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Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm translated by Margaret Hunt

The Three Spinning Women

THERE was once a girl who was idle and would not spin, and let her mother say what she would, she could not bring her to it. At last the mother was once so overcome with anger and impatience, that she beat her, on which the girl began to weep loudly. Now at this very moment the Queen drove by, and when she heard the weeping she stopped her carriage, went into the house and asked the mother why she was beating her daughter so that the cries could be heard out on the road? Then the woman was ashamed to reveal the laziness of her daughter and said, "I cannot get her to leave off spinning. She insists on spinning for ever and ever, and I am poor, and cannot procure the flax." Then answered the Queen, "There is nothing that I like better to hear than spinning, and I am never happier than when the wheels are humming. Let me have your daughter with me in the palace. I have flax enough, and there she shall spin as much as she likes." The mother was heartily satisfied with this, and the Queen took the girl with her. When they had arrived at the palace, she led her up into three rooms which were filled from the bottom to the top with the finest flax. "Now spin me this flax," said she, "and when thou hast done it, thou shalt have my eldest son for a husband, even if thou art poor. I care not for that, thy indefatigable industry is dowry enough." The girl was secretly terrified, for she could not have spun the flax, no, not if she had lived till she was three hundred years old, and had sat at it every day from morning till night. When therefore she was alone, she began to weep, and sat thus for three days without moving a finger. On the third day came the Queen, and when she saw that nothing had been spun yet, she was surprised; but the girl excused herself by saying that she had not been able to begin because of her great distress at leaving her mother's house. The queen was satisfied with this, but said when she was going away,"To-morrow thou must begin to work."

When the girl was alone again, she did not know what to do, and in her distress went to the window. Then she saw three women coming towards her, the first of whom had a broad flat foot, the second had such a great underlip that it hung down over her chin, and the third had a broad thumb. They remained standing before the window, looked up, and asked the girl what was amiss with her? She complained of her trouble, and then they offered her their help and said, "If thou wilt invite us to the wedding, not be ashamed of us, and wilt call us thine aunts, and likewise wilt place us at thy table, we will spin up the flax for thee, and that in a very short time." "With all my heart," she replied, "do but come in and begin the work at once." Then she let in the three strange women, and cleared a place in the first room, where they seated themselves and began their spinning. The one drew the thread and trod the wheel, the other wetted the thread, the third twisted it, and struck the table with her finger, and as often as she struck it, a skein of thread fell to the ground that was spun in the finest manner possible. The girl concealed the three spinners from the Queen, and showed her whenever she came the great quantity of spun thread, until the latter could not praise her enough. When the first room was empty she went to the second, and at last to the third, and that too was quickly cleared. Then the three women took leave and said to the girl, "Do not forget what thou hast promised us, -- it will make thy fortune.

When the maiden showed the Queen the empty rooms, and the great heap of yarn, she gave orders for the wedding, and the bridegroom rejoiced that he was to have such a clever and industrious wife, and praised her mightily. "I have three aunts," said the girl, "and as they have been very kind to me, I should not like to forget them in my good fortune; allow me to invite them to the wedding, and let them sit with us at table." The Queen and the bridegroom said, "Why should we not allow that?" Therefore when the feast began, the three women entered in strange apparel, and the bride said, "Welcome, dear aunts." "Ah," said the bridegroom, "how comest thou by these odious friends?" Thereupon he went to the one with the broad flat foot, and said, "How do you come by such a broad foot?" "By treading," she answered, "by treading.""Then the bridegroom went to the second, and said, "How do you come by your falling lip?" "By licking," she answered, "by licking." Then he asked the third, "How do you come by your broad thumb?" "By twisting the thread," she answered, "by twisting the thread." On this the King's son was alarmed and said, "Neither now nor ever shall my beautiful bride touch a spinning-wheel." And thus she got rid of the hateful flax-spinning.


From a story from the Principality of Corvei, but it is from Hesse that we have the version with the three women, all of whom are afflicted with some peculiar defect caused by spinning. In the former there are only two extremely aged women, who have become so broad from sitting that they can hardly get into the room. They have thick lips from wetting and licking the thread; and from drawing and pulling it they have ugly fingers, and broad thumbs. The story from Hesse begins differently; for instance, that there was a King who liked nothing so much as spinning, and for that reason, on taking leave before going a journey, he left behind him for his daughters, a great chest full of flax which was to be spun by his return. In order to release them from this, the Queen invited these three misshapen women, and on the King's arrival set them before his eyes. Pratorius, in the Glückstopf, pp. 404-406, relates the story in the following way: a mother cannot induce her daughter to spin, and for this reason often beats her. A man who on one occasion sees this, asks what is the meaning of it. The mother answers, "I cannot keep her from spinning; she spins away more flax than I can procure." The man says, "Then give her to me to wife; I shall be quite satisfied with her indefatigable industry, even if she bring me nothing else." The mother is heartily delighted, and the man at once gives his betrothed a great provision of flax. At this she is secretly terrified, but she takes it and puts it in her room, and considers what she is to do. Then three women come in front of her window, one so broad with sitting that she cannot get through the door of the room, the second has an enormous nose, the third a broad thumb. They offer their services to her, and promise the bride to spin what has been given to her if, on her wedding-day, she will not be ashamed of them, but will declare that they are her aunts, and place them at her table. She agrees to this, and they spin the flax, for which the bridegroom praises the bride. So when the wedding-day comes, the three horrible women appear also, and the bride pays them great honour, and says they are her aunts. The bridegroom is astonished, and asks how she comes by such repulsive relatives. "Ah," says the bride, "they have all been made like that by spinning. One of them is so broad with sitting, the other has quite licked away her mouth, and that makes her nose stand out so, and the third has twisted the thread so much with her thumb." Thereupon the bridegroom is much troubled, and tells the bride that she shall not spin another thread so long as she lives that she may not become a monster like them.

A third story from Upper Lusatia, by Th. Pesheck, is in Busching's Wochentliche Nachrichten i. 355-360; on the whole it corresponds with that of Pratorius. One of the three old women has blear-eyes because the flue of the flax has gone into them, the second has a great mouth reaching from ear to ear from wetting her thread, the third is fat and unshapely with sitting so much at the spinning-wheel. A portion of the story is to be found in Müllenhoff, No 8. In Norwegian, see Asbjörnsen, p. 69. In Swedish, Cavallius, p. 214. The beginning of Ricdin-Ricdon, by Mlle. I'Heritier, resembles it, and Le sette cotenelle, in the Pentamerone, bears some affinity (iv. 4).(1)

1: See also Schlejcher's Lithuanian Tales, and the story of Habetrot and atl Mab, in Henderson's Folil-L ore of the Northern Counties.-TR.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884, 1892. 2 volumes.

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Page created 10/15/06; Last updated 10/28/07