Songs of the Loom: working rhythms of Circe and Aboubakar Fofana

In Homer’s Odyssey, while several female characters, both divine and mortal, are described in the act of weaving (and un-weaving), only two of them – Calypso and Circe – are depicted as singing while they work. In book 5, we encounter Calypso ‘singing with a sweet voice as she went to and fro before the loom, weaving with a golden shuttle’. In the case of Circe in book 10, we not only hear of her singing while working at the loom, but of the impact of her singing as presented by Odysseus’ companion Polites:

Friends, within someone goes to and from before a great web, singing sweetly, so that all the floor echoes; some goddess it is, or some woman. Come, let us quickly call to her!

As Andromache Karanika has noted in her book Voices at Work: Women, Performance, and Labor in Ancient Greece,
the verb that Homer uses to describe the echoing of Circe’s song by the floor (amphimukaomai) is typically used to describe the sounds made by animals, especially cattle. The ‘mooing floor’ not only looks ahead to the fate of Odysseus’ companions when they are transformed into pigs, but also to the way Circe’s song turns the floor into an instrument. It is the latter interpretation that connects most clearly the loom to a musical instrument. Recently at the Leap Before You Look exhibition here at the Wexner Center, a loom was placed in the same room of the gallery as a piano, to make this connection more explicit in the case of Black Mountain College.

I was reminded of the Circe passage and the connections between voice, loom and the instrument when I read an article by Monika Szewczyk on the Documenta 14 website. In this piece, Szewczyk describes the work of Aboubakar Fofana, a calligrapher, artist, textile designer, and master indigo dyer from Mali in the MENTIS Center for the preservation of traditional textile techniques in Athens as part of his participation in the exhibition.

After describing Fofana’s dyeing process and the project to include a bookmark hand-dyed by the artist in a publication for the exhibition, Szewczyk makes a connection between the weaving of the dyed wool and what she calls the ‘life-music’ of weaving. This connection occurs when sharing with Fofana a comment by Virginia Matseli, who runs MENTIS:

I recall that during one of my first visits to MENTIS, Matseli told me that the grooves which lead the threads to make braids, chords, ribbons, and other passementerie on the decades-old yet still deft machines often follow the formations of traditional Greek dances. Or was it the other way around, the dances followed the weaving of threads? Suffice it to say that dances and textiles are always intertwined and hence the MENTIS machines can be said to breathe a certain kind of life-music. Sharing this insight with Fofana, he responded that he had learned about weaving and the world through a sung-spoken lyric.

On the website you can listen to Fofana singing the song, and while Szewczyk says that ‘you do not need to understand this song verbatim to hear or feel the movement of the pulley, the pedals, the shuttle, and the shafts.’ But then notes:

But it is perhaps worth considering this interpretation the artist made from the Bambara (Bamanan kan) with writer Johanna Macnaughtan:

Quoting the text as follows:

Song of the Loom

One knows something that another does not
Someone doesn’t know it but another knows it well
Declares the pulley

One goes before another, someone else follows
One follows another but someone else precedes
Beat the pedals

Someone leaves whilst another arrives
Someone arrives and another person leaves
Sings the shuttle

Someone rises up and another falls down
Someone falls down whilst another rises up
Say the shafts

Understanding! Harmony! Accord!
Nothing is as valuable as these
This was how the world was built, this is how it will end
This is how the world was born, this is how it will finish
hammers the beater.

In her following interpretation, Szewczyk observes how:

this lyric moves from declaring through beating and singing then saying to hammering…[where the] parts of the mighty loom are thus variously articulating

While Szewczyk ends her piece by turning back to the dyeing and the idea of the text and textile of Fofana’s work and the bookmark for Documenta, I want end this post by returning to Circe. In Homer’s (song)text we hear the ‘mooing floor’ as an extension of Circe’s song just as in ‘Song of the Loom’, parts of the instrument are ‘variously articulating’. As a prophetic moment in the poem, looking towards the animal-transformation of Odysseus’ men, this instrumental expansion of the song reflects the song’s magical power. At the same time, the mechanical beating of the floor as agent, echoing the goddesses’ sung words, could very well be something as innocuous as the beat of the singer’s tune, creating the rhythm for her labor, like the foot-falls in a dance or the beating foot of a weaver at the loom.

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