Friday, March 10, 2017

Supernatural Friday: Spiders Are Icky, or Spider Myths

March 14th in 2017 is National Spider Day. For spiders, that is halleluiah time. For me, a person who is not crazy about arachnids, a day for the buggers is something I can avoid or won't celebrate. Especially when I was bitten by a brown recluse years ago, and it took two months of antibiotics to get myself back to normal. After that, I jokingly said, that spiders were out to get me.

To be honest, spiders have been around a long, long time. Spiders themselves likely evolved around 200 million years ago, though the oldest spider fossil dates back just 130 million years.

Anyway, the brown recluse, is said to have earned a terrible reputation for its deadly bite. Doctors often blame the species for spider bites, even in states where the brown recluse isn’t present.

Then there is the pinktoe tarantula. It’s a South American spider with pink-tipped legs. The pinktoe spider comes from the rainforest, and fly. Other tarantulas might be killed if dropped a few feet, these ones “can essentially parachute down” from the treetops.

New spiders are still being discovered. One species of spiders were found when spelunkers came upon a previously unknown family in southern Oregon. These were dubbed Trogloraptor, or cave robbers.
Spiders are arachnids, but that word doesn’t just mean spider. The eleven arachnid orders include scorpions, ticks, etc.; spiders are just one order of the class Arachnida. It is thought that all spiders have eight legs, but all arachnids, not just spiders, have four pairs of legs. And no, they are not insects.  All spiders make silk but only about half make a web (silk structure to catch prey); others hunt or wait for prey. "Daddy-longlegs" means harvestman (not a spider), crane fly (an insect) or pholcid spider, depending on who's talking! So, it's really meaningless.  Books say spiders don't eat solids but "suck the juices" of their prey. False. All spiders digest solids externally with vomited enzymes. Spiders in sinks and bathtubs come down the walls, attracted by water. They cannot come up through the drains!  Outdoor spiders are not drawn to indoor habitats where they can't survive. Indoor spiders are different species, called house spiders. The well-known structure and behavior of solpugids (sometimes called "camel spiders") makes their alleged human-flesh consumption absurd. Tall tales alleging that "camel spiders" (which aren't spiders) have super-powers and do horrible things to men and camels are all phony.

In Germany and Ukraine, it is tradition to include spiders and webs in Christmas tree decorations, due to the association between tinsel decorations and the spider web strands.

Spider Myths and Legends

Spiders have inspired good books, like Charlotte’s Web, but they also are in myths and legends. Like the story of the Buddha and a spider you can read and enjoy HERE.

Stepping on a spider will bring some catastrophe like bad weather or a broken back. Not true.

A 1999 internet hoax claimed that a deadly exotic spider lurked underneath toilet seats in planes and around airports. Everything in the story is fake.

Another story was told of someone buying a cactus at a local plant nursery. It exploded once the person had arrived home and baby tarantulas came from within the remains, scattering everywhere! It’s a full-fledged urban passed from person to person by word-of-mouth and been around the world several times. Oddly enough, those repeating this story, stating that it happened to someone else that they knew personally. No one knows how the story started, but the event described never happened. Tarantulas do not inject their eggs into cactus plants, hatching tarantula egg sacs do not explode, and baby tarantulas are quite harmless in any case.

There is a myth that baby spiders from bite wounds, a very widespread and persistent tales of spider eggs hatching under human skin, contradicting what is known of spider behavior and abilities.  In a surprisingly widespread urban legend, a nameless woman is bitten by a spider (usually on her cheek) while on vacation. She later develops a swelling, from which, in due course, baby spiders emerge. The venom must have transformed into eggs. Actually, no actual case like this can be found anywhere in scientific or medical literature. Other than in horror fiction or scary horror flicks.

Brown recluses seem to accumulate myths. In 2005 a man reported hearing that they acquired their toxicity through a mutation due to World War II atomic-bomb research. That’s nonsense – the toxic component in recluse venom is also present in distant relatives that diverged many millions of years ago. Then there’s the rumor about a supposed cross between a black widow and a brown recluse. These species are so unrelated, it would be like a cross between a whale and a walrus. Another myth is the one where one person heard from a Missouri ER doctor that a brown recluse "would return to the person he had bitten" — in 2013!

"A spider by day is quite okay, but a spider at night should cause you flight" was common among early 20th century European immigrants to New York City. More recently someone else explained this as a mistranslation of a German saying: "Spinnen am Morgen bringt Kummer und Sorgen…" The word Spinnen means both spinning (the usual translation) and spiders.

Finally, a strange urban legend: From time to time, spiders breed by cloning. That is, the mother makes several clones of herself inside her body, and when the young ones grow they start to eat the mother until the mother is just an empty shell. You see this sometimes when you try to smash a spider and out of the smashed spider, hundreds of baby spiders creep out. At least three later correspondents related this to a real experience of stepping on a female wolf spider carrying a brood of young on her back. Surviving young would scatter from the maternal corpse, but they weren't inside her.

In Southwestern tribes, spiders are associated with the culturally important art of weaving, and wise spider goddesses give their assistance to the people as culture heroes. Many Plains tribes, like the Lakota, feature Spider as a rough trickster god, ranging from an inappropriate, but entertaining rogue in some stories to a violent and slightly deranged criminal in others. To the Osage, spiders were a special symbol of patience and endurance. To the Blackfoot, they represented intelligence and skillfulness. The Ojibwe associated spider webs with their dream catchers, a type of traditional hand-woven Ojibwe craft meant to filter out bad dreams which has become popular among many different tribes today.  In Hopi creation myth, Spider Woman is goddess of the earth. She, together with other gods, formed the first man and woman out of clay. The Navajo connect Spider Grandmother and the weaving of webs with the creation of the world. 

The Greek Myth of Arachne
The mortal Arachne was gifted in the art of weaving fine cloth and tapestries, and studied under the goddess Athena, herself a master at weaving and pottery. Arachne’s work was so beautiful, and her talent so great, that word of her weaving spread far and wide. Eventually, pride and arrogance lead Arachne to boast that her work was even better than Athena’s. In a contest to determine who was the better artist – the mortal or the goddess - Arachne wove a tapestry depicting the gods in a bad light, detailing their debauchery and foolishness. The goddess Athena was furious and, in a rage, destroyed Arachne’s work.

Arachne, horrified and ashamed to realize where her hubris had taken her, hanged herself. Athena, feeling that the mortal had learned the error of challenging the gods, turned the hanging rope into web, and Arachne into a spider, so she might weave beautiful creations for all time. This is the origin of the word arachnid, a term we use for spiders to this day.

Other Spider Myths of the World 

in ancient India, it is written that a large spider wove the web that is our universe. She sits at the center of the web, controlling things via the strings. In legend it is said she will one day devour the web/universe, and spin another in its place.

Egyptian mythology tells of the goddess Neith - a spinner and weaver of destiny - and associates her with the spider. She is often depicted with a weaving shuttle in her hand, or a bow and arrows, demonstrating her hunting abilities.

The spider is a trickster god in West African stories, personifying the creation deity Anansi. Associated with storytelling and wisdom, the spider causes mischief to get the upper hand in dealings with others. The retelling of these “spider tales” imparts moral lessons through the generations.

Rock art and bark paintings in Australia reveal that the indigenous cultures created spider symbols. Spiders in their webs are linked with a sacred rock and ceremony for the Rembarrnga people in central Arnhem Land. Several regional clans use spider totems in rituals.

Ancient Chinese folk culture celebrates spiders. They are thought to bring happiness in the morning, and wealth in the evening. Spiders are lucky creatures, and dubbed “happy insects”. The image of the spider features widely in art and literature in China, and spider jewelry or charms are worn to bring good luck.

In Japanese myths, the Spider Princess is a mythological spider figure called Jorōgumo. She is able to transform into a seductive woman, who entraps travelling samurai. The Spider Princess has many names, such as “binding bride” or “prostitute spider”. Jorōgumo morphs into a beautiful woman to beguile warriors into marrying her. Sometimes the Spider Princess appears to carry a baby, which turns out to be her egg-sack.

Whatever you believe about the spider, it can be beautiful to some and creepy to others, fodder for spooky books, terrifying monsters for scary movies,  and gods and goddesses to peoples in the past, there is so much truth and myth about it.

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