Aspects of the textile industry in Bronze Age Pylos, Greece

Date
1993
Authors
Hofstra, Susanne Ursula, 1968-
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The frescoes of the Mycenaean palaces give us some idea of the importance of textiles in their world, though none of the fabric itself survives to our day. Tunics, cloaks, dresses, sheets, towels, blankets, draperies: every last scrap of cloth produced in the Mycenaean period first passed through the hands of a weaver and a spinner both likely to have been women. Textile production in the Eastern Mediterranean, at least in the periods following the Bronze Age, was traditionally the province of women. Numerous literary references reveal how closely cloth production was bound into women's everyday life; the common Roman epitaph for women's tombs: "She kept house, she spun wool," is probably not an inaccurate summary of the average Mediterranean woman's life in the millennia before the mechanization of production. In earlier Greece, the situation is not likely to have been very different. Especially in the dark ages following the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces, when households and villages needed to be almost self-sufficent, women probably produced most if not all of the clothing for their own households; few if any females would have been unfamiliar with spinning and weaving. Hesiod, chronicler of this period, advises women of the best days to set up their looms [...], and even Homer's heroines, though queens and princesses of a golden age earlier than his own, are frequently introduced at their woolworking. Helen in the Odyssey, returned from Troy and more matronly now, is found spinning wool from a golden distaff as she sits at Menelaus' side in his palace; in the palace of Priam she wove a red-dyed cloth decorated with pictures of the Trojans and Achaeans "who struggled for her sake," more a work of art than a simple piece of clothing (11. 3.125-127). The queen Arete, whose husband Alkinoos has fifty serving-women in his halls to weave and grind grain, nevertheless spins her own sea-purple wool beside the hearth, and recognizes the clothes which Odysseus wears because she herself has woven them (Od. 6.305-306, 7.103-107, 233-237). Even goddesses occupy themselves with textile-work: Circe sings as she walks up and down at her loom, which is an immortal one, "such as goddesses have" (Od. 10.220-224). Is this a reflection of the necessities of Homer's later, poorer time, when even princesses go out to do their own laundry, or was textile working a regular activity for Bronze Age "princesses" as well? Or is it merely that the image of women doing textile work is such an ingrained one that the poets don't even stop to consider what else they might be doing?
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