Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Spiders – Literary Webmasters

Yep!  March 14th is National Save a Spider Day!  How amazing is that?  And then I began to wonder, why would you need to save a spider?   How often do spiders need saving?  More importantly, why?

I noticed a spider walking across my ceiling.  How incredible, walking on the ceiling.  So I captured her and put her in a jar and set her on my windowsill…

A word to the wise: think twice before you squash one of these amazing creatures.

From Anansi (the trickster) to Ungoliant (the gloomweaver) spiders have visited us throughout time, throughout literature.  From ancient Egypt to the present day the spider has been associated with weaving, spinning and net making.  These attributes are most obvious to anyone watching a spider as she spins.  Spinning is such a delicate and beautiful dance with nature. 

Conversely, the spider has been associated with malice, dispensing venom to disable and kill its prey.  Hence the aforementioned squash factor.  

So, where can you find spiders in literature?  Well, practically everywhere.  

Way, way back many centuries ago, in the Bible, Job 8:14; the fragility of being without God is likened to that of a single spiders web thread.   An interesting analogy.  For the single shimmery thread of spider silk appears fragile, yet is monstrously sticky and amazingly strong.  Try brushing away the web of an orb weaver.   You will be faced with the forces of a natural adhesive that rivals any industrial solvent.  You will come to understand, however,  the strength and beauty of the natural world.

All brought to you by an eight legged wonder known as the arachnid.  And what of that name?

Arachnid – the word is rooted in Greek – Arachne, from the myth about a young girl who was turned into a spider for challenging Athena to a weaving contest.   Talk about a goddess complex.

In both the Islamic and Jewish traditions, spiders construct a web over a cave to protect those who sought refuge from evil pursuers.   In these tales, spiders earned respect for their ability and desires to assist the lowly human.  Thus proving that spiders have a consciousness as well as mad weaving skills. 

Saint Conrad of Constance is depicted holding a chalice onto which is perched a spider.  The story goes that Saint Conrad was saying mass and a spider fell into his chalice.  Spiders were considered deadly poisonous but Saint Conrad drank the wine, spider and all as a sign of his faith (I seriously searched for calorie intake on this one but to no avail).

King David the Bruce
In Scottish lore, King David the Bruce, felt defeated and sought hermitage in, yep a cave.   During his self-imposed exile, the story goes; the Bruce watched the persistent efforts of a spider.  The spider continually climbed and slid down its singularly slick strand of silk (much like the Itsy Bitsy Spider in traditional children’s rhyme).  The spider eventually succeeded and climbed the delicate thread.  The Bruce took this as a sign of hope, left the cave and won Scotland’s independence.  Proving that spiders inspire, making them mascot material, possibly in the sport of boxing.

Anansi, from African folklore, is a mischievous rogue of a character who delivers stories with a moral.  He does so by way of being a trickster.  In one story he prophetically names his children who later save Anansi from certain demise.  His sons, true to the names he had given them, set out to save their father.  Anansi is saved by the wit and ingenuity of his offspring.  After the triumphant rescue, which entailed being imprisoned within the entrails of a bird, Anansi stumbled upon the moon lying in the grass.  The moon was bright and beautiful and Anansi could not decide which of his sons was most deserving of this prize.  He pondered and thought and finally called on Nyame, God of all things (folkloric version of phone a friend).   Anansi shared his dilemma with Nyame and delivered the moon to Him.  The wise Nyame placed the bright, shiny moon in the sky for all to see.  

In Aesop’s, fabulous fables of life’s lessons told through the humanized interactions of animals, the silkworm and spider rival to see who is faster, who has more staying power.  The boastful spider says ‘look how quick’.  The meticulous silkworm retorts that the spider's web will be swept away in contempt, while the silk produced by the silkworm’s efforts will be highly prized and revered.  Thus the moral; 'not how much, rather how well'.  Snarky little spider. 

So, why the bad wrap or warp if we’re talking creatures that weave?  Well, there is the venomy part and the fangs.  Spiders are often compared to vampires, bloodsucking, fang-toting creatures that lure and capture their prey.  And of course urban legends prevail of deadly poison delivered by microscopic fangs and black widows living in a beehive up-do.  Great stuff!

Here is the real truth; we started young with our building of fear, with our construction of arachnophobia.

Take a look at Little Miss Muffet.  You know the children's story, a footstool perched girl who ate  cottage cheese and was then visited by a spider.  Muffet, who as some historians tell it, was the daughter of an entomologist, reacted by running in fear from the spider.  Given her background in science, she should have known better.  What’s worse, her trepidation was turned into a nursery rhyme that has been shared for oh, about 400 years. 

Making a spider larger than life also sets the stage for arachnixiety.  Really something about the size of a pea even loaded with venom is less intimidating than say; oh I don’t know the same creature whose size is equivalent to that of a small piece of earth moving equipment, toting fangs the size of a garden hose spray nozzle, a surefire recipe for panic.

Shelob in the Tolkien novels was a she-spider who predates history itself.  She is predominantly evil and acts beyond the influence of Sauron.  Wicked thing.  She was self-serving, gluttonous; a weaver of darkness.   Anything living was on the menu, although she would occasionally feed her offspring – which gets her mother of the year in some circles - she often left them to fend for themselves.   And if that wasn’t enough her silk could be spun into either rope or web form, unceasingly capturing unknowing passers-by.  Yep, she’s a pure terror-fest.

In James and the Giant Peach, Miss Spider is an anthropomorphized spider with a friendly and rather decent manner.  She weaves her silk with that of a silkworm to make hammocks for the insects to sleep in.  Later in the story she uses her webs to tie up a flock of seagulls, thus flying everyone to safety.  This Miss Spider is a gentler interpretation of some earlier mythical renditions.  Appropriate too, since she is in a children’s book.  I like the Parisian flair too.

Probably the most popular spider in children’s literature is Charlotte.  In the pages of E.B. White’s classic 1952 children’s book Charlotte’s Web, a barn dwelling orb weaver befriends and saves a young pig named Wilbur.  Charlotte is a gentle motherly type of spider who communicates by writing messages in her web.  She becomes an endearing figure, to the end.

Throughout children’s literature, spiders have been spinning tales.  They are portrayed as industrious and perseverant.   Illustrators have captured them in many fashions; whimsical, colorful, playful and truly friendly creatures.  And I personally thank the respective authors and illustrators for such a fine literary contribution.  (It's not nice to scare the children.)

An interesting note: most spider characters are portrayed as feminine, with at least one exception, that of Aragog.  In the Harry Potter series, the acromantula was a giant spider capable of speech.   Aragog was raised from an egg by Hagrid who cared for him within the halls of Hogwarts until he was discovered.  Aragog was feared by some to be evil and was banished to the forest.  The protection offered to Aragog by Hagrid was repaid by Aragog sparing his life from that of his ravenous arachnid children.  True friendship.

Ted Andrews brilliantly wrote of the many creatures that grace our lovely planet.   He talks of the spiritual aspects of earthly creatures, as well their physical attributes and cultural symbolisms.  Of spider he recounts the obvious associations with weaving and with creativity.  He talks about our connection through the spider totem between worlds- past and future, heaven and earth, physical and spiritual and of male and female energies.  Spider reminds us to maintain balance in these sacred places. 

Andrews continues on to talk about the physical design of spider.  It has two body parts with eight legs; both symbols of infinity, the body resembling the number 8.  Spiders weave a web that resembles a spiral which is a representation of creative geometry.   The geometric designs are believed by some to be the first true alphabet, making spider the teacher of language and the power of writing.  For those that weave magic through the written word, spider is most likely a totem animal.  Ted Andrews offered fascinating insight, all of which can be found in Animal Speaks and Animal Wise.

A quick search of the web will reveal a multitude of tales in which the spider, either real or analogized, is the central character.  Here are just a tiny few.

The Summer of Black Widows by Sherman Alexie.
Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig.
Black Widow by Ronald Bass, starring Debra Winger & Theresa Russell. 
The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle.
Miss Spider’s Tea Party by David Kirk.
Along Came A Spider by James Patterson.
Disembodied Spider Meat by Mark Wheaton.

Of course I would be totally remiss for not adding Spiderman by Stan Lee; quite possibly the most profitable arachnid of all time. 

Knowledge is a powerful thing.  While negatively portrayed, the spider is hardly a demon creature.  

Consider these interesting facts: 
Spiders eat more insects than birds and bats, combined!
Hummingbirds use the silk from spider webs to weave together the sticks that form their nests!
It is estimated that up to 1 million spiders live in one acre of land, in the tropics.
Studies have shown that jumping spiders can solve simple 3-D puzzles.
Spiders learn the behavior patterns of other spiders in order to capture them.
Some spiders can live 3 to 4 years, and certain tarantulas are known to live for 25 years or longer.
Male spiders are almost always smaller than the females and are often much more colorful.

Karma being what it is, I'd think twice about squashing a spider if I were you. 

…and so, in honor of Save a Spider Day, I am releasing my catch from the ceiling.  I am setting her free.

An additional note, today is also Einstein's birthday.  Happy Birthday Al.

Until next we meet, keep tripping on books.

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