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Animythology: Spiders

Illustration of spiders
Illustration courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Have you ever noticed animals in media acting a certain way? There are the wise old owls such as Owl from Winnie the Pooh and friendly heroic dogs such as Lassie. But have you ever wondered why we give these traits to certain animals? “Animythology” hopes to compare the mythology of animals to their actual behavior to uncover any explanation. Today we will be focusing on spiders — our eight-legged friends!

Spiders are eight-legged arthropods that possess the ability to create silk. Found on every continent except Antarctica, spiders have proven themselves to be capable survivalists. This wide dispersal has given them prominence in nearly every human culture, though not always in a positive light. Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, is so common that nearly one in ten people have it. Despite this, many cultures do still feature spiders in a positive light.

The Weaver

Spiders are a common presence in myths involving crafts, especially weaving. The most famous of these is the Greek myth of Arachne. Arachne was a weaver with such skill that people would come from all across Greece just to watch her work. Arachne began to claim that her skills were so great that she could even weave better than Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and Craftsmanship.

Athena, angered by these boasts, challenged Arachne to a contest to see who was the better weaver. Athena wove a beautiful tapestry depicting the might of the Gods, showing Zeus throwing his lightening bolts and Poseidon controlling the waves of the sea. Arachne, however, wove a tapestry showing the cruelty of the Gods, depicting them punishing mortals and abusing their power. Not only did Arachne’s tapestry show the ugliness of the Gods, it was even better than what Athena had made. This angered Athena, who tore the tapestry to shreds. As punishment for Arachne’s transgressions Athena transformed her into the first spider and condemned her to eternally weave as a reminder of the strength of the Gods.

The connection between spiders and weaving is an obvious one, as all known species of spiders secrete and weave silk. Despite its frail appearance, spider silk is incredibly strong, being proportionally more durable than steel. The silk is also incredibly versatile and used in numerous ways other than the traditional web. The Diving Bell Spider, the only known species of aquatic spider, spins a special dome-shaped web that traps air bubbles, allowing it to safely hunt underwater despite its lack of gills.

The Trickster

In the folklore of the Ashanti tribe of West Africa exists the folk hero Anansi the Spider. Anansi is a friendly yet mischievous spider, using his charisma and wits to overcome stronger and more powerful foes. His exploits were called Spider Stories.

In his most famous story, Anansi wishes to know the stories of the world, which belong to the sky god Nyame. Anansi wove a web to the sky to ask Nyame if he could buy his stories. Nyame laughed at Anansi for thinking a small creature such as himself would ever be able to buy his stories. Wishing to continue his amusement Nyame said that he would only sell him his stories if Anansi could bring him three things: the Python, the Hornet, and the fairy Mmoatia.

Anansi was undeterred. He found Python and told him of a disagreement he and his wife were having over whether Python or a palm branch was longer. Python, a prideful snake, struck down the longest palm branch he could find and stretched along it, proving himself as the longest. Anansi wove an unbreakable web over Python and the branch, trapping him there and allowing him to be carried to the kingdom of Nyame.

With his first item obtained, Anansi took a jar and filled it with water. Finding Hornet’s nest, he poured the water over it yelling, “It’s raining Hornet! If you fly into my jar you’ll be safe from the rain!” Hornet flew into the jar which Anansi covered, trapping Hornet inside.

For the final item, Anansi carved a doll from wood and covered it in sticky sap. He took the doll to the jungle where the fairy Mmoatia danced and placed a bowl of yams in front of it. Soon Mmoatia came upon the doll and was enticed by the bowl of yams. They asked the doll if they could have some of its yams, to which Anansi tugged the web he had tied to the doll and made it nod in approval. The fairy ate its fill and thanked the doll. The doll sat motionless, which irritated the fairy. It yelled and struck the doll only to be stuck tight to it. His final item obtained, Anansi carried the fairy to the kingdom of Nyame.

Anansi presented Python, Hornet, and the fairy Mmoatia to Nyame, who was humbled that a creature he had considered inferior had managed to complete these tasks. Nyame granted Anansi ownership of all the worlds’ stories and decreed that from then on all stories would be known as Spider Stories to honor the cunning of Anansi.

Spiders display remarkable intelligence that allows them to outwit predators far larger than them. Myrmarachne is an African spider species that is commonly preyed on by mantises. To avoid being eaten, it will disguise itself as an ant by holding its front legs above it like antennae and walking in an erratic diagonal path similar to an ant following a pheromone trail. This fools the mantises into thinking that the prey they were hunting has disappeared and allows the spider to escape unharmed.

Beautiful but Deadly

In Japanese mythology exists the figure of the Jorōgumo, which translates to woman spider. The Jorōgumo was a monstrous spider that disguised herself as a beautiful human woman. In many myths she would lure travelers into her lair using illusions, trapping them in her web once their guard was down.

In one myth a samurai stopped at an old inn while on a journey. The innkeeper was a beautiful woman who had a child, a child she claimed was the child of the samurai. The samurai knew this was impossible, but, exhausted from his long journey, he decided to spend the night at the inn. The innkeeper and child tried to embrace the samurai throughout the night, but only when he wasn’t carrying his sword. Sensing trouble he struck them both with his sword, causing them to flee to their attic in terror. The samurai followed her up, but where there had once been the innkeeper and child, there was a massive spider, nearly the size of a person. Clutched in the spider’s legs was a broken stone doll and above her, spun in ancient webs, were the mummified bodies of travelers who had come to the inn.

In Japan, the name for the Golden Orb Weaver spider is the jorōgumo. Female jorōgumo are nearly four times the size of male jorōgumo, many growing to nearly five inches across. Their size allows them to spin bigger webs, regularly trapping birds and insects. Because of the size of these webs, it is no wonder why legends spread of human-sized spiders that could trap travelers.

Today

Spiders have as varied a depiction in pop culture today as they had in many ancient myths, being simultaneously heroic and fearsome. Many heroic depictions of spiders continue to be associated with quick wits, perhaps most famously Spider-Man. At the same time, giant spiders appear frequently in fantasy movies as villains, famously represented by the characters of Shelob from The Lord of the Rings and Aragog from the Harry Potter series.

Scientists have also explored the root cause for arachnophobia. Recent studies have hypothesized that there may be a genetic cause for this, as a person’s ancestors may have been bitten by or even killed by a spider. A fear of spiders would have thus benefited their descendants, even if society advanced to a state where this fear was no longer needed.

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