February the 8th, is the Festival of Broken Needles in Shinto and Buddhist traditions. On this day, women will gather up all of the broken needles and small household objects which have contributed to the health and well-being of the family throughout the previous year. They will place these objects in a shrine or upon an altar to acknowledge how even the smallest things in life have a purpose and should be honored. This idea comes from animism, which is arguably the oldest spiritual tradition or concept across the entire world. So, in this way of thinking every single object has a soul, and although we might conceive of this more in terms of animals, streams and mountains, within animism, consciousness and life permeates everything. The women will give thanks for the objects they have used throughout the year and will leave offerings such as milk, cakes and flowers as a way of expressing gratitude to these tiny souls of things. The tradition of Hari-Kuyo, as this custom is called, only began around 800 AD during the Heian Period. However, the animistic root of acknowledging the life-force and spirit of such totems goes back much, much further. Shinto comes from the words ‘shen’ and ‘tao’ which means the way of gods. The gods in Shinto tradition are more often animistic forces or higher ideals (putting it simply!) but sometimes take the form of deities. At the end of the ritual, the broken needles and household items are gathered up and buried, while a Shinto or Buddhist priest will recite a prayer of thanks. Needlework, sewing, weaving, and spinning are strongly associated with Spring goddesses and spirits in Europe, and the spinning woman was believed to not only spin material, but time itself. All forms of filaments, even the vocal chords, music, and sound, relate with the element of Air (Spring's principal element). In this context, divination-poems and songs were sung in order to prophesise the future or look for advice from the ancestors.
The tradition of wise-women singing their songs while spinning also has a long history here in Ireland. The women would often draw the ‘good people’ into the home while doing so, which is an interesting parallel to the Shinto idea in some ways. Not only would the spinning woman send her consciousness outwards when falling into trance, but she would also attract the Otherworld to her as well.
That said, the fairies seem to have had much more independent agency in the Irish folklore stories than the animistic spirits in Shinto. Here is an example of a spinning woman attracting fairies from Galway collected in 1938, and here is an account of a spinning song. If we were to look for any kind of comparable European Pagan festival at this time of the year a curious contender is that of The Fornacalia. This was a festival dedicated to the Goddess of the oven, furnace and hearth celebrated from February the 7th to the 17th in ancient Rome. The Goddess invoked was named Fornax but, again, the animistic principles behind this custom probably existed even before this deity was named.
At this time, families would collect and bring a small piece of grain to a temple where sacrificial bread would be baked in order to give thanks for the heat of the oven and home. Prayers would then be recited to Fornax for protection and to ensure that the coming year would bring the same warmth to both heat the grain and provide enough bread for the household. So, just like The Festival of Broken Needles, families are giving thanks to a household object that might usually be overlooked. This is the shared concept here; to appreciate the small things that life brings us. To acknowledge what we might too often overlook. To remember that just because we get used to something being there we should never take it for granted. Or, maybe that even applies to some 'one.' (C.) David Halpin. Image by Jean Baptiste Monge