The Beginning

January 17, 2010 at 11:38 am 6 comments

Miniature comb made of bone from a tomb in Mureybet, Syria. 10,000 - 9,500 BC. After J. Cauvin 1994, fig. 5

The Sexual Significance of the Comb

I grew up seventy years ago in a society where standing in front of the mirror and combing one’s hair more than necessary was discouraged. We learnt about the danger of vanity in the story about Snow White, how she – out of vanity, we were told – let the old woman, her disguised stepmother, put a poisoned comb in her hair.  In school we memorized the poem about Lorelei who sits on a high rock above the river Rhine combing her golden hair and bewitching the sailors into sure death. It was written by Heinrich Heine in 1823 and translated by Mark Twain in 1880: “. . . The lovelieth maiden is sitting . . . She combs her golden hair; She combs with a comb that is golden.”

In “Rapunzel” collected by the German Brothers Grimm, the hair is dangerous in a different way.  It tells about an old woman’s jealousy of the budding sexuality of a teenager, symbolized by the long, thick hair – like spun gold. It is a cruel fairy tale.  Considering that Disney is making a movie out of the story, it still fascinates.

A woman’s sexual power is in her hair. The witches had their hair cut. There is also a long tradition of cutting the hair of prostitutes and adulterers  right up to the end of second world war.  Then the women that had had relationships with Germans were paraded through the streets with shaved heads. Our hair and the comb were something sinful.

The goddess Palghat with four combs on her dress

I only learned about the sexual significance of the comb when I studied Greek and Latin.  Kteis in Greek and pecten in Latin signify both comb and vulva. The images that the Warli people in Maharashtra, South India paint at weddings and that have become very popular in the West, explain why.  They often show the goddess Palghat with combs in her hands and often on her gown as well. The aim of matrimony is the continuation of the human species within a social frame and a new generation cannot be born without sexuality.  Did the mourners leave combs in the tombs to remind themselves that sexuality leads to the birth of a new human being?  In that case, what role does sexuality and fertility play in the tomb?

Searching for a way to go …

I started with putting the link between the comb and our hair aside and began looking for another use.  One day a friend, a weaver, came to see me and noticing the drawings of “my” combs she exclaimed: “What an excellent idea with a hole in the comb! I’ll remember that. It will make it so much easier to find the comb when I need it at the loom.”

The comb is a weaving tool. Later I remembered that in the eighth song of Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, the daughter of Pohyola uses a silver comb working at the loom on the rainbow.

When I studied ancient Mediterranean culture in the fifties, we were taught that prehistoric people learnt to weave imitating basketry. They collected the wool that was left on the bushes where the wild sheep had passed in the same way described by the Greek author Apuleius in The Golden Ass.

In this book, Apuleius narrates the adventures of a young man who through his own naive use of magic, is changed into a donkey and stolen by robbers. The well-known story about Amor and Psyche is placed in the very center of the book. Here he describes how the robbers return with with a scared girl. An old woman tries to comfort her by telling her about the beautiful girl Psyche who is married to Amor, son of Aphrodite:  Psyche lives in a castle where Amor visits her in the dark of the night. However, her jealous sisters persuade her that Amor is a monster and giving her a lamp and a knife make her promise to kill him. Psyche lights the lamp and looks at the sleeping  Amor. She immediately falls in love with him, but also inadvertently spills a drop of burning oil on his shoulder. He leaves her and Psyche finds herself all alone in the wilderness. She goes to her mother-in-law who sets her to perform one impossible task after the other.  One of these tasks is that she must fetch wool from a herd of fierce golden sheep that during the day sleep among some thorny bushes. It is a highly dangerous command and it means a certain death to go among them.  However a voice tells Psyche to wait until the evening when the sheep leave for the river.  In this way the girl can pick the wool from the thorns.

The reason this story doesn’t work

It seems to me that we archaeologists have unconsciously been influenced by this story.  When Margarethe Hald, already in 1942, pointed out that burning nettles were used earlier than wool, nobody listened.  When Charles Reed, specialist in animal anatomy, in 1960 warned that one must not blindly believe that sheep were domesticated because of their wool, nobody cared.  However, after Princeton University Press published Elizabeth Barber’s Prehistoric Textiles in 1991, our ignorance cannot be excused any longer. She demonstrates that the wool from wild sheep cannot be spun and that five thousand years lie between the earliest attempts to domesticate the sheep and the small pottery figurines of woolly sheep that begin to appear in the fourth millennium. Spinning and weaving did not begin that late.

The earliest traces of cloth go back to thirty thousand years ago: Olga Soffer has catalogued seventy-eight impressions of cloth from the clay floors and walls in the ruins of the huts in Dolní Vestoniçe and Pavlov. She also found  needles too small for sowing leather, but perfect for cloth.  Some of the earliest small statues of women–from Dolní Vestoniçe, Willendorf in Austria, Lespugue in France and Kostienko and Avdeevo in Ukraine–wear caps, belts and skirts. (The best site to view these early statues is

If wool was not the earliest material, then what material did they use?

With all probability, nettles. According to the Norwegian Annamarta Borgen, the most important textile plant in Scandinavia was the nettle, until they began to import cotton. When the Vikings migrated to Iceland they brought nettles with them. Flax and hemp are difficult to grow, but nettles are really weeds. The nettle was more important than the flax and those of us who have had the fortune to look at a fine, thin cloth of nettles understand why.

The finds from Dolní Vestoniçe are between twenty-eight and thirty thousand years old; the figurines from Willendorf, Lespugue and Ukraine a couple of thousand years younger. The discovery that it was possible to use the fibers inside the nettles must therefore be several thousand years older. We can only guess when and how it happened. It is also unknown in which place the discovery was done–perhaps in central Europe, perhaps in Russia or in South China or by the river Amur in east Siberia. Perhaps the discovery happened in many places at the same time.

It is not obvious that a nettle plant contains bast fibers that can be spun. The procedure is so complicated that its discovery is a miracle. First the nettles must be retted, that is, be left in water between one and two weeks. If they are left for too short a time, the surrounding matter doesn’t loosen, if they are left for too long, they rot. Then the nettles are dried and broken up, beaten and heckled, that is, combed to remove the last fragments. At last, the blond bast fibers can be combed like hair.

The discovery that the nettles contain bast fibers that can be twisted and spun, was a true hierophany. It widened our consciousness not only with new knowledge but also with new symbolic images.


Entry filed under: Combs, Dolni Vestonice, Fantasy, Myth, Nettles, Symbols, Weaving, Wool.

The Goddess Combs Her Flaxen Hair of Nettles. The Problem The Transformation Power of the Nettles

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anna-Lena Bager  |  January 17, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    This is all very interesting and exciting! After reading this, I look with new eyes on combs and nettles. As I understand it, you have seen cloth woven from nettles?

    • 2. krpfll  |  January 17, 2010 at 3:51 pm

      Yes, I have. Like linen, but finer, softer and with more natural shine in it.

  • 3. Laila Haglund  |  January 19, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Dear Kristina,
    I believe that stinging nettles have long been used as a valuable vegetable. I grew up in northern Sweden eating nettle soup in early Spring, long before other greens were available. We put on gloves and picked off the leaves before cooking them. Without gloves it would have been nicer to put the whole plant in to boil and pull off the leaves when cooked and soft. That would leave the stalks softer and probably more obviously containing fibres. Worth a try?

    On another tack: in Eskimo mythology the schaman crawls under a big animal pelt at the bottom of the sea to reach the Old Woman of the Sea, To gain her favour and the possible reward of rich harvests of fish for his people, he has to offer to comb the lice out of her hair. She cannot easily do it herself as she has only one hand.

    • 4. krpfll  |  January 19, 2010 at 8:01 pm

      Dearest Laila,
      Yes, yes! and muffins with nettles! very good. Yes, I think I’ll try boiling the whole plant and look if it is possible to get to the fibers that way. However, the extraction of fibers for making ropes from several kinds of bushes and hemp may have been done very much earlier.
      In my version of the Inuit tale, the goddess has no hands and when she needs the shaman she keeps the seals away until he has combed her hair.
      Thanks a lot!

  • 5. Kerstin Holmer  |  May 25, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Dear Kristina I am very interested in wool sheep spinning and and it was fascinating reading all this starting with Medusa – I wonder what was the wild sheep alike? I think you could spin nearly all type of animal hair – some years ago I heard of a girl starting to use nettles again – …thanks for the postcard with this fascinating blog

    • 6. krpfll  |  May 26, 2010 at 6:37 am

      Dear Kerstin, according to Elizabeth Barber, Prehistoric Textiles, Princeton U Press 1991, wild sheep were only domesticated by or before 7 000 BC. The domesticated sheep belonged to the ovis orientalis, wild Persian Red sheep with much kemp and little wool. After having tried she found that the winter coat of the kempier type of wild sheep is virtually unspinnable. The earliest wooly sheep don’t appear until around 5 000 BC.
      There have been a few samples of spun human hair from Nahal Hemar (Israel?) and Catal Hüyük in the late 7th millennium.
      Thanks for your interest!
      I’m into Medusa now — in the earliest image she is a centaur with the human part standing like the oldest cult statues… where does that lead????


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