Arachne and the Spider in Dante

The symbolic spider that wove its way through history

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The spider is an ancient and powerful symbol found round the globe, and have always elicited a wide range of emotions in people: fear, disgust, panic, and sometimes curiosity and appreciation. This broad spectrum of impressions has influenced origin myths, legends, art, literature, music, architecture, and technology throughout history.

Certainly an enigmatic symbol, the spider has different meanings and purposes according to different cultures. Arachnids and their webs embody many traits and interpretations, including resourcefulness, creation and destruction, cunning, deception, intrigue, the feminine, wisdom, fortune, patience, and death.

Arachne the Weaver

In ancient Greek legend, the world’s first spider was born from the pride of a woman.

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.

Being crafty and industrious weavers of webs is only one trait of spiders which been used symbolically across the ages. Spiders and webs have been featured in traditions around the world, and have meant many things to many cultures.

Arachne returned to the living as a spider

Arachne returned to the living as a spider (via GreekMythology)

Creator and Destroyer

In many cultures spiders stand as the creators of our universe and world, and also serve as agents of destruction.

For example, in ancient India, it is written that a large spider wove the web that is our universe. She sits at the centre 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.

Egyptian Goddess of Weaving

Egyptian Goddess of Weaving (via HeartsPM)

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.

North American indigenous cultures have often portrayed spiders as creators, helpers, and wisdom keepers. 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 Lakota people’s lore includes a trickster spider, and the Navajo connect Spider Grandmother and the weaving of webs with the creation of the world.

Good Fortune

Spiders, contrary to their sometimes fearsome or creepy physical appearances, are not always portrayed as dangerous creatures or destructive emblems. In many traditions, the spider is a good omen and a helpful savior.

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.

Patti Wigington writes in About Religion , “ In several cultures, spiders are credited with saving the lives of great leaders. In the Torah, there is a story of David, who would later become King of Israel, being pursued by soldiers sent by King Saul. David hid in a cave, and a spider crawled in and built a huge web across the entrance. When the soldiers saw the cave, they didn’t bother to search it – after all, no one could be hiding inside it if the spider web was undisturbed. A parallel story appears in the life of the prophet Mohammed, who hid in a cave when fleeing his enemies. A giant tree sprouted in front of the cave, and a spider built a web between the cave and the tree, with similar results.”


Fantastic Article!

lizleafloor's picture

Thanks very much Jared.

Justbod's picture

Interesting how spiders have weaved their way through all cultures.

The concept of the web is such a strong symbolic one - eg the Web of Wyrd in Anglo Saxon culture and our own 'World Wide Web.' Love or loathe spiders, you can't ignore their impact on our language and culture.

When I saw the article I also thought of the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider.

Interesting and food for thought - thanks for the article!

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lizleafloor's picture

Thanks bod,

There were so many ancient and modern references to spiders that the article could have gone on and on. Spiders are also a signal of weather changes to some, and house spiders are good luck to others. So much to learn!

I wanted to include Shelob, but she's too big.


Justbod's picture

Thanks for replying Liz!

- you're right - perhaps a book on spiders is in order (a big, weighty tome full of pictures!)


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