Fragments of Spider Lore

Spiders in history

Spiders and Music

The following is from the Anthologia Borealis et Australis

I hailed thee, friendly spider, who hadst wove
      Thy mazy net on yonder mouldering raft;
Would that the cleanlie housemaid’s foot had left
      Thee tarrying here, nor took thy life away;
For thou, from out this seare old ceiling’s cleft,
      Came down each morn to hede my plaintive lay;
Joying like me to heare sweete musick play,
      Werwith I’d fein beguile the dull, dark, lingering day.

It is said that when the young ladies in a certain English school sang at morning and evening prayers spiders always came out of their hiding places and ran about the floor or suspended themselves from the ceiling.

Before the French author, Pellisson, was converted to Catholicism he was imprisoned in the Bastille. There he fed a spider while his cell-mate played a bagpipe. The spider came to associate the music with food and finally could be called to any part of the cell by blowing on the bagpipe. The sequel to the story is that the governor of the Bastille, hearing that his prisoners had found a pleasure in their confinement asked for a demonstration. When the spider came out he crushed it with his foot.

There are several similar stories. Another from the time of Louis XIV is that Lanzun, during one of his imprisonments trained a spider to come for food when he called it. The interesting part here is that the spider not only associated sound with food but distinguished between sounds, for when others tried to imitate Lanzun’s voice the spider refused to come.

Poisonous Spiders

All spiders are poisonous but there are very few which injure man. This is partly due to lack of inclination and partly to inability to pierce the human skin. However, fear of spiders is almost universal. Sometimes this fear amounts to a mania, the victim going into hysterics at the mere sight of one of them.

The fumes from burning spiders are alleged to cause faintness, cold sweats, vomiting and finally death. Some monks in Florence are reported to have died from drinking wine in which a spider had fallen. Of course the tragedy was attributed to the spider. On the other hand, Conradus, Bishop of Constance, swallowed a spider which had fallen into sacramental wine and suffered no ill effects.

The bite of a large spider—any large spider is commonly called a tarantula—is said to cause the victim to “make a thousand different gestures in a moment; for they weep, dance, tremble, laugh, grow pale, cry, swoon away and after a few days of torment expire, if they be not assisted in time.” Music is considered to be an antidote.

From the Treasvrie of Avncient and Moderne Times (1619) we learn that “Alexander Alexandrinus proceedeth farther, affirming that he beheld one wounded by this Spider, to dance and leape about incessantly, and the Musitians (finding themselves wearied) gave over playing; whereupon, the poore offended dancer, hauing vtterly lost all his forces, fell downe on the ground, as if he had bene dead. The Musitians no sooner began to play againe, but hee returned to himselfe, and mounting vp vpon his feet, danced againe as lustily as formerly hee had done, and so continued dancing still, til hee found the harme asswaged, and himselfe entirely recovered.”

It has also been said that if a wasp has been bitten by a spider and lively music be played, both the wasp and the spider will begin to dance. The same has been said of a bitten chicken. On the other hand if the spider concerned be killed, dancing will stop even in the case of human beings.

On account of these ideas a certain kind of hysterical dance is called the Tarantula. Italian beggars sometimes claim to have been bitten and solicit alms while in a dancing fit.

Spiders as Medicine

Cobwebs are still used to stop bleeding, a thing which Bottom had in mind when he said to the fairy Cobweb “I shall desire of you more acquaintance, good master Cobweb. If I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you.” Ben Jonson said that a certain penurious individual “sweeps down no cobwebs here but sells ‘em for cut fingers.”

Spiders’ webs have been taken internally for ague. Chapman’s Materia Medica (1824) recommends doses of five grains of spiders’ web, repeated every fourth or fifth hour for “obstinate intermittents, paroxysms of hectic, morbid vigilance from excessive nervous mobility, irritations of the system from many causes especially when connected with protracted coughs and other chronic pectoral affections.”

If cobwebs be burned on a wart it will be rooted out and never grow again. Pliny states that cobwebs, especially the part which forms the spider’s retreat is useful when applied to the forehead as a cure for watery eyes. The web must be taken and put on by a boy who has not reached puberty, who must not show himself to the patient for three days, and, furthermore, neither he nor the patient may touch the ground with bare feet during this time. He also recommends cobwebs moistened with oil and vinegar for cranial fractures.

The spiders themselves seem to have been very efficacious. One sewed up in a rag or enclosed between two nutshells and worn around the neck will charm away ague. It should also be applied to the wrist or temples in the case of bad fevers. If a spider be taken when neither sun nor moon is shining and the hind legs be pulled off and wrapped in deer’s skin, the combination will, according to some, relieve gout. Moufet remarked that “we finde those people to be free from the gowt of hands or feet (which few medicaments can doe) in whose houses the Spiders breed much, and doth beautifie them with her tapestry and hangings.”

Pliny gives uses for spiders as well as for their webs. The thick pulp of a spider’s body, mixed with oil of roses, makes an ear lotion. Among the best remedies for spider bites are spiders left to putrify in oil.

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