Arachnida, the scientific name of spiders and their relatives is derived from that of a character in Grecian mythology. According to Ovid, Arachne was a mortal who was so skilled in weaving that she ventured to challenge Athena. When Athena saw that Arachne’s work was without blemish she destroyed it. Arachne was driven by grief to hang herself, whereupon Athena changed her into a spider and the rope became a cobweb.
It is said in the sacred writings of ancient India, that a large spider was the originator of the universe. From her glands she wove the web of which we inhabit a part and even now she sits in its center directing its motion. At her pleasure she will consume it, as many of the spiders about us do their webs, and may then spin a new universe. It is worth noting that the same idea occurred in the folk lore of certain American Indian tribes and is also found in that of Guinea.
Spiders did not hold so exalted a station with all people. The idea was current in many parts of the world that they have their origin in putrefaction. Moufet proved this as follows: “It is manifest that spiders are bred of some aëreal seeds putrefied, from filth and corruption, because that the newest houses the first day they are whited will have both spiders and cobwebs in them.” His daughter was doubtless the heroine of the nursery rhyme:
Little Miss Moufet sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey
There came a great spider
And sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Moufet away.
There are three fairly well-known Biblical passages concerning spiders. Agur (Proverbs XXX, 28) includes the spider that “taketh hold with her hands and is in kings’ palaces” among the four things which are little but exceeding wise, and the frail spider’s web is a symbol of the hypocrite’s hope (Job VIII, 14) as well as of the disobedient Jews’ works (Isaiah LIX, 5).
If we may believe legends, Mohammed, St. Felix of Nola and other victims of pursuit have been saved by spiders spinning webs over the entrances to their hiding places. The pursuers, seeing the webs, decided that no one had passed that way and neglected to look.
The fortunes of Robert Bruce were at low ebb and belay, discouraged, gazing at the cobwebs on the rafters. A spider, after vainly trying twelve times to swing itself by its thread from one beam to another, succeeded on the thirteenth attempt. “The thirteenth time,” shouted Bruce, “I accept it as a lesson not to despond under difficulties, and shall once more venture my life in the struggle for the independence of my country.” He won.
Perhaps not much more legendary than these is the story that the spiders in the temple of Ceres Thesmophoros wove white webs when the Theban army was to be victorious, but black ones, signifying defeat, when Alexander made his attack.
During his imprisonment at Utrecht, Quatremer Disjonval observed the relation between changes in the weather and the habits of spiders. When the French invaded Holland in 1794 by crossing the water barriers on ice, Disjonval hoped to be released. An unexpected thaw came in December and the French were about to withdraw but, as Disjonval’s spiders predicted a return of cold weather he got word to the French general to wait. This was done; the cold came and the French were able to move even their heaviest artillery and to take Utrecht.
Some of the ideas on this subject are as follows: if the weather is to be rough the threads which support the web are unusually short. Before a rain spiders are
In Maryland it is said that if you kill a spider which gets on your clothing you destroy the presents it is weaving for you. A seventeenth century writer puts it as follows: “When a spider is found upon your clothes, we used to say some money is coming toward us. The moral is this: such who imitate the industry of that contemptible creature may, by God’s blessing, weave themselves into wealth and procure a plentiful estate.”
Instead of killing them you may throw them over your left shoulder if you wish good luck. If you feel that you must kill a spider that has taken up its abode in your house, carry it outside for its execution; otherwise you will be “pulling down your house.” If you kill a spider crossing your path you will have bad luck. If a white spider drops in front of you, you will soon see a dear friend; if a black one does the same, you will meet an enemy. In the Netherlands a spider seen in the morning forebodes good luck; in the afternoon bad luck.
indolent. If they are active during a rain fair weather will quickly follow. If spiders make changes in their webs before 7 P.M. the night will be clear and pleasant.
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.
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.
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.
Homeopathic treatment seems to have been much favored in cases of spider bites. Collections of dead spiders have been made because if a person bitten by a spider look at another specimen of the same species he will be cured. Dried spiders have been taken internally for the same purpose.
It seems that not every one is afraid of spiders. Lande, the French astronomer, proved by eating spiders as delicacies that he could raise himself above dislikes and prejudices. Spiders were eaten by the aborigines of America and Australia. A quotation from Molien’s Travels in Africa says that the people of Maniana “eat spiders, beetles and old men.”
Doubtless quite a list could be made of uncivilized tribes that eat spiders and there is a number of recorded instances of more advanced persons who, like Lande have acquired the habit. One is given in verse:
How early Genius shows itself at times,
Thus Pope, the prince of poets, lisped in rhymes,
And our Sir Joshua Banks, most strange to utter,
To whom each cockroach-eater is a fool,
Did, when a very little boy at school,
Eat Spiders, spread upon his bread and butter.
It is undoubtedly true that spiders catch and kill many injurious insects. In the fields good insects suffer with the bad, but as few good insects find their way into our houses the house spiders are almost entirely beneficial. However, since spiders are not encouraged to live in our houses it is doubtful whether the group as a whole helps us greatly in our fight against injurious insects.
The strong supporting threads of cobwebs have been much used in telescopes for the purpose of making fine lines appear in the field of vision.
Silk spun by spiders to cover their eggs has been woven into cloth. It is said that the fabric is so transparent that a young lady was once reproved by her father for the immodesty of her costume although she wore seven thicknesses of it. Since it requires more than half a million egg-masses to yield a pound of silk the industry does not promise to become commercially profitable.