Poesy as weaving

In Indo-Iranian, Greek, Celtic, and Germanic we find poetic composition described in terms of weaving.34 From the Rigveda we may quote:

asm! id u gnis cid devapatnir Indraya arkam ahihatya uvuh.

For him, for Indra, the women, the wives of the gods, have woven a song at his killing of the dragon. (1. 61. 8)

tatam me apas tad u tayate punah.

My work (previously) stretched out (sc. as on a loom) is being stretched out again. (1. 110. 1)

mil tantus' chedi vayato dhiyam me.

Let the thread not break as I weave my poem. (2. 28. 5)

vis'va matir a tatane tuvayi.

All my mindings/songs (matis, root *men) I have stretched out for thee. (7. 29. 3)

anulbanam vayata joguvam apah.

Weave ye the singers' work without a knot! (10. 53. 6)

32 Durante (1960), 234 f. ~ (1976), 170 f.; Watkins (1963), 214 = (1994), 369; (1995), 117; E. Hamp in Papers from the Thirteenth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society (1977), 148.

33 Campanile (1977), 37; Watkins (1994), 677 f.; (1995), 75 f.

34 Cf. T. Aufrecht, ZVS 4 (1855), 280; Pictet (1863), 481 f.; Schmitt (1967), 298-301; Durante (1960), 238-44 ~ (1976), 173-9 (the most thorough study); H. Wagner, ZCP 31 (1970), 50-4; Campanile (1977), 36 f.; John Scheid-Jesper Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric (Cambridge, Mass. 1996), 111-55; Nunlist (1998), 110-18.

In Avestan the verb vaf, by origin 'weave', has come to mean 'sing of, hymn'. Thus Zarathushtra sings ys va Asa ufyani manasca vohu apaourvlm, 'I who will hymn You, Truth, and Good Thought as never before' (Y. 28. 3); yavat a da, Mazda, staomO ufyaca, 'insofar as I praise and hymn Thee, Wise One' (43. 8).

In Greek the metaphor is familiar. v^aivo 'weave' (from the same root as the Avestan verb) and the semantically close nXeKo 'plait' are repeatedly used by Pindar and Bacchylides with objects such as 'songs' or 'words', for example:

y avv XapireGGi adv^^vois v^avas v^vov ano Zadeas vaaov ^evos v^erepav is kXvtciv ne^nei voXtv.

Having woven a song with the deep-girdled Graces, from his god-blest island your friend sends it to your celebrated city. (Bacchyl. 5. 9)

In the following pages it will become increasingly apparent that these two fifth-century exponents of the Dorian tradition of choral song were heirs to a repertory of Indo-European or at least Graeco-Aryan imagery that is hardly visible in the Ionian epic and Lesbian lyric traditions. However, in the present case we can cite Sappho's reference (fr. 188) to Eros as a plaiter of tales, [MvdonXoKos.35

In two or three places, as in the above example from Bacchylides, v^aivo appears in association with the noun vpvos, perhaps with a sense of word-play, as if vpvos were derived from the root. Scholars used to take this etymology seriously, but it is nowadays rejected on phonological grounds. We have already adverted to two other etymologies of this interesting word.

From Irish Enrico Campanile adduced an example from the early text Amrae Choluimb Chille (§52 Stokes): faig ferb fithir 'the master wove words'. At a much later date a member of a hereditary poetic family attached to the O'Neills could write:

Not spinning the threads of wisdom nor tracing our branching peoples nor weaving a graceful verse .. . Men of base trade look down on our woven rhetorical songs.36

35 For v^aivo cf. further Pind. Nem. 4. 44, fr. 179; Bacchyl. 1. 4?, 19. 8; PMG 955?; CEG 660. 4 (fourth century); Call. fr. 26. 5; for nXeKo, Pind. Ol. 6. 86, Pyth. 12. 8, Nem. 4. 94, Pae. 3. 12; PMG 917b. 3; Critias fr. 1. 1 Diels-Kranz.

36 Fear Flatha 0 Gnimh (early seventeenth century) in Thomas Kinsella, The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (Oxford 1986), 164 f.

In Welsh gweu 'weave' was often used of poetic composition.37 The Old English poet Cynewulf writes in the epilogue to his Elene (1237) pus ic frod and fus .. . wordcrœft wœf and wundrum lœs, 'Thus I, old and ready to go, wove word-craft and gleaned wonders'. Snorri Sturluson quotes a Norse skald's verse in praise of Earl Skûli Bârôarson: 'Skûli was most outstanding . .. The eulogy shall not be delayed; I am putting together a many-stranded encomium (mœrd fiolsnœrda) for the generous prince.'38

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