BY WENDY HUGHES

 

Neith the Egyptian goodness with weaving shuttle

With the sun showing its smiling face at last, it has many advantages, but, for me, it also has one big disadvantage, because I can see the cobwebs and spiders that seem to congregate in every corner of the house, but how do you view the common spider?  Do you love them or hate them?  There is certainly plenty of folklore surrounding them, which starting me thinking about the spider, as an ancient and powerful symbol found throughout the world.  It has always provoked a wide range of emotions in people, including fear, disgust, panic, and sometimes curiosity and appreciation, as well as featuring in a range of myths, legends, art, literature, music, architecture, and technology.

 

Some people believe spiders are demons, whilst others think of them as cunning and clever.  Thankfully we have no dangerous spiders in the UK, and this coupled with the fact that they kill flies means they were looked upon as our friends, hence the little ditty:

Kill a spider, bad luck yours will be

Until of flies you’ve swatted fifty-three.

Spider in his web

The spider has its place in legends too, and in ancient Greek legend, the world’s first spider was born from the pride of a woman called Arachne who was gifted in the art of weaving fine cloth and tapestries.  She studied under the goddess Athena, herself a master at weaving and pottery. Arachne’s work was so beautiful, and her talent so great, that word of her weaving spread far and wide, but eventually pride and arrogance led her to boast that her work was even better than Athena’s.  In a contest to determine who was the best Arachne wove a tapestry depicting the gods in a bad light, detailing their debauchery and foolishness. Athena was furious and, in a fit of rage, destroyed the work. Arachne was horrified and when she realized where her pride had taken her, she was so ashamed and hanged herself. Athena, feeling that Arachne has learned she lesson asked the gods to turn the hanging rope into a web, and Arachne into a spider, so that she could still weave beautiful creations, and this is the reason for the origin of the word arachnid, the term used for spiders today.

In Irish folklore religion plays it part by telling us that when Mary and Joseph were fleeing from the Roman soldiers, they were helped by a spider who spun a web across the entrance to a cave in which they were hiding.  When the soldiers approached, the soldiers thought no one had entered the cave for years because of the web, and so Mary and Joseph were saved.

In Sardinia a dangerous spider can be found which gives a very painful sting, and according to folklore the victim stung should be treated by burying him or her up to the neck in dung, and then seven widows and seven widowers are asked to dance around the dung heap.  Legend informs us that if the victim laughs he or she will survive, but if they stay silence they will die.

In ancient India, it is written that a large spider wove the web that is our universe today, and sits in the centre of the web, controlling things.  One day the spider will decide to devour the web/universe, and spin another in its place.

Egyptian mythology tells us about the goddess Neith – a spinner and weaver of destiny, who is often depicted with a weaving shuttle in her hand, or a bow and arrows, demonstrating her hunting abilities.

spider’s web in a house

In parts of West Africa, the spider Anansi, is depicted as a trickster and is always trying to outwit other animals and deities. In one tale a famine caused the spider to fear it would starve, so it devised a plot telling the family that it was sick and would soon die, and asked for it to be buried close to a field.  As nightfall approached the spider crept out of the grave and ate all the best crops before returning to its hiding place. The spider did this every night until the family became so concerned losing its crops that they decided to place a figure made of sticky gum in the field to deter the thief.  That night Anansi attacked the object believing it to be thief, and when the family woke the following morning they saw Anansi stuck to the gum, and realised who was stealing their crop, and decided to humiliate him by parading him around the field.  It is said that, even today, the spider hides in dark corners so that it can escape the jeering of the crowds.  In another tale we learn how spiders have bald heads.  This time Anansi and his wife, Aso, went to the funeral of her mother, and Anansi forever the show off, declared he would not eat for eight days, but after four days he was very hungry, so he hid some hot beans under his hat.  When the beans began to burn his head he took his hot off and shook it explaining that he was taking part in a hat-shaking festival, but by now the beans had burnt all his hair off, and that is why most spiders are bald!

Spiderweb covered with frost

The American Cherokees have a tale which credits a grandmother spider with bringing light to the world. According to legend, everything was once dark and no one could see because the sun was on the other side of the world. The animals agreed that someone must go and steal some light and bring the sun back so that the people could see. The possum and then the buzzard had a go, but both failed and ended up with a burned tail and burned feathers, respectively. Finally, grandmother spider said she’d try to capture the light. She made a bowl of clay, and using her eight legs, rolled it to where the sun was sitting and on her way she weaved a web. Gently and carefully, she took the sun and placed it in the clay bowl, and rolled it home following her web, and travelling from east to west and this is why we have the sun and it rises in the east and sets in the west.

a ceramic depicting a spider dating back to around 300BC

And finally a story from Zaire about Nzambi’s beautiful daughter who no one was allowed to marry unless the suitor was able was to present her with a gift of earthly fire. The spider was determined to marry her and so recruited the help of a sand-piper, a woodpecker, a rat and a tortoise. The woodpecker flew up and pecked a hole in the floor of heaven, then after climbing up a thread spun by the spider, the other helpers were given two tests. In the first, the rat had to survive under a pile of bamboo, and in the second the sand-fly had to find out where the heavenly fire was kept, and the tortoise ordered to bring down to earth. When the tasks were completed and the spider was due to marry the helpers began to argue saying that each of them should marry the daughter because of the part they played.  Nzambi thought the animals would make his daughter unhappy and announced that neither should marry his daughter, teaching the spider that he should always work alone.

Needless to say, no matter how scared you may be it is thought that killing a spider is unlucky, so next time you see a spider lurking in the corner, leave it in peace as this old English nursery rhyme sums up:

If you wish to live or thrive, let a spider run alive.