Eight-Legged Lore – Spiders in myth and legend

I was trying out the super macro setting on my camera yesterday, and I managed to pap this little spider in my backyard.  I’m not sure if it’s a Miss or a Mister but whatever it is, it’s a fast, industrious worker.  It spun a huge web between my rain-battered lilies and the new stems on the red currant bush in the time it took me to boil a kettle for my tea and grill some bread.

I can never decide if I love or loathe spiders. On the one hand, I admire their enterprise and tenacity.  They’ll keep on repairing their torn webs come shite or shine. Their handiwork is a marvel of nature. Stumble upon a spider’s web covered in dew, or hoarfrost, and its delicate beauty will take your breath away.  But that marvellous bit of creation is also a death trap to many a gaudy-winged critter, the end of the line for many a moth or unsuspecting ladybird.  I hate how predatory spiders are, how showily they relish the fruits of their gruesome labour.

And I think I’m part of the majority here.  Spider stories are very difficult to tell in schools and libraries, even when the spider is a hero.  One of my favourite legends features a Maltese girl who is saved from a pirate abduction by a spider that spins a web across the mouth of the cave where she is hiding. It’s a variant on a Biblical story where a young King David hides from Saul in a cave. There ia also an apocryphal story about  the Holy Family being helped on the flight to Egypt by a miraculous arachnid.  A similar tale about The Prophet in Islam, tells of him and an acolyte hiding from the Quraysh, and a later legend sees the spider sheltering one Robert the Bruce from the English.

I’ve tried  telling the story in dozens of ways, but I can’t get the kids not to go ‘ewww’ when the spider appears. I’m not sure if this is a modern sensibility coming into play but in ancient times the spider was seen as a mystical creature often linked with deities.  To the early Egyptians she was associated with Neith, the goddess of weaving.  Because of her ability to spin she was considered the weaver of destinies.   The symbolism was passed on to Babylon and Greece where we find one of the most popular spider legends of all time, the story of Arachne.

In African folklore, the spider is Ananse the trickster. He is both a man and a spider, both hero and criminal, and I think it is this duality of character that continues to both fascinate and horrify.  There is the gossamer and the dew-encrusted web, and there is also the venom, the vampirical draining of the life-blood.  Perhaps the spider mirrors our being. We humans are capable of infinite wonder, but also of wanton greed and destruction. It is up to us to choose which side to act on: Spider Man or Tarantula!

Related posts:

The Fox in Folklore

Follow That Mouse – mice in folklore

Kissing Frogs – The role of the frog in fairy tales

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