The walker-weaver (wæfer-gange)

The spinner who weaves her hostile threads

The Old English word wæfer-gange (pronounced “WA-ver-GONG-eh”) literally means “walker-weaver”. This is a kenning, a figure of speech in which a compound of figurative language takes the place of a more concrete, one-word noun. You find them a lot in Old Norse and Old English poetry. I adore them, and you can see my ongoing collection on the Old English Wordhord site.

So what kind of animal is a walker-weaver? A spider, of course! 

The kenning appears only a couple times in extant (still existing, not destroyed or lost) Old English literature, in Old English glosses (translations) of Psalms (the third section of the Hebrew Bible and a book of the Christian Old Testament).*

A six-legged spider spins a web. Jacob van Maerlant’s Der Naturen Bloeme. Flanders, c. 1350. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, fol. 130r. []

The following description of a spider does not use the Old English word wæfer-gange because it is from a Middle English text, the Middle English Physiologus (the same text as the elephant).**

The title for this section is Natura [a]ranee, or The nature of the spider.***

Translation and glossing by Hana Videen. Hover over words to see how they’re pronounced. More about this project here.

A caterpillar and a spider catching a fly. Cocharelli’s prose treatise on the Seven Vices. Italy (Genoa), c. 1330–c. 1340. British Library, Additional MS. 28841, fol. 7v. []

The spinnerespinner on her web weveðweaves quickly, fastening her hostile threads at the hus-rofroof of the house—on the roof or on the eaves—as if she were on a hill. She casts her webweb thus and weaves in her way.

A ten-legged spider. Gerald of Wales’s Topographic Hiberniae. England (Lincoln?), c. 1196–1223. British Library, Royal MS. 13 B VIII, fol. 11r. []

When she has it all prepared, she driueðhastens from that place. She hides in her holehole, but she always watches the web, until fleȝesflies come there and fallenfall in, wiðerenstruggling in it and wishing to wendenescape.

A six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal. Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440. British Library, Sloane MS. 4016, fol. 6r. []

Then she runs rapelikequickly, for she is always rediready. Going at once to the netnet, she seizes them there. She bites them bitterlikefiercely, becomes their banebane, murders them, and drinkeðdrinks their blodblood.

She does herself no other good but eats her fillefill and then lies stillestill.

Spiders and a praying mantis. Cocharelli’s prose treatise on the Seven Vices. Italy (Genoa), c. 1330–c. 1340. British Library, Additional MS. 28841, fol. 6r. []


*Both examples appear in the Winchcombe Psalter (Cambridge, University Library, MS. Ff.1.23), a copy of the Psalms in Latin and Old English, dated between 1025 and 1050. In Psalms 39:12, Latin sicut araneam (like a spider) is glossed with Old English swa gangewæfre. In Psalms 89:9, Latin sicut aranea (like a spider) is glossed with Old English swa wæfyrgange, so the spider can be a weaver-walker as well as a walker-weaver. [back]

**The excerpt translated here is lines 316-328. [back]

***Square brackets around the letter a in aranee means that the a was added by the editor — it was not in the original text but the editor thought it made sense to include it. I’m using Hanneke Wirtjes’s The Middle English “Physiologus” (Oxford Univ. Press, 1991). [back]

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