Children of Arachne
By Suzi Fovargue
Published Samhain 1995, artwork © Liz Taylor
As the pagan new year approaches, and commercially we see all things ghastly, ghostly and beastly in the shops, I thought I'd spin you a little tale of the eight-legged creature that often adorns Hallowe'en gifts - the spider!
That humble little arachnid that gives you a heart attack in the bathroom and, conversely, catches you eye with its most beautiful creations on a September morn - the cobweb - is not only linked to Pagan and Christian legend, but is also one of the most eco-friendly creatures on this Planet.
Having looked after tarantulas and studied both these and our local domestic spiders for a couple of years now, I've found myself blessed with an ever deeper involvement with spider biology, myth and mystery, and for my own religious purposes have adapted the three aspects of the Maiden, Mother and Crone to spider Deities from around the world. To write about all of them would take up too much space, so I'll concentrate on Europe this time around.
The spider mythology within Europe can broadly be split in two - the more accessible "classical" and the darker folklore. The "classical" tends towards the spider as weaver of the web of creation, and we are familiar with the "web of Wyrd" (the high-tech nineties carries this on with the World Wide Web of the Internet), the three Feminine Fates (Sisters of Wyrd) who spin the thread of each man's life, weave it and sever it! One of the most important tales of the "classical" period concerns Arachne, who was not only a beautiful maiden but reknowned for her talents as a weaver. Thus she thought herself worthy to challenge the Goddess of the domestic arts, Athene (who also damned the beauty Medusa, who became a female protection deity) to a weaving contest; this they did, and Arachne won, causing the furious Athene to change her into a spider so that she should spin for ever. The maiden's fate wasn't so bad, as now all spiders have been named Arachnids after her, thus in fact deifying her to an extent to those who devote themselves to the spider.
The spider as a weaver of good fortune also comes from this "classical" side, ie the golden money spider bringing wealth and the saying "if you wish to live and thrive, let the spider run alive". People throughout Europe were therefore reluctant to kill a spider, being also used to cure ailments by people eating the spider and ingesting its power - a form of sacrement, or by being carried in the form of a locket. The inspiration of determination given to Robert the Bruce when under threat from the English (yes - us again!) is known to all. Fortunately for the spider it has also been woven into the fabric of Christian legend, the cross on the back of the Orb-Web Spider (Aranaeus diadematus) and the spider who wove a web to conceal the baby Jesus from his enemies probably helped to save the spider from the damnation that became the fate of goats and cats etc, though some spiders could still be denounced as "familiars" by the paranoid.
The darker nature of the folklore of spiders can be tied in with the human abilities of sympathetic lycanthropy. In Italian and Romanian folklore, witches were thought to take the form of spiders to steal young females away for sacrifice at Havest/Herfest Time; in Anglo-Saxon folklore these were known as Goblin Spiders. In Italy again, and most of central Europe, poisoned wine was known as Taranatula Wine - travellers often being dumped into a wood helpless and doped by crooked innkeepers.
This link of spiders to poison, sacrifice and harvest caused the Christian Church to react. Soon the fable of the Virgin Mary being challenged to a spinning contest by a spider and beating the sinister Arachnid - condemning it to hang on a silken threat forever, began to appear to illustrate the triumph of the chaste over the sensual. This was seen as necessary, for in these times of severe repression Tarantism was rife, hence the reason for the Church needing to "curb" (especially the female).
"Tarantism" started in the Italian town of Taranto in the 1300s. If bitten by a tarantula, death was believed to follow soon unless one took part in a frenzied, hysterical dance that bordered on, and possibly was, an orgiastic ritual. However, that this dance was used purely as a cure was questionable. There was in fact a reasonable cure for such venomous bites at the time which consisted of the patient being made to sweat the poison out by sitting in an oven. So why did the dance so grip Italy and Spain that fiddlers would go to the fields at Harvest time in the hope of being hired by a victim?
Most theories appear to concede that the dance of the Tarantati was an exorcism of socio-sexual repression and an unwillingness amongst the people to let go of old Pagan ways. Especially when there was strict Catholic rule which forbade any form of lustful exhibition. It is interesting to note that most of the "victims" were usually young girls in the first throes of adolescence, and were usually "bitten" in the vaginal area after squatting down to urinate in the grass.
Dr Richard Mead observed in 1730 that the young girls danced for anything up to twelve hours a day for up to four days, and "talked and acted obscenely, playing with vine leaves and wearing coloured cloth". The audience would often sing ribald songs with explicit amorous lyrics such as "Where did the spider bite you, dear?"; "Up under my petticoats" the girl would sing. The link with the spider and the maiden sacrifice was taken further in the 1795 English edition of Natural History - the Tarantati were compared to the ancient priestesses of Bacchus: "The patients were dressed in white with ribbons in their hair, red, green or yellow, on their shoulders they put a white scart, letting their hair fall loose and throwing their heads back as far as possible".
The orgies of Bacchus were performed enthusiastically by the inhabitants of this warm climate long before they were abolished by Christianity. Unwilling to give up so darling an amusement, it seems they devised a pretense. Upon discovery of the tarantula and its poison they could still enjoy their old dance. Ironically the tarantula responsible was not the small Wolf spider (Lycosa tarantula) but was probably the Mediterranean Black Widow. When the Europeans emigrated to the Americas, they named the massive hairy Mygalomorph spiders they encountered tarantula after the harmless Wolf spider.
Unfortunately, nothwithstanding the originally positive Christian myths of spiders, in England as well they came to be regarded as the Familiars of witches. During the witch hunts of 1645 in the county of Suffolk, at one trial Mirabel Bedford admitted to possessing a Familar Imp in the form of a spider called Joan. In another case, the accused "witch" almost swayed the court in favour of his innocence when the prosecutor noticed a spider crawling close to the prisoner's lips and cried out "See who prompts him!". The poor man was sentenced to death.
To an extent, nothing has changed in a lot of people's minds; our little house-proud eight-legged friend, who has inhabited this earth for over 300 million years, has played an important role in the folklore of Europe and indeed throughout the whole world where in some parts she is still worshipped, having many links to sacrifice, blood, harvest, herfest and the like. So when you wake one morning and find this little Arachnid marvel in the bath please please PLEASE don't flush her down the plughole; catch her and let her back into the carpet to help with the house cleaning (they feed on a lot worse critters!). For although she's a mystical symbol of Creation and a Familiar of Bacchus, SHE CAN'T BLOODY SWIM!