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p565 Fusus

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p565 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

FUSUS (ἄτρακτος), the spindle, was always, when in use, accompanied by the distaff (colus, ἠλακάτη), as an indisputable part of the same apparatus (Ov. Met. IV.220‑229). The wool, flax, or other material, having been prepared for spinning, and having sometimes been dyed (ἰοδνεφὲς εἶρος ἔχουσα, Hom. Od. IV.135), was rolled into a ball (τολύπη, glomus, Hor. Epist. I.13.14; Ov. Met. VI.19), which was, however, sufficiently loose to allow the fibres to be easily drawn out by the hand of the spinner. The upper part of the distaff was then inserted into this mass of flax or wool (colus comta, (Plin. H. N. VIII.74),º and the lower part was held in the left hand under the left arm in such a position as was most convenient for conducting the operation. The fibres were drawn out, and at the same time spirally twisted, chiefly by the use of the fore-finger and thumb of the right hand (δακτύλοις ἕλισσε, Eurip. Orest. 1414; pollice docto, Claud, de Prob. Cons. 177); and the thread (filum, stamen, νήμα) so produced was wound upon the spindle until the quantity was as great as it would carry.


[image ALT: An engraving of a woman, wearing Greek or Roman draperies, seated on a stool and using a distaff and spindle.]

The spindle was a stick, 10 or 12 inches long, having at the top a slit or catch (dens, ἄγκιστρον) in which the thread was fixed, so that the weight of the spindle might continually carry down the thread as it was formed. Its lower extremity was inserted into a small wheel called the whorl (vorticellum), made of wood, stone, or metal (see woodcut), the use of which was to keep the spindle more steady and to promote its rotation; for the spinner, who was commonly a female, every now and then twirled round the spindle with her right hand (Herod. V.12; Ov. Met. VI.22), so as to twist the thread still more completely; and whenever, by its continual prolongation, it let down the spindle to the ground, she took it out of the slit, wound it upon the spindle, and, having replaced it in the slit, drew out and twisted another length. All these circumstances are mentioned in detail by Catullus (lxiv.305‑319). The accompanying woodcut is taken from a series of bas-reliefs representing the arts of Minerva upon a frieze of the Forum Palladium at Rome. It shows the operation of spinning, at the moment when the woman has drawn out a sufficient length of yarn to twist it by whirling the spindle with her right thumb and fore-finger, and previously to the act of taking it out of the slit to wind it upon the bobbin (πήνιον) already formed.

The distaff was about three times the length of the spindle, strong and thick in proportion, commonly either a stick or a reed, with an expansion near the top for holding the ball. It was sometimes of richer materials and ornamented. Theocritus has left a poem (Idyll. xxviii) written on sending an ivory distaff to the wife of a friend. Golden spindles were sent as presents to ladies of high rank (Hom. Od. IV.131; Herod. IV.162); and a golden distaff is attributed by Homer and Pindar to goddesses, and other females of remarkable dignity, who are called χρυσηλάκατοι.

It was usual to have a basket to hold the distaff and spindle, with the balls of wool for spinning, and the bobbins already spun (Brunck, Anal. II.12; Ov. Met. IV.10). [Calathus.]

In the rural districts of Italy women were forbidden to spin when they were travelling on foot, the act being considered of evil omen (Plin. H. N. XXVIII.5). The distaff and spindle, with the wool and thread upon them, were carried in bridal processions; and, without the wool and thread, they were often suspended by females as offerings of religious gratitude, especially in old age, or on relinquishing the constant use of them (Plin. H. N. VIII.74). [Donaria.] They were most frequently dedicated to Pallas, the patroness of spinning, and of the arts connected with it. This goddess was herself rudely sculptured with a distaff and spindle in the Trojan Palladium (Apollod. III.12.3). They were also exhibited in the representations of the three Fates, who were conceived, by their spinning, to determine the life of every man; and at the same time by singing, as females usually did whilst they sat together at their work, to predict his future lot (Catull. l.c.)


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