Spiders in Folklore

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Spider on a flower (Abrget47j via Wikimedia Commons)

December’s article for the North Clare Local… 

On these frosty mornings, we can see the handiwork of spiders glowing in the winter sun. These little creatures frighten many, but cultures across the world also revere and respect them.

Spiders are arachnids rather than true insects, meaning they are more closely related to scorpions and ticks than beetles.

Possibly the best known Greek tale concerns a young mortal called Arachne.

She was the daughter of a tailor, and a skilled weaver. So skilled in fact, that she challenged the goddess Athena to a contest.

Competitions between gods and mortals never end well, and this was no exception. Arachne felt she bested the goddess, but Athena disagreed. She was also disgusted at the scene Arachne chose to weave; a depiction of the infidelity of the gods.

Athena felt this uppity mortal deserved to be punished, and so she destroyed Arachne’s loom and doomed her to live in guilt. In her despair, she hung herself. Athena took some pity and she resurrected Arachne as a spider. She resumed her spinning on webs.

Weaving and spinning are ancient traditions and have connotations with destiny; think of the Greek Fates, weaving tales of the heroes. Spiders, possibly nature’s only weavers, are also associated with destiny and fate. With their figure-8 bodies, they are also symbols of infinity and rebirth. Generally, they are associated with the feminine (weaving was traditionally a woman’s task). The Egyptian moon goddess Neith was symbolised by a spider.

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The Spider by Nikolas Gysis (via Wikimedia Commons)

Other cultures had spider gods. The Ashanti people of Ghana believed in Anansi, a spider god who often took the form of a man. In some myths he was responsible for creating the sun, moon and stars. When the people of West Africa were sold into slavery in the Americas, they brought their gods with them. Anansi was anglicised into Aunt Nancy in the southern US states. The Anansi of the Caribbean and USA is a trickster and there are countless tales of his cunning and wit.

Another male spider god was Nareau, also known as “The Lord Spider”. The people of the island nation of Kiribati believed he created the universe. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, it was considered bad luck to harm a spider as the souls of humans were thought to reside in them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the smallness of our arachnids, spider myths are thin on the ground in Ireland and Europe. The three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) all tell very similar stories about the spider. In Islam, Muhammed was being pursued across the desert and took shelter in a cave. A spider wove a web across the entrance, and his enemies presumed the cave was deserted and did not check it. The same story is told about King David in Judaism, and the Holy Family in Christianity. All three religions therefore call that the spider be respected for its good deed.

Our neighbours, the Scots, have a legend about their medieval leader Robert the Bruce. During a particularly difficult time in his fight against the English, he took refuge in a cave on Rathlin Island, off the coast of Antrim. While there, he watched a spider struggle to build its web. Inspired by the creature’s perseverance against the odds, he resolved never to give up and eventually won Scotland’s independence.

In the West, spiders are often associated with money and prosperity. Many of us are familiar with “money spiders”; tiny spiders also known as sheet weavers. Finding one of these on your person is believed to signify that money is on the way. Likewise, if you find one running on your clothes, it means that new clothes are on the way. A money spider on a wedding dress means that the marriage will be happy and prosperous. The ancient Romans would carry gold and silver coins with spiders on them to encourage wealth.

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The spiderweb gate at Hoveton Hall Gardens in Norwich, England (Raymond E Hawkins via Wikimedia Commons) 

A spider hanging from the ceiling was thought to be a sign an inheritance was on the way, and if you walked into a web, you would meet a friend that day. If a spider built its web on a door it meant a visitor would soon come calling.

The French had a belief that the time of day you saw a spider influenced the luck you received. Seeing one in the morning was bad luck, a noontime spider meant worry, a web in the afternoon meant a gift was on the way, and seeing one in the afternoon was very lucky. This is thought to originate in the habits of humans; only the poor would weave in the morning out of necessity, whereas the rich could do this at their leisure in the evening.

Needless to say, no matter how scared you may be, killing a spider is thought to be a sure-fire way to empty your bank account!

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