Throughout history, spiders have been depicted in popular culture, mythology and in symbolism. From Greek mythology to African folklore, the spider has been used to represent a variety of things, and endures into the present day with characters such as Shelob from The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man from the eponymous comic series. The spider has symbolized patience and persistence due to its hunting technique of setting webs and waiting for its prey to become ensnared. It is also a symbol of mischief and malice for its toxic venom and the slow death it causes, which is often seen as a curse.[1] In addition, the spider has inspired creations from an ancient geoglyph to a modern steam-punk spectacle.

Although not all spiders spin webs to catch prey, numerous cultures attribute this ability with the origin of spinning, textile weaving, basketry, knotwork and net making. Spiders are associated with creation myths because they seem to weave their own artistic worlds.[2] Spiders have been the focus of fears, stories and mythologies of various cultures for centuries.[3] Philosophers often use the spider’s web as a metaphor or analogy; and today, terms such as the Internet or World Wide Web evoke the inter-connectivity of a spider web.[4]

In folklore and mythology

The spider, along with its web, is featured in mythological fables, cosmology, artistic spiritual depictions, and in oral traditions throughout the world since ancient times.

In Ancient Egypt, the spider was associated with the goddess Neith in her aspect as spinner and weaver of destiny, this link continuing later through the Babylonian Ishtar and the Greek Athena,[5] who was later equated as the Roman goddess Minerva.

The most notable ancient legend that explains the origin of the spider comes from the Greek story of the weaving competition between Athena the goddess, and Arachne, sometimes described as a princess. This story may have originated in Lydian mythology;[a] but the myth, briefly mentioned by Virgil in 29 BC,[b] is known from the later Greek mythos after Ovid wrote the poem Metamorphoses between the years AD 2 and 8.[8] The Greek Arachne (αράχνη) means “spider”,[9][10] and is the origin of Arachnida, the spiders’ Class in taxonomy.[11]

This myth tells of Arachne, the daughter of a famous Tyrian purple wool dyer in Hypaepa of Lydia. Due to her father’s skill with cloth dyeing, Arachne became adept in the art of weaving. Eventually, she began to consider herself to be a greater weaver than the goddess Athena herself, and challenged the goddess to a weaving contest to prove her superior skill. Athena wove the scene of her victory over Poseidon that had earned her the patronage of Athens, while Arachne wove a tapestry featuring many episodes of infidelity among the Gods of Olympus, which angered Athena. The goddess conceded that Arachne’s weaving was flawless, but she was infuriated by the mortal’s pride. In a final moment of anger, Athena destroyed Arachne’s tapestry and loom with her shuttle and cursed Arachne to live with extreme guilt. Out of sadness, Arachne soon hanged herself. Taking pity on her, Athena brought her back to life transformed as a spider, using the poison aconite; “—and ever since, Arachne, as a spider, weaves her web.”[12]

The scholar Robert Graves proposed Ovid’s tale may have its roots in the commercial rivalry between the Athenian citizenry of Greece and that of Miletus on the isle of Crete in Asia Minor, which flourished around 2000 BC. In Miletus, the spider may have been an important figure; seals with spider emblems have been recovered there.[14]

In African mythology, the spider is personified as a creation deity Anansi, and as a trickster character in African traditional folklore. There are many variations of the name including Kwaku Ananse of the Ashanti in West Africa(his original name) and anglicized as Aunt Nancy (or Sister Nancy) in the West Indies and some other parts of the Americas.[15] Stories of Ananse became such a prominent and familiar part of Ashanti oral culture that the word Anansesem—”spider tales”—came to embrace all kinds of fables. This fed into the Anansi toree or “spider tales”; stories that were brought over from Africa and told to children of Maroon people and other Africans in the diaspora. These tales are allegorical stories that teach a moral lesson.[16]

North American cultures have traditionally depicted spiders. The Native American Lakota people’s oral tradition also includes a spider-trickster figure, which is known by several names. As chronicled in the legend of The “Wasna” (Pemmican) Man and the Unktomi (Spider),[18] a man encounters a hungry spider family, and the hero Stone Boy is tricked out of his fancy clothes by Unktomi, a trickster spider figure.[19] The spider is also present as the deity Iktomi, which is occasionally depicted in this form.[5] In Native American mythology, the spider is also seen in the legend about the birth of the constellation Ursa Major. The constellation was seen as seven men transformed into stars and climbing to paradise by unrolling a spider’s web.[1] The Hopi have the creation myth of Spider Grandmother. In this story, Spider Grandmother thought the world into existence through the conscious weaving of her webs. Spider Grandmother also plays an important role in the creation mythology of the Navajo, and there are stories relating to Spider Woman in the heritage of many Southwestern native cultures as a powerful helper and teacher.[20]

Content retrieved from: Spiders.

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