The Transformation Power of the Nettles

January 20, 2010 at 11:35 am Leave a comment


Twenty years ago, a student of mine showed me some samples of different bast fibers, among which were nettles, hemp and flax. They were all whitish in color; hemp was like thick strands, the flax felt like baby hair, and the nettle like the softest, finest baby down. The dead nettle contains not only the useful fibers but blond, soft hair.

We need to remember that thirty thousand years ago everybody was much darker than today and had black hair. I still remember my first year in elementary school in Sweden. We were all more or less blond, everybody except Inga who had olive brown skin and black hair. She was the most beautiful girl we had ever known and we all wanted to touch her hair. The situation in Italy was similar when my blond daughter was small. There everybody admired her blond hair. The Neapolitan porters refused payment just for the honor of carrying her.

The blond baby hair inside the dead nettle may have given birth to the same feeling of wonder. Instead of being slimy and dead, the plant had been transformed into blond soft hair.  The transformation doesn’t answer the question why pain and death exist, but instead it gives us an analogy: in the same way as death transforms the nettle into blond baby hair, that can be combed, twisted, spun and woven, death is a new beginning. New words, myths and rituals grew up around this new symbol.

Stories and folktales often preserve some traces of old symbols.  In this Flemish folktale, which Arthur Lang published 1890 in the The Red Fairy Book, hemp and flax are neutral materials, but to spin a shroud out of nettles means death.

Once upon a time, a cruel count saw a beautiful girl spinning hemp. He offers her a place in the castle as a lady-in-waiting to the countess. The girl, however, has no intention to leave her beloved. The count returns and she still refuses. Then, one day when she is spinning flax for her bridal shift, the count angrily points at the tall nettles and tells her that she will only marry her beloved when she has finished both her bridal shift and his shroud out of the nettles. She only can marry when the count dies.
The girl is doubtful, but an old woman tells her to try. She finishes the bridal shift and begins on the shroud and the count falls ill. Suspecting the girl he sends his soldiers to stop her by throwing her in the river, tying her hands, uprooting the nettles, braking the wheel of the spindle. All to no avail. At last the countess takes pity on her husband and goes to the girl asking her to stop her spinning. Out of love for the countess, the girl obeys. She obeys even when her beloved tires and leaves her. Then the count falls ill. He is in severe pain, longs for death, but knows he cannot. In the end he sends for the girl and asks her to sit by his bed and spin and when she has finished the shroud, he dies and the girl marries.

Let me finish this chapter with a summary of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Wild Swans”, where nettles play a prominent role and will provide a bridge into my next chapter.  Andersen may have listened to the story as a child or perhaps he was inspired by “The Six Swans” collected by the Grimm brothers, or by other versions that circulated in Norway and Ireland. There is a great difference, however, in Andersen’s tale. The other versions read like ethnological reports and without the voice and mimicry of the storyteller they remain words without life. Great poets like Homer and Andersen did not copy the stories they heard, they transformed them into literature. It is impossible to sum up “The Wild Swans” and do justice to the text, I only hope the reader will take the opportunity to read the full, original story.

Once upon a time a royal couple has eleven sons and one daughter. The queen dies and the new stepmother hates the children. She transforms the boys into swans and sends the girl to be a servant in a farmhouse. The girl, Elisa, does not know what has happened to her brothers, but she always thinks of them. When she is fifteen years old, the king sends for her. In the castle, the jealous stepmother rubs Elisa with walnut juice making her dark and ugly. The same night the girl runs away from the castle. She flees through the forest and comes to the sea where she beholds eleven swans. The next evening the birds return and suddenly they transform into her brothers.

The swans must leave for a country far away on the other side of the sea and they decide to take Elisa with them. In this new country Elisa has a dream telling her how she can save her brothers. She must collect nettles, but only those growing around the cave she lives in and those in the graveyards. She must prepare the nettles, spin the fibers into thread and weave the thread into cloth and then sew eleven shirts with long sleeves. When the shirts are all ready, she must throw them over the swans. To add an extra challenge to the task, during all this time she may not utter a word.

Elisa immediately begins to work, but soon the young king finds her in the cave, falls in love with her and brings her to his castle to marry her. Elisa doesn’t say a word. She only spins, weaves and sews–until one day she finishes her supply of nettles. She must go to the graveyard and pick more, but here the archbishop sees her. He is very suspicious of her and seeing her in the graveyard at night only deepens his belief that she is a witch. Slowly he convinces the king. Elisa is sentenced to die by fire.  She has ten shirts ready and during the last day in the dungeon she desperately works on the eleventh. Even on the executioner’s cart she works.  A crowd tries to snatch the shirts away from her, but eleven white swans suddenly descend on the cart. When the executioner seizes her arm, she throws the shirts over the swans and eleven princes appear, the youngest one with a wing instead of one arm.  Elisa is saved.

When we look at a nettle, we must look at two images at the same time: the nettle that burns our fingers when we touch it, and the bast fibers glittering inside the rotten, broken stem.  The fibers that look like a baby’s blond hair just waiting for us to comb them, twist them, spin and weave them into a shining cloth, became a symbolic image of transformation.


Entry filed under: Folktales, Nettles, Symbols, Weaving.

The Beginning Gaia’s Hair, part I

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