Weaving: Abiding in the Shadows

Weaving depicted on an ancient Greek urn.

Weaving depicted on an ancient Greek urn.

In the panoramic history of the arts and crafts from the Western point of view, weaving abides in the shadows, the place of textiles is taken for granted, indistinctly merged with the other so-called minor arts. This is a critical bias of our own time, and not necessarily one shared even by our own forefathers if we are prepared to go back far enough--to the origins of European thought, the way in which weaving fits into the cosmic scheme of things is indicated quite clearly in the mythological and linguistic evidence provided by Richard Broxton Onians in his remarkable book that carries the following full title:

New Interpretations of Greek, Roman and kindred evidence
also of some basic Jewish and Christian beliefs
(Cambridge, at the University Press, 1954)

Throughout the text, Onians illustrates the deep importance of the idea of weaving connected with fate. The enduring network of associations is preserved in  phrases of the common language in which fate or destiny is variously spun, bound or woven--phrases not newly invented for the American English language, but which come down to us from archaic Greek, at least.

On the islands of the Indonesian archipelago the status of weaving within ascale of culturally valued activities is most elevated. Wherever the most ancient forms of weaving--warp ikat techniques--have survived, the art and craft of spinning, dyeing and weaving are accorded paramount respect among all of the visual arts. Weaving is regarded as the principal art form, comparable to calligraphy in Islamic culture, painting in 19th century Europe, TV today.

The contemplation of weaving may be instructive for us as students of the very early stages in the emer­gence of architecture. What we are talking about is the time in which human beings began to come out of the cave. The Greeks, who came considerably later, call the character Prometheus, whose name means "forethought," a Titan or giant who stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. His other side must be Polyphemus ("Far-seeing") the cave dwelling giant antagonist of Odysseus, whose single eye was put out by an accurate thrust of the firebrand. The culture-bringer bears fire, which enables man to triumph over darkness and cold--night and the Pleistocene sequence of ice ages. Historians of early man know the first fire weilder as Sinanthropus pekinensis, so called from a site in the upper cave at Choukoutien, near Peking or Beijing; he was of a type called Pithecanthropus erectus, and closely related to our presumed ancestors whose bones and traces have been found in Java and elsewhere. Like the malevalent mythical Greek giant, "Peking Man" not only kindled fire, but also practiced cannibalism. Odysseus makes a noteworthy escape from the wrath of the blinded Cyclops by hanging onto the fleece of his sheep (underneath). We are not told that Polyphemus was a weaver, although the race of Cyclops were famed for their skill in stone masonry. The term "Cyclopean masonry" is still applied to archaic walls, frequently constructed of very large stones and without mortar.

It is clear that when human beings began to build the first structures that may be considered architecture, they did not instantly manifest the talents of Cyclopean craft. From the evidence and argument of Richard S. Leakey (Origins) some sort of windbreak shelter was erected by our ancestors half a million year old much, much earlier than Sinanthropus pekinensis of firewand and skull cup. Alongside the shores of what is now called Lake Turkana, formerly Lake Rudolf, long episodes in more northerly caves, before that, some two and a half million years ago, traces of proto-architectural activity have been identified. Some stones are piled upon others; and apparently thorn bushes provided protection against the weather or predatory beasts or both. We know a bit more--namely that crude stone tools were used and that meat was shared. We cannot say that some full-blown practice of architecture already was underway. But for an idea of the structure, how it might have worked and what it might have looked like, we have only to consider the examples of a surviving tradition of construction with similar materials among the bushmen of South Africa. There are certain obvious, optimum ways in which to erect a structure--call it architectural: big enough for people, sturdy enough to stand up in inclement weather, helping to keep one dry and warm--given the materials of loose stones, brush, and perhaps animal skins. Thongs, cords or some kind of twined, braided grass or vine becomes the most useful invention. Who knows when it was made? The earliest hint is from the fossilized fragment found in Lascaux, but the origins of the idea of rope, of course might be very much older indeed. We do know that structures quite like those still built by the bushman tribes, and probably of the same general type as indicated by Leakey's finds, were erected in the south of France around 400,000 years ago (Terra Amata, Origins).

Even if cords or lashings were not used, what we have here manifest is some sophisticated degree of understanding of the principles of interlace: the making of a composite thing from elements in such a way that it will stay together. The other really old example of architecture-‑the tents weighted down by mammoth skulls in southern Russia-‑dealt with similar structural considerations: how to keep it up.

Firmness is the name conventionally accorded to the abstract architectural quality referring to the ability of a structure to stand up. The traditional derivation is from Vitruvius--the Roman writer whose Ten Books of Architecture  provides a rare surviving example of ancient written documentation explicitly referring to the fine arts. Three interrelated quali­ties, "commodity, firmness and delight," are expressed by the successful work of architecture, So hold the Vitruvian epigone: architecture must be useful in the affairs of human beings; it must actually stand up or provide some other real, physically manifest dis­tinction between formal spaces in an environment; and genuine architecture must delight the esthetic sensibilities.

The collapse of the structure built of heavy logs, which crushes the sacrificial couple prior to their being cooked and eaten by their fellow celebrants among the Marind Anim in Western New Guinea, may be understood as a profound dramatization of an oft-repeated, arche­typally cataclysmic event for an internal psychic event—one, as it were, verily built into the plot structure of the evolution of human consciousness. In fact, this is the way the internal jump in level of consciousness is represented in the image of the Tower Struck By Lightning, as the name is called of the Major Arcanum numbered XVI in the traditional esoteric teaching system known as Tarot.

This Tower is a house of cards, false subjective notions of reality, the tumbling of which is func­tionally necessary--so far as practical people know from real experience, passed on by direct oral teaching tradition by ordinary human beings over a period of perhaps several thousands of years--in order that the divine essence within each human being may be revealed, as in the form, or gleam, of a star. The wisdom of the teaching of the Tarot lies at least in part in the indications that this psychic event, to be realized in its fullest and most profound of levels and with the least threat or danger to the well-being of the organism, has its place in a well-defined, orderly sequence. We are admonished of the frivolity and danger of attempting to identify personally with the energies of archetypes, nevertheless, our deepest understanding of the teachings of systems such as the Tarot require that we embody the qualities or energies symbolically represented on the cards. This is possible when we work with true archetypes--then the merely personal, inciden­tally historical, chance, accidental, superficial and inessential elements and levels are stripped off, or better, blasted asunder as with a bolt of lightning. If we ask what this might mean in the lifetime of any ordinary human being, the obvious physiological analogs are with orgasmic energy--the question seeming to be whether this flows outward, materially manifested as ejaculation, "clockwise" as we conventionally imagine the flow of real time, or whether this energy is to be imagined to be somehow reversed in its internal flow, as in the traditions of alchemy, Kundalini yoga, Tantric meditation, Sufi exercises, the Brahmachari, the Secret of the Golden Flower, and in the symbolic sense of a counter-clockwise rotation. Historically this issue is thought to have a great deal of bearing upon our understanding of the experience of death.

As a matter of life and death it is understandable that strong positions are taken with respect to mapping the truth functions of the symbol: clockwise or counterclockwise? Flowing in time, in the direction of entropy, or as it were reversing the flow of time, disentropic; death or life, imaginary or real? Subtle issues to be sure, fraught with much misunderstanding in the disputations of men. This idea of the directionality of time is ex­plored in a book by J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (Faber paper edition, 1958). Mathematical formulations of the necessary qualities of the distinction are pre­sented by G. Spencer Brown, Laws of Form, (Julian Press, New York, 1972). We note the recurrence of the theme is masterpieces of literature and thought, exemplii gratia, James Joyce's "riverrun" in Finnegans Wake, Dante's technically accurate rendering of the idea of eternity, and the rigorously correct symbolic formulation of "when the time came for time to begin" in the Divine Names of Dionysus the Areopagite.

The flow of time is frequently taken to be like a river, or again, like the single continuous warp thread of the most traditional weaving among the Ancient Peoples. This idea is strongly supported by the identification of the aion, symbolically with the warp thread of weaving and the duration of a life­time, but originally as the life-stuff itself, the vital watery essence taken to be the cerebraospinal fluid. (Onians, "The Weaving of Fate," Origins of European Thought, p. 349 ff.)

That aspect of time perceived as duration is typically represented by the image of a tree. The tree is accorded attributes of kingship, or supremacy among the members of the plant kingdom. The possibly gratuituous analogy is with ourselves, human beings as supreme among members of the animal kingdom. If we consider only the categories of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, we should probably have to recommend the diamond as supreme among stones, where hardness--relative density perhaps in an even more deeeply generalized sense--is the desideratum. Its hardness and toughness as well as certain light-transmitting properties made jade the favorite of emperors in the Orient- until the trade of diamond-cutting saw and drill technology brought by Alexander the "Twin-Horned" as he is called across Central Asia, or "the Great" as he is known in the grecophiliac usage of the West, astounded the wise men of the East by cutting right through their jade stone.

When Odysseus and his men are strangers, guests of honor in the cave of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, they were not accorded the hospitality due civilized men. The cannibal giant's only thanks to Odysseus for having brought him wine--one of the fruits of the vineyard, in which the wild tendencies of the vine have been carefully pruned and nourished in the yard is an intense activity of farming. The making of wine is one of the secrets of technology concomitant with organized civil­ized life, life within the walls, so to speak, subject to instinct being modified by the laws of men--for having brought this good wine and for having made him drunk, he, Polyphemus the giant, the barbarian who lived out­side the walls, as a wild man, who did not even respect the most basic rules of hospitality, namely that you do not murder, kill, slaughter or sacrifice your guest, much less eat him and his friends; this Cyclops, because he liked Odysseus, because he was his friend who brought him the good wine, he--Polyphemus--would eat Odysseus last.

And so Odysseus, the wily wanderer, wiggles his way out of the cave twisting himself into the fleece on the underside of one of the giant's sheep, after having taught the barbarian a lesson about hospitality, putting out his eye with a firebrand like a bolt of lightning. At the other end of the story, Odysseus has to disguise himself as a wayfaring stranger to see what hospitality he would receive there, as Penelope wove at her loom, relating to the sheep, anyway, in a more civilized manner.

Kurt von Meier