The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Arachne was a master weaver of fabrics and tapestries at Colophon in Lydia, the daughter of a man involved with the trade in the rare purple dye then reserved for royalty and the spiritual elite. There are various versions of Arachne’s story but somehow she ended up in a tapestrymaking contest with the goddess Athena, credited by the Greeks as the inventor of weaving. Both wove tapestries; the general population was permitted to choose the winner. Arachne won, with a cynical tapestry mocking the lifestyles of the gods, especially Athena’s father Zeus’ prodigious love life. Daddy’s girl was enraged. Exactly what happened next depends on the version of the story:
Athena transformed Arachne into a spider
Athena hanged Arachne and then changed her into a spider
Arachne hung herself but Athena, out of pity, changed the rope into a web and Arachne into a spider, the ultimate weaver.
Spiders are now classified as belonging to the Arachnid family, as are scorpions, emblems of Egyptian goddesses. The word “spider” derives from the Old English spinan, “to spin.” It is thus closely related to “spinster,” which although given the colloquial meaning “old maid” with the added implication of being dowdy and undesirable, technically refers to an unwed, independent woman. Spinning was once not only an occupation and art associated with women but a spiritual and magical tradition. Spiders are sponsors of spinning and emblems of witchcraft.
There are perhaps 100,000 species of spiders on Earth. They are a unique species; only spiders create webs from within their bodies. The web is the spider’s home and the manner in which she captures her prey. On the outside of her body, spiders possess four or six (depending upon species) spinnerets. Liquid spurts from these teat-like organs, which solidifies almost immediately on contact with air, forming spider silk. Spiders can employ one or more spinnerets as desired. Seven different types of spider silk exist; all spiders can produce three while some can produce more. The tensile strength of spider thread is second only to fused quartz.
Spider webs can be beautiful. Dew shining on spider webs in the sun resembles sparkling diamonds. Complex, artistic webs are spun by female spiders. Designs are maze-like and may have inspired labyrinths and mandalas. Spiders inspired the art of spinning; magical theory says spiders themselves taught women how to spin.
True artists, spiders spin webs out of their own bodies, in similar fashion to the way women birth babies and produce milk.
“’Come into my parlor,’ said the spider to the fly…” All spiders are predatory. They suck their victims empty of fluids, leaving nothing but dead husks behind, in the manner of vampires or succubi. Various species, not only the black widow, cannibalize their mates and children.
Spiders terrify many people, disproportionately to their ability to harm. Arachnophobia is the scientific name for fear of spiders (and scorpions, too, which are also arachnids).
This primal, irrational fear is evoked in the gigantic threatening spiders in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Return of the King and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Shelob, the female spider in the Tolkien book, particularly evokes some kind of terrible, primal, chthonic goddess. Her hunger and ferocity transform her into a veritable guardian spirit, albeit not for Frodo.
Black Widows truly are dangerous. Once you know what they look like, they’re hard to mistake: shiny, glossy black spiders, the females wear a red hour-glass shape on their underside. Their color scheme and venomous potential, combined with their conjugal habits, make Black Widows the spiders most identified with witchcraft, their name synonymous with femmes fatales.
Mating habits of spiders are pretty unique, too. Their mating terrifies and fascinates people, often especially men. Having consummated the relationship, the female spider, usually the larger of the two, often attempts to consume the male, quite frequently succeeding. (There’s one male who won’t kiss and tell!)
Spiders have been used as metaphors for the dangers of sex, both literally and also in terms of sex being the trap that leads to the death of men’s immortal souls.
Because spiders give birth to huge quantities of young at one time they are also ancient emblems of fertility and female generative power. Spiders are associated with birth, death, sex, immortality, destiny, and the acquisition of wealth, power, and magical knowledge. Because spiders (and spinners) are understood to spin and cut the threads of life, many deities take the form of spiders or are allied with them.
Spider goddesses include:
Askhe-tanne-mat, the Ainu spider goddess, manifests as a long-fingered woman who guides babies through the birth canal.
Female spider deities are heroines of Native North American spirituality; variously known by names like Spider Woman or Old Spider Grandmother they rescue people from disaster, sponsor culture heroes and perform miraculous actions like providing people with fire.
Morticia of the Addams Family, whose tight black spider gown is intended to evoke the magical Black Widow (although Morticia verges on the saintly!)
In Hungarian tradition, spider webs are the gossamer thread spun by fairies. In Germanic areas, spider webs are considered threads from Mother Holle’s spindle. (See DIVINE WITCH: Hulda.)
Chinese mythology looks at both sides of the spider controversy. Spiders are sacred to the saintly Weaving Maiden, the romantic guardian spirit of young women. On the other hand, female spiders, bored with male spiders and seeking to up the ante, transform into the shape of beautiful women. Men, Chinese folklore warns, should you meet a mysterious, seductive maiden, be on your guard! She may be a spider transformed into a girl, out to ensnare you.
Spiders show up in classic Halloween iconography; fake spider webs decorate haunted Halloween houses. Halloween witch costumes frequently may as well be spider costumes. (Several years ago a witch dress named Spiderella was popular.) A spider-witch plays the role of the Weird Sisters in Akira Kurosawa’s film interpretation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood.
Perhaps in remembrance of their former sacred status, it’s believed unlucky to kill spiders. To do so is to risk losing wealth and spiritual protection.
See also WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning. Transformation