On women and weaving, draft of a two-part Foreword to a work by Hanna Eilittä Psychas, Women Weaving the World: Text and Textile in the Kalevala and Beyond

2018.05.10 | By Gregory Nagy and David F. Elmer

Women Weaving the World: Text and Textile in the Kalevala and Beyond, by Hanna Eilittä Psychas, was completed in December 2017. It originated as a thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts at Harvard University. The author of Part I of the bipartite Foreword to the online edition of Women Weaving the World, Gregory Nagy, was the supervisor of the thesis, while the author of Part II, David F. Elmer, was the professor designated by Harvard’s Department of Comparative Literature to evaluate the thesis. The text of Part II derives from Elmer’s evaluation, which resulted in the grade of summa cum laude for the thesis.

Weavers at the Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Weavers at the Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Foreword Part I by Gregory Nagy

As already noted, I had the good fortune of serving as the official supervisor of the thesis Women Weaving the World: Text and Textile in the Kalevala and Beyond, by Hanna Eilittä Psychas, and I was so moved by the intellectual power of the work that I urged the author to submit her text for electronic publication on the site of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies. The text of the foreword that I present here derives from a formal report that I had been asked to write about the original honors thesis.

Women Weaving the World: Text and Textile in the Kalevala and Beyond, by Hanna Eilittä Psychas, shows convincingly—both by argument and by example—that the craft of weaving as practiced by women is related to the art of making song or poetry. The work also shows that the various distinctions between “craft” and “art” are in fact secondary to the primary relatedness of textile and text. The term “text,” as in the title, refers to any form of creativity achieved by way of song, unwritten as well as written, that is metaphorized as a woven web, while the term “textile” embraces all forms of fabric-work, especially as exemplified by pattern-weaving on a warp-weighted standing loom.

The core of the evidence comes from Finnish traditions of weaving and singing, where the “singing” is represented most effectively by the Kalevala, the reception of which has become a powerful reformulation of Finnish identity. But the argumentation is backed up by a wealth of further evidence from a wide variety of other traditions, both related and unrelated historically. One outstanding set of unrelated traditions, compared most effectively by the author, is the rich heritage of pattern-weaving as reflected in the metaphorical world of ancient Greek song and poetry. The vigorous argumentation of the work in Chapters 1 and 2 reaches its grand finale with a burst of brilliant creativity in Chapter 3, featuring a compelling scenario of theatricalized pattern-weaving.

One of the many things I admire about the whole project is its methodological sophistication in steering clear of generalizations found (and cited) in other works that treat “text” as an artifact more suitable for men as professional artisans in contrast to women, whose fabric work and song-making tend to be seen as non-professional in most traditional societies. The author does not accept (though she does cite) formulations that assign verbal art mostly to men. The point that has just been made here can help offset any potential criticism concerning the author’s analysis of models for gender binarism. In Chapter 1 especially, the author makes it perfectly clear that the metaphorization of verbal art as weaving depends primarily on the role of women as weavers.

The author’s keen awareness of such a role is in fact relevant to another most admirable feature of the project. This feature has already been signaled in the second paragraph, which started off by noting that the author convinces not only by argumentation but also by example. Then that same paragraph ended by highlighting her prime example, which is, her demonstration of beauty by way of creating beauty. What comes into play here is the brilliant creativity of the author’s scenario for performance in her third chapter, which embodies her personal sense of legacy in interweaving her own Greek and Finnish origins. To say it first in Greek terms: Hanna is truly like a Penelope who shows her art by way of weaving her web and then revealing her analytic skills by way of skillfully unweaving what she has just woven. Further, to say it now in Finnish terms: she then reweaves the unwoven, like a heroic creatrix, into a cosmic totality.

In closing, I need to put on record that I am awe-struck by the originality of the research done by Hanna Psychas—and by the sheer beauty of what she has created. It goes without saying, to be sure, that good research thrives in an intellectually supportive environment, and, in Hanna’s case, a prime example of such supportiveness has been her official mentor in Harvard’s Comparative Literature Department, Rita Goldberg. When it comes to my own role as the designated supervisor of Hanna’s research, I can take little credit beyond my ever-admiring encouragement of a stunningly creative free spirit.


Penelope at her loom.
Penelope at her loom (1864). John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (English, 1829–1908). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Foreword Part II by David F. Elmer

Hanna Psychas’ honors thesis, Women Weaving the World, is remarkable. It is remarkable in a number of ways, not least in being by far the most enjoyable of the many honors theses I have read over the years. It is also a remarkable synthesis of many elements: of theory and literary interpretation with creative art-making (in the form of the script and production design for Seven Women Weaving, Psychas’ proposed performance piece), and of scholarly and creative work with personal reflection. In her eloquent Introduction, Psychas offers an impressive analysis of these synthetic aspects of her work as themselves a form of weaving. Her analysis brings out one of the most distinctive features of this project: like a meticulously crafted tapestry, Psychas’ thesis is one of the most carefully designed theses I have encountered. There is nothing extraneous, and though the components are in themselves quite disparate, each has an easily intelligible place in an eminently harmonious whole.

Chapter One contextualizes the project and provides the theoretical framework—the warp, one might say. Taking her examples from various cultures, Psychas surveys connections between weaving and verbal communication, reviews a variety of weaving-related myths, discusses the place of weaving in gendered cosmologies, and theorizes the subversive power of resistance embodied in textile work. A highlight of this chapter is the beautiful application of the metaphor of weaving to the art of traditional songmaking. Chapter Two examines the weaving motif in Elias Lönnrot’s amalgamation of Finnish oral tradition, the Kalevala. Here one finds wonderfully sensitive discussions of phonic patterns in Lönnrot’s text, discussions that go far beyond what is normally observed about alliteration and its congeners. Psychas helps the reader feel how the Finnish text expresses the back-and-forth motion of the shuttle. Chapter Three outlines Psychas’ proposed theatrical performance, Seven Sisters Weave, but not before reviewing other exhibitions and performances that have foregrounded craft, and providing a kind of personal manifesto for her own artistic project, centering on a powerful vision of the repetition of embodied practices in the author’s family through seven centuries. The final section, which is the culmination of this chapter and of the work as a whole, describes a theatrical production of considerable power and originality, one which reconfigures the entire theater space into an all-encompassing loom. This is a production that I, for one, would certainly like to witness. The work concludes with a number of appendices providing, among other things, a script for Seven Women Weave (which includes moving poetry by Psychas herself), notes for the production design, and transcriptions of interviews with members of Psychas’ family.

All in all, this is one of the most fully realized thesis projects I have encountered. It feels somehow ‘whole’ in a way most others do not. To be sure, there is more that could be said; this is a fabric that could be extended indefinitely. But the text that Psychas has woven has an organic unity. One senses that the author has brought to bear every relevant dimension of her experience, intellectual and otherwise. In this sense especially, Women Weaving the World is an exemplary piece of writing—a way of synthesizing experience to which every writer, at every level, should aspire, even if it is so rarely realized as fully as it is here.

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