I n the summer of 2009, scientists working on a beach in Sussex, England, discovered a prehistoric piece of amber. Inside, delicate tangled threads of a spider web were dated to 140 million years old, making it the world’s oldest. Spiders have inhabited the earth long before people – evidence shows their arachnid ancestors at 380 million years ago – but our relatively short cohabitation often surfaces feelings of fear and revulsion. Some believe this arachnophobia is a product of human evolution, which might explain why, for many, spiders consistently rank among people’s biggest fears.
Sculpted by Love and Trauma | Louise Bourgeois’ Iconic Spider IV
Despite this, spiders have held varying symbolic meanings through history and culture, both positive and negative, inhabiting oral traditions, literature, poetry, as well as art. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, foolhardy Arachne challenges Minerva to a duel on the loom, only to be transformed into a spider and forced to weave for eternity. Images of the spider recur throughout Louise Bourgeois’s work, signifying aspects of her childhood and relationship to her mother, a tapestry restorer. “The spider—why the spider?” Bourgeois wrote in her 1995 book Ode à Ma Mère. “Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.” As her celebrated sculpture Spider IV comes to auction in Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction (27 April, Hong Kong), we look at some of ways people and cultures have contended with all the captivating and formidable characteristics of the polarising eight-legged creature.
A Little Joy
The spider and its web hold many auspicious associations in Chinese culture. In ancient China, spiders were referred to as 'ximu' or ‘happy insects'. The sight of these positive creatures were often associated with good news: one story recalls that a mother, waiting for her son to return from a long journey, finds a spider crawling on her clothes; soon after her son arrives. Likewise, the sight of a spider hanging from a long thread can denote a friend arriving, or good fortune descending from the heavens. The webs are especially significant, too, indicating an attraction of joy and prosperity in our lives, while the eye-like centre can mean that good luck is always within eyesight.
The story of the spider in the Chinese telling present another dimension of why this happy insect is favourite good luck sign. There is a certain type of spider with long red legs that is called 'xizhi', a homonym of the words that mean 'little joy'. As a result, people would view spiders as a good omen, and it is widely believed that this custom originated in the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD).
In Hinduism, the interconnections of the spider's web becomes a metaphor for the interconnections of the universe and the structure of reality. In the Vedic story of Indra's Net, from the Atharva Veda, a beautiful, enormous net stretches above the great deity’s palace in heaven, extending to infinity in all directions. Decorated with brilliant jewels at each cross of thread, like an expanse of stars, each gem reflects every other gem, providing a beautiful visual metaphor that speaks to the interdependence of all things. Every part of the world can be seen like objects in the net, not merely as themselves, but also as everything at once—the microcosm and macrocosm—so that each entity in the universe is also the very universe itself.
Legend of the Spider Woman
The Spider Woman appears in several Native American myths, especially in the southwest United States, with the Hopi, Pueblo, and Navajo peoples. This supernatural being has strong associations with creation, and often acts like a teacher or helper, imparting wisdom, skills, and healing. According to the Hopi, it was the Spider Grandmother who created the earth with Tawa, the sun god, moulding animals and people from clay and attaching herself to them via thread. Hopi artist Michael Kabotie has said: “The spider woman is the wisdom keeper, the grandmother figure, the female figure. When I wanted to get out from my illness, there was a spider woman in my mind who spoke to me, and she became my strength and my courage to pull me out." Legends of the Spider Woman were passed down orally for generations, with many versions existing today. For the Navajo, she is not considered the creator of humans, but a constant helper and adviser, who once taught weaving so they could survive their first winter in North America.
The Trickster Anansi
Anansi the spider is a popular folklore character from the Asante people of Ghana, shared through their oral tradition. The stories of this divine figure and mischief maker spread to the Caribbean and the rest of the New World beginning in the 15th century, with the international slave trade, and the stories evolved to include symbols of resistance and rebellion for the enslaved peoples. A wise trickster who uses his cunning to outsmart others—especially stronger adversaries—Anansi often causes mischief and reveals unsavoury aspects of his own character to impart moral lessons. In one popular tale, Anansi asks the Sky-God Nyame for all his stories. Not believing him capable, or wanting him to succeed, Nyami sets a high price for Anansi. But by using his wit, the spider manages to capture the four most dangerous creatures, defying expectations, and becoming the lord of all stories. Today, Anansi is referenced often in popular culture: in many books and comics, music, television, art, film, and video games. Anansi the Spider has narrated African folklore stories on Sesame Street, Cuban singer Celia Cruz wrote a prayer song to Anansi, and the contemporary artist Carl E. Hazlewood features the character as a recurring motif in his body of work.
A spider in the morning is different from a spider at night is a well-known Japanese saying. Perhaps because spiders spin their webs on good weather days, discovering one early is considered a good omen, while finding one at night is believed to bring bad luck. This more menacing aspect of the spider stretches back through early Japanese folklore, as a type of yōkai, or supernatural monster, spirit and demon, called tsuchigumo, the earth spider. Often depicted as outsized, monstrous creatures, these spiders would hunt and consume their human prey. In one 14th-century mediaeval epic, The Tale of the Heike, tsuchigumo is described as “short of body, long of legs, superhuman in strength, it inflicted many injuries on the local folk.” Another well-known example is the picture scroll Tsuchigumo Soushi, which presents the creature disguised as a woman. The story’s hero, Yorimitsu, senses something is off, and after piercing her with his sword, follows her trail of blood to a nearby cave. There he encounters a giant spider, and when she is slain, tiny spiders come rushing out from her body. Tsuchigumo is often associated with another giant spider, Jorōgumo, a mythical creature that can transform into a woman, often shown as half-human, half-spider.
A sweep of mass hysteria called tarantism occurred in the city of Taranto, in southern Italy’s remote countryside, beginning in the 15th century. Believed to be caused by the bite of the tarantula spider—whether real or imagined, a form of psychosis, or deception—the resulting states of psychological distress—rages, mania, catatonia—found no easy remedy. The only solution was a kind of trance-like, ecstatic dance, used to shake off this possessive stupor. Musicians would gather around the tarantata (the afflicted) and play. Stirred, the tarantata would dance for days and sometimes weeks to achieve catharsis. According to Nicola Caputo, the 18th-century doctor and scholar who investigated tarantism, “At the third melody, or maybe the fourth, the young woman in my presence awoke and began to dance with so much force and fury that one might have called her crazy. After two days of dance, she was free and healed.” The practice continued over the years, aligning closer to the ideas of hysteria that were growing in popularity, and increasingly associated with women. The ritual began to decline, and by the 20th century, few were still being performed.