The spider is an ancient and powerful symbol found round the globe, and have always elicited a wide range of emotions in people: fear, disgust, panic, and sometimes curiosity and appreciation. This broad spectrum of impressions has influenced origin myths, legends, art, literature, music, architecture, and technology throughout history.
Certainly an enigmatic symbol, the spider has different meanings and purposes according to different cultures. Arachnids and their webs embody many traits and interpretations, including resourcefulness, creation and destruction, cunning, deception, intrigue, the feminine, wisdom, fortune, patience, and death.
Arachne the Weaver
In ancient Greek legend, the world’s first spider was born from the pride of a woman.
The mortal Arachne was gifted in the art of weaving fine cloth and tapestries, and 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. Eventually, pride and arrogance lead Arachne to boast that her work was even better than Athena’s. In a contest to determine who was the better artist – the mortal or the goddess – Arachne wove a tapestry depicting the gods in a bad light, detailing their debauchery and foolishness. The goddess Athena was furious and, in a rage, destroyed Arachne’s work.
Arachne, horrified and ashamed to realize where her hubris had taken her, hanged herself. Athena, feeling that the mortal had learned the error of challenging the gods, turned the hanging rope into web, and Arachne into a spider, so she might weave beautiful creations for all time. This is the origin of the word arachnid, a term we use for spiders to this day.
Being crafty and industrious weavers of webs is only one trait of spiders which been used symbolically across the ages. Spiders and webs have been featured in traditions around the world, and have meant many things to many cultures.
Creator and Destroyer
In many cultures spiders stand as the creators of our universe and world, and also serve as agents of destruction.
For example, in ancient India, it is written that a large spider wove the web that is our universe. She sits at the centre of the web, controlling things via the strings. In legend it is said she will one day devour the web/universe, and spin another in its place.
Egyptian mythology tells of the goddess Neith – a spinner and weaver of destiny – and associates her with the spider. She is often depicted with a weaving shuttle in her hand, or a bow and arrows, demonstrating her hunting abilities.
The spider is a trickster god in West African stories, personifying the creation deity Anansi. Associated with storytelling and wisdom, the spider causes mischief to get the upper hand in dealings with others. The retelling of these “spider tales” imparts moral lessons through the generations.
Rock art and bark paintings in Australia reveal that the indigenous cultures created spider symbols. Spiders in their webs are linked with a sacred rock and ceremony for the Rembarrnga people in central Arnhem Land. Several regional clans use spider totems in rituals.
North American indigenous cultures have often portrayed spiders as creators, helpers, and wisdom keepers. In Hopi creation myth, Spider Woman is goddess of the earth. She, together with other gods, formed the first man and woman out of clay. The Lakota people’s lore includes a trickster spider, and the Navajo connect Spider Grandmother and the weaving of webs with the creation of the world.
Spiders, contrary to their sometimes fearsome or creepy physical appearances, are not always portrayed as dangerous creatures or destructive emblems. In many traditions, the spider is a good omen and a helpful savior.
Ancient Chinese folk culture celebrates spiders. They are thought to bring happiness in the morning, and wealth in the evening. Spiders are lucky creatures, and dubbed “happy insects”. The image of the spider features widely in art and literature in China, and spider jewelry or charms are worn to bring good luck.
Patti Wigington writes in About Religion, “In several cultures, spiders are credited with saving the lives of great leaders. In the Torah, there is a story of David, who would later become King of Israel, being pursued by soldiers sent by King Saul. David hid in a cave, and a spider crawled in and built a huge web across the entrance. When the soldiers saw the cave, they didn’t bother to search it – after all, no one could be hiding inside it if the spider web was undisturbed. A parallel story appears in the life of the prophet Mohammed, who hid in a cave when fleeing his enemies. A giant tree sprouted in front of the cave, and a spider built a web between the cave and the tree, with similar results.”
In Germany and Ukraine, it is tradition to include spiders and webs in Christmas tree decorations, due to the association between tinsel decorations and the spider web strands.
Temples, Art and Geoglyphs
In a Peruvian valley in 2008, researchers uncovered a forgotten adobe temple with carved spider imagery. The temple was unique in its dedication to a spider god, by “the little-known civilization of Cupinisque, who ruled the area for about five centuries, during approximately 1500 BC to 100 BC,” as reported by Softpedia.
It is speculated by researchers that the spider and web represented hunting nets, and therefore prosperity and progress. It is also suggested the spider image was a powerful political symbol. Yale University archaeologist Richard Burger told Softpedia, “other symbolic associations for the spider god included war, hunting, power or textiles. There is an image of spider deities holding nets filled with decapitated human heads, so there was an analogy with successful warriors and claims of power.”
The ancient Moche people of Peru often included nature and spider images in their art.
Spiders cannot shake their frightening aspect, and many folktales warn of the dangerous traits associated with spiders, such as ensnaring webs, lies and deceits, lethal venoms, silent attacks, and creeping terror.
In Japan the Spider Princess, a mythological spider figure called Jorōgumo, is able to transform into a seductive woman who entraps travelling samurai. The Spider Princess has many names, such as “binding bride” or “prostitute spider”. Jorōgumo morphs into a beautiful woman to beguile warriors into marrying her. Sometimes the Spider Princess appears to carry a baby, which turns out to be her egg-sack.
The references to menacing, deadly spiders are countless in modern culture, and their scary natures are illustrated time and time again in our movies, art, literature and popular culture.
The spider is a powerful image that has endured since ancient times. It reflects a duality that both horrifies and fascinates us, cementing its position in our world as an unforgettable symbol.
Featured image: Arachne depicted as a half-spider half-human in Dante’s Purgatorio, by Gustave Doré (Public Domain)
Originally published at Ancient Origins