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A Malakulan spider web mask.

Museum Mix-up Creates a Sticky Mess: Spider Web Masks Did NOT Suffocate Widows

Spider webs are sticky, somewhat creepy, and generally not something you like to see in your house. But they are also intricate and beautiful when the right light hits them. Even more intriguing than the process and formation of a spider web is when the silk from said web is used for alternative purposes. Such is the case with a traditional textile mask made by the indigenous people of Malakula. Though the purpose behind their creation may not be what museums tell you.

Malakula (also spelled as Malecula) is the second largest island of Vanuatu (an island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean). The Spanish saw this island during the early years of the 17th century, nevertheless it was only during the 20th century that Europeans began to explore the island’s interior. The lack of contact with Europeans means that the indigenous people of Malakula were able to preserve their traditions much better than anywhere else in Vanuatu. This includes spider web cloth, which has found its way to museums in the Western world.

An image from the 1934 book ‘Malekula: A Vanishing People in the New Hebrides’, showing a man holding a cured head wearing a spider web cap.

An image from the 1934 book ‘Malekula: A Vanishing People in the New Hebrides’ , showing a man holding a cured head wearing a spider web cap. ( Public Domain )

A Spider that Weaves a Golden Web

Malakula is home to two indigenous tribes, the Big Nambas, who live on the northern part of the island, and the Small Nambas, who are found on the central and southern parts of the island. Incidentally, the names of these tribes are derived from the size of the banana leaf penis sheaths they wear. Spider web cloth is produced by the southern tribes of the island.

This type of cloth is made using the web produced by a genus of spider known as the golden silk orb-weaver ( Nephila inaurata ). Before a spider web cloth can be made, spider web has to be collected. To accomplish this task, tribesmen would go into the bush during the morning with a bamboo cane frame that looks like a cross between a rake and a funnel. This tool would be wound around the spider’s web, causing the silken strands to wrap around the cane in a way similar to cotton candy wrapping around a stick. Spider web cloth is made simply by collecting enough of this material. As the amount of web collected increases, the strands begin to stick to one another, resulting in something that resembles a thick piece of cloth. Spider web cloth can then be used.

A red-legged golden orb-web spider (Nephila inaurata). Taken near Dos d'Âne, Réunion Island, on the crest from the Roche vert bouteille.

A red-legged golden orb-web spider (Nephila inaurata). Taken near Dos d'Âne, Réunion Island, on the crest from the Roche vert bouteille. (David Monniaux/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Spider Web Cloth Usage

The tribesmen of Malakula use this cloth mainly for making masks. These Malakulan masks normally use the spider web cloth as a sort of base, on which a layer of vegetable fiber paste (in some cases, clay is also added) is placed. Additional material may also be used to give the mask specific features. One mask on display in the British Museum in London, for instance, has boars’ tusks attached to it. Another mask sold by Sotheby’s Australia is composed of boars’ tusks, dogs’ teeth, mud, stones, straw and cane, in addition to the spider web cloth. 

Mask from Malakula, Vanuatu; South Seas Department, Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany (Lemaire collection, 1968).

Mask from Malakula, Vanuatu; South Seas Department, Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany (Lemaire collection, 1968). ( Public Domain )

Mistaking a Ceremonial Usage

Generally speaking, these masks serve a ceremonial function in Malakulan society. Nevertheless, their exact function is not entirely clear. Early collectors made their own erroneous assumptions about the way these masks may have been used. Such errors are often propagated (perhaps unwittingly) by the museums where the objects are on display today. For instance, the Science Museum in London calls a mask a “smothering hood”, whilst at the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford, it is called a “cap of death”. Such names were given as early collectors were aware that on certain South Pacific islands, widows were killed at their husbands’ funerals. This led them to assume that the masks of Malakula functioned in a similar manner.

A Malakulan mask in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

A Malakulan mask in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. ( Natasha Frost )

More recently, Eleanor Morgan’s Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and their Threads suggests that the masks do not have such a sinister function. It has been argued that as spider silk cloth is not efficient at suffocating people, it is quite unlikely that it was used to kill widows. Instead, it has been proposed that they were used by male secret societies as a symbol of superiority.

As mentioned previously, exploration of the interior of Malakula began rather late, thus allowing its indigenous peoples to carry on their traditions. Today, however, the number of Malakula tribesmen is reducing, with the consequence that their traditional spider web cloth is gradually disappearing too.

Malakulan ceremonial mask including spider web as a base.

Malakulan ceremonial mask including spider web as a base. (Didier Descouens/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Top image: A Malakulan spider web mask. Source: Sailko/ CC BY SA 3.0

By Wu Mingren

References

Bonnemaison, J., Kaufmann, C., Huffman, K. & Tryon, D., 1996. Arts of Vanuatu. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Evans, O., 2010. Spiders in Vanuatu. [Online]
Available at: https://australianmuseum.net.au/spiders-in-vanuatu

Frost, N., 2017. These Hoods Made of Spider Webs Have Long Been Misunderstood. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ooi-spiderweb

Sotheby's Australia, 2017. A Ceremonial Mask. [Online]
Available at: https://www.sothebysaustralia.com.au/list/OCEANICART/1

The British Museum, 2017. Mask. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=493557&partId=1

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, 1998. Malakula. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Malakula

www.vanuatuparadise.com, 2017. Malakula: Big & Smol Nambas!. [Online]
Available at: http://www.vanuatuparadise.com/en/island-by-island/malakula

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