldhouse-Green writes:

“…Roman soldiers were careful to propitiate her so that she would protect them on the battlefield. Fortuna is often found in military bathhouses, because the bathers believed they were at particular risk from evil forces when stripped naked…” [66].

Chesters Fort is on the banks of the North Tyne, an obvious bathing spot. A goddess of fate and fortune would be associated with spinning the thread of life – but also maybe invoked when you lacked the “protection” of threads..?

Ancient spindlers were often depicted as practicing “in-hand” spindling, ie: the spindle was held in the hand. But there is also evidence for drop spindling, where the spindle is “dropped” at the end of the yarn in progress – which appears to be the case, here. (I also believe that “in-hand” spinning, whilst common across cultures, was not necessarily the most usual method in Europe and that modern spinners researching the history overstate its use, a little – but that’s a rodeo for another day).

I’d contend that here she has a distaff and spindle, not a cornucopia at all. You heard it here first.

North Tyne river, Chesters Fort. ©Penelope Hemingway, 2021

2 replies on “Fortune Favours The Spinster”

It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? We just happened to see the sign and went out of curiosity, knowing nothing about it and were so impressed. Hope to go again soon. The North Tyne is beautiful.

Liked by 1 person

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