Spiders: Fearsome creatures or something to marvel at?

We encounter spiders from a very young age. In our gardens and our homes and really, all over the place.

We are taught popular nursery rhymes or we read about spiders. As we get older, spiders may still appear appear in various guises either in the books we read or the films we choose to watch.

What impact does this have on our attitude to arachnophobes?

Let’s look at a few ‘famous’ spiders.

Little Miss Muffett

“Little Miss Muffett

Sat on a tuffet,

Eating her curds and whey;

Along came a spider,

Who sat down beside her,

And frightened Miss Muffett away.”

Little Miss Muffett
Image by Arthur Rackham courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Arachnophobia?

Remember this nursery rhyme?  How old were you when you first heard it?

Did it instill a fear of spiders? What can we do to help alleviate your fear?

Did alarm override a natural curiosity?  So many questions.    

Incy Wincy Spider

Little Miss Muffett may have been scared of spiders.  But the Incy Wincy Spider certainly showed a lot of grit, and climbed back up the water spout.  

Spiders as Inspiration – Good or Bad?

Spiders appear in various guises in popular culture and serve as the inspiration for many poems, books, and the Spider-Man movies. But they are either very much loved or they are fearsome creatures.  It appears there is no middle ground with spiders.  

Spoken Word Poetry

In the world of  Spoken Word Poetry, Rudy Francisco is one of the most recognisable names. Francisco and Nikki Giovanni  appear to prefer rescuing spiders to killing them.  

“She asks me to kill the spider.

Instead, I get the most

peaceful weapons I can find.

I take a cup and a napkin.

I catch the spider, put it outside

and allow it to walk away.”

Fearsome spiders for Tolkien

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, there are lots of giant spiders. Shelob  was one of Ungoliant’s offspring. Shelob was fearsome and her offspring were described as being smaller than her and having a cruel intelligence.   

Some say that Tolkien was uncertain about spiders, vacillating between aversion and fascination, and Shelob’s inconsistent physical attributes (not fully spider, but a combination of various insect properties), may have been as a result of this ambivalence.

Others say that Tolkien’s son was afraid of spiders and that is why spiders were portrayed antagonistically in his books.  

Josh Jones writing as recently as 05 January 2021 about Tolkien’s less famous book, “Mr Bliss”, says about Tolkien,

“As much as Tolkien drew on his extensive knowledge of Norse, Germanic, and other mythologies and linguistic histories, and from his harrowing experiences in WWI, his career as a legendary fantasy author may never have come about without his children.”

Masses of sticky spiders’ webs

Spiders’ webs, too, were not immune to Tolkien’s dark portrayal.  

In The Hobbit, after travelling through the forest of Mirkwood, Bilbo Baggins and friends spied a group of elves feasting, but the elves keep disappearing. Bilbo falls asleep on an empty stomach and dreams of dinner. Upon awakening, Bilbo finds himself trapped in a mass of sticky spiders’ webs. He manages to free himself after a struggle, and kills the giant spider.  

Tolkien did not do much to elevate spiders and spider webs in the minds of his readers. The Bloemfontein-born writer may have been averse to spiders, but this did not prevent scientists from naming a newly discovered spider, Smeagol – another of Tolkien’s creations. Not everyone agreed with the chosen name, however, and Stephen Colbert, host of the The Late Show, rebuked these scientists, when they chose Smeagol instead of Gollum (Smeagol’s alter ego, hiding in shame and fear in the darkness of the cave). 

The greater sin may have been in not naming this newly discovered species after Shelob.  

Manticores and venom

George RR Martin’s, Game of Thrones features manticores. The manticores are carnivorous, very aggressive and venomous. In the books and films manticore venom is used as a coating on ‘bladed weapons’ ensuring that a single scratch would be lethal. These days we have antitoxins

Dark then Light

Moving on from the dark portrayals of spiders, in the animated film genre, Peter Parker’s (aka Spider Man) antics have kept generations of fans entertained since the world was introduced to him in 1962 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.  Now, that’s good publicity for spiders.   

And there’s still more good stuff arising from the Far East.  

Japanese superstition

In Japanese culture, a popular superstition states: “Let spiders live in the morning, kill spiders at night”, suggesting that seeing spiders in the morning heralds good fortune, while seeing them at night forebodes bad luck.  

Greek mythology:- Athena and Arachne

In Greek mythology, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne was an accomplished weaver who challenged  Athena, the goddess of handicraft, war, and practical reason. While Athena chose to depict the gods in their majesty, Arachne showed the gods in their amorous pursuits. Athena was unimpressed and destroyed Arachne’s work.  Then, as befits Greek mythology, Arachne hung herself in despair.  Athena found her softer side and loosened the rope, changing it into a cobweb, and Arachne into a spider.  Hence the name of the zoological class to which spiders belong, Arachnida.  

Athena changing Arachne into a spider
Artist Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630), Wilhelm Janson (Holland, Amsterdam). Source: Wikipedia Commons

Sweet friendship in Charlotte’s Web

It’s not all bad on the literature front, though, when it comes to spiders. EB White’s Charlotte’s Web tells the story of the friendship between Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig.  Charlotte had saved Wilbur from slaughter, and Wilbur questioned 

“Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.” 

Spider And Web Moonlight Silhouette
Photo Image by Scott Murdoch courtesy burst.shopify

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte, “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

6 Responses

  1. A lot of information Fatima. Great. I like spiders. I will take those which live outside, into the garden. I won’t do the same for flies and cockroaches though.

    1. I don’t like cockroaches either, although, I may have heard something intriguing about flies….

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