Many can be traced to the common source of the ancient Egyptians which were subsequently adapted by community leaders and historians to fit the needs of their society. The earliest myth of a spider goddess comes from Egypt and was adapted later by Greeks and lore among the natives in the Americas tell stories of a Grandmother Spider or a Spider Woman, all creators of the universe, all weavers of destiny.
The Spider Magic of Spinning and Weaving
The spinning of yarn and subsequent weaving of fabrics has been a central theme in many societies for millennia. The ancient Greeks referred to the daily weaving as one of women’s mysteries, though it was not always the sole responsibility of women in other cultures; in ancient Egypt, weaving was also a man’s job. Just as there were gods and goddesses for other vital functions of everyday life, as Sucellus, the horned Celtic god of agriculture, the Finnish goddess Mielikki, overseer of the forests and hunting, there have been many goddesses related to spiders and weaving throughout human history. Interestingly, there is not a known record of any male deity related directly to the weaving of fabric, but there is the story of the great spider Nareau, the creator god in Kiribati mythology which will be discussed later. There are fantastic stories of great hunts that come from many centuries and cultures, like Hercules hunting the golden-horned deer. There are fewer stories of weaving and spider magic, but they do exist.
It is simple to accept that spinning and weaving could be seen as magic, a creative process under authority of deity beyond the adding of perceived value to a daily toil. If a man left his home while his wife was preparing a bundle of natural fiber, like flax or wool, then later returned home to find that the fiber had been turned to yarn, then the next day had been woven into an intricate fabric, enchantment could be an understandable perception, especially if the weaver were artfully skilled. The process used in the past and still today in many parts of the undeveloped world is aided with some form of spindle and distaff, whose earliest use is documented in Neolithic times and is believed to have originated somewhere in the Mediterranean. The distaff (image, fig. a) was typically a flat board or a wand onto which the material was loosely bound, and the weighted spindle (fig. b) hung below and had usually a stone spinning mechanism (fig. c). The fiber was twisted into a thin strand and then was carefully guided to collect on the spindle below.The more well-known spinning wheel was invented sometime between 500 CE and 1000 CE, but did not begin to be documented in surviving art until closer to 1200 CE. The more mechanized version allowed for yarn to be spun more quickly and consistently.
Yarn is woven to fabric on a loom by intertwining horizontal and vertical threads. A large loom can be fitted with dozens of different colored threads to create detailed tapestry designs, and a small one can he held on a person’s lap to create a more simplistic design.
Weaving and spinning metaphors in everyday language date back at least as far as 410 BCE; Aristophanes included a scene in Lysistrata where the magistrate is trying to devise a solution to end the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata, a house wife, compares the problem to a tangled ball of yarn. She explains that by simply straightening out the strands of yarn individually, soon the strands are free and can again be woven to make “a fine new cloak for the people”. (574-586) We commonly use phrases like close-knit and tightly woven to describe the intimacy of a family or a group, patch up to mend a strained relationship, in knots for when a person feels anxiety. Share common threads expresses that the people or situations in question are related on a fundamental level. While the more obvious metaphor suggests a degree of unity, other metaphor and allegory point to a meaning closer to creation, as a bundle of sheep’s wool can be transformed to fabric and ultimately an article of clothing in a relatively short time.
The creation meaning can also be attributed to the spider. Though not all arachnids spin webs to hunt for prey, we have come to strongly associate the spider with spinning a web, a place where we observe her waiting for and hunting prey and laying eggs. To the average observer, it looks like the spider builds a home for herself. A line is easily drawn between other-worldly ability and a spider’s web-spinning; in a single night, a thick, meters-wide web can appear between trees or in a walkway. The spider works patiently and tirelessly to create her world. The idea of “spinning” a web itself is anthropomorphic; spiders secrete their silk from different glands near their abdomens based on the purpose of the strand, spinning is the process humans use to make a usable yarn from another fiber. The Latin word for spider web is tela, or fabric. In other romance languages, the translations are closer to spider-fabric. The parallels between a spider spinning a web and people spinning yarn into fabric have a universal allure, and myths relating spiders and creation can be found in cultures from all over the world.
Egyptian Roots of Goddess Weaving Mysteries
As early as the pre-dynastic period (c. fourth millennium BCE) in ancient Egypt, the goddess Neith, or sometimes Isis, is commonly associated with war and hunting and has many male attributes. Her nature is complex; she is the oldest goddess worshiped in recorded history and therefore autogenic, or self-created. Plato likened her to Athena in his Timaeus, suitably because of the similarities between the two as weavers. Neith’s hieroglyph symbol resembled a weaving loom, another reason for this interpretation.
Another similarity to the Greek goddess was that Neith was the guardian of marriage and women, and was believed to have created the world and humanity on her loom. The symbol depicted often above her head is argued to either be a weaver’s shuttle or crossed arrows. Before being connected to this means of creation, she was believed to have worked with the primordial waters as the source. Interestingly, Neith was worshiped as a virgin, making her creation more miraculous and strengthening comparisons to Athena and allowing an archetype pathway to the Virgin Mary from the Christian mythology that came later. The ancient Egyptians are known for their love for puns and wordplay. The name “Neith” may mean water, but was also their word for weaving. As complex as her story is, it is certain that we are either missing parts of it, as some details may have been mistranslated, or as with all origination myths, understanding allegory requires a deeper look.
Neith wove a veil between herself and humanity at creation. Each aspect of life can be found within the veil’s folds, creases and strands. In some places the veil is woven sparsely, and there it was possible to find higher understanding and shed some of the clumsiness of humanity where humans found trouble and distress in the metaphorical thick, rough portions.
Ancient Alexandria celebrated the primordial goddess every year with the Feast of Lamps, a celebration where citizens burned as many lamps as they could in an outdoor festival that lasted the night. As the creator of everything, Neith was believed to hold this veil that she wove between the truth and humanity, as humans are not capable of fully understanding her divine mysteries.
All of a person’s conceptions about the world are shaped by what is seen through the veil. On one side is human primality, where divinity and truth lie on the other side. The candles and lamps burning in her honor pulled aside the veil for a night; the small flames mirrored the stars in heaven, creating a pathway allowing wandering spirits to pass to the other side. The Feast of Lamps was celebrated in the later part of the year and is a historical predecessor to Yule, Diwali and Halloween. A woven veil to protect people from the truth of divinity is still a common theme is many world religions, complete with the metaphors of all human experience correlating with details woven into this veil.
Ancient Sumerian Spider Goddess
A sparsely detailed but interesting Spider Goddess, Uttu, comes from Sumerian mythology. The story may have originated from the ancient island of Dilmun, possibly present-day Bahrain. The island, “The Land of the Living”, is without death, illness, crime or any manner of misdoings. However there is no fresh water, and the water god Enki was asked by the local mother goddess to make a plea to the sun god Utu to bring forth water from the ground. Enki’s plea was answered and there was fresh water for the crops and the people on the island.
Proud of what was accomplished when he and the mother goddess worked together, Enki wanted to celebrate and attempted to impregnate her. This mother goddess, who was a local incarnation of the Sumerian mother goddess, Ninhursag, rejected the god until he formally proposed marriage. They were married, and Nintu gave birth after nine days of pregnancy. Enki then impregnates their daughter, Ninsar, who also gives birth after nine days to another daughter, Ninkurra. They also had a daughter, Uttu. Enki’s wife warns Uttu about her father and warns her to stay inside. The youngest goddess soon is seduced by her father anyway, believing his promises of marriage and enjoying his gifts. After mating with Uttu, Enki leaves her. His wife comes to console Uttu and was able to remove the semen from her body. The semen grows into eight plants which are later eaten by Enki, and he becomes pregnant, causing serious pain in eight places in his body and nearly kills him. He ultimately is reluctantly saved by his wife, who herself must give birth to eight healing goddesses to save her husband. Uttu becomes a spider goddess of weaving, clothing and of home life.
The more obvious connection to Uttu being a spider is the occurrence of the number eight, but also noteworthy is how she unwittingly tricked her father into becoming pregnant with his own seed, in the form of the eight plants. In a sense he was caught in a web that they created together. There does not seem to be a suggestion that Uttu knew her father would eat the plants that he had unknowingly sprouted, but it presented him an important lesson.
The Greek Spin in Spider Mythology
Greek interpretation may have been the root of the shift away from a water source as creation, writing that their counterpoint, Athena, created the universe on her loom rather than from the primordial waters as had Neith in the older Egyptian tradition. The Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC) may have been the origin of the blurred lines between Athena and Neith that stand today.
One of the more well-known spider-related goddesses in mythology is the Greek Arachne, the commoner who held an uncommon talent for weaving and tapestry work. Her images of Greek gods and their stories were alluring and gained a lot of attention. Not only was her finished product superb, but the process in which she spun and wove was mesmerizing. Nymphs would gather to watch and it was said that Arachne must have been the pupil of Athena, who also was revered for her magnificent weaving and tapestry. Disgusted at the thought of being bested, even by the goddess Athena, she said aloud “Let Athena try her skill with mine, if beaten I will pay the penalty”. Hearing this, the jealous Athena disguised herself as a mortal woman. Athena met Arachne, praised her work and asked if she felt as though her weavings could rival that of the goddess, and would she in fact be willing to face a challenge against the deity. Arachne agreed and Athena revealed her true self and the two began working at their looms immediately. The two competed to create the most beautiful tapestry, and though Athena’s work was godly in itself, a single flaw could not be found in Arachne’s multiple depictions of the gods’ blunders, whose subject matter only fueled Athena’s anger. Having clearly bested the divine being, Arachne’s pride swelled and by now she had offended Athena beyond repair. The goddess turned Arachne’s pride into sorrow and guilt of the same measure. After a few days, Arachne hung herself with her spinning yarn. Moved by guilt, Athena granted her life again, but as a humble spider to spend her days spinning her web.
There is also the story of Ariadne, the Great Goddess of Crete, in other accounts called “Mistress of the Labyrinth”. Ariadne fell in love with Theseus who was doomed to be a sacrifice to a Minotaur near the city of Athens. His only escape was to find his way out of a labyrinth that enclosed the Minotaur. To help him, Ariadne gave him a sword and a ball of yard that he unwound as he made his way to the center. To escape, he simply had to follow the thread on the path. Her stories share many elements with Arachne, including suicide by hanging only to be given life again.
The Spider Goddess In the Americas
In Native American culture, there is strong symbolism with spiders as deity. The Hopi and Pueblo peoples have stories of Grandmother Spider, who is said to live atop Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. According to this mythology, Grandmother Spider spun a large web, waited for the morning dew to accumulate and threw the web into the night sky. The droplets of dew became the stars in the sky. The Navajo people have a similar story they attribute to the Spider Woman. Other native peoples have myth about a Spider Woman bringing fire to humans, and many of the oral traditions include the art of weaving as taught by the Spider Woman. For the Navajo specifically, weavers will rub a spider’s web between their hands to absorb the magic and wisdom of a spider before they sit down at the loom. A Spider Woman ruled the underworld at the beginning of creation, according to the Hopi. She created humans and animals from clay. To give them life, she placed a white blanket woven from creative wisdom over the animals and said magic words that stirred them to life. For humans, she held the clay to her chest and sang a song that animated her creation.
An ancient Aztec mural painting of The Great Goddess of Teotihuacan was discovered in the 1940s in Tepantitla, at the site of the pyramids of the Sun and Moon in Mexico. Until the 1980s, the painting was thought to be of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain and water. The details of the painting suggested a feminine form and there were enough similarities to the North American Spider Woman that it was decided that she was another version of the myth.
There are not many accounts of this goddess. She is depicted as a warrior, holding a shield with a spider web design and surrounded by spiders. One of her more spider-like features is a plate that hangs from her nose with fangs that point outward on the sides and center fangs that point down. Though a warlike goddess, she was believed to have created paradise on Earth, a contrast to other Aztec gods and goddesses who generally were fierce conquerors.
Similar to other traditions in the Americas, the Mayan Ixchel was the weaving goddess whose whirling drop spindle controlled the movement of the universe. She wears a twisted serpent headdress and was in some cases painted to show her pouring water from a clay pot with the water hieroglyph painted on the side, reminiscent of Neith’s water-creation mythology and bearing striking resemblance to the general depiction of the zodiac sign Aquarius as the Water-Bearer. In some imagery she is shown holding a spindle and distaff, and in some she is kneeling with a small backstrap loom tied to a tree, like other weaver-goddesses, weaving the destiny of the world.
Similar to Athena giving women extraordinary talent for the craft, Ixchel bestowed the gift of weaving onto women and young girls. There are many aspects of this divine being, including goddess of childbirth and women, and she has a story similar to others in this part of the world about catching the morning dew in a spider web. At the beginning of time, Ixchel taught the first woman to weave and for thousands of years weaving has been a central part of a woman’s life in this part of the world. Modern day Mayan newborn girls are presented with weaving tools and they are buried with them when they die. The little girls begin to learn to weave around the age of 8, and at 11 years old they leave her first weaving at the feet Santa Rosa, the Catholic patron saint of weaving. Women still weave in this culture today and the clothing made by hand sticks to the traditional aesthetic of design and bright colors of centuries past.
A Male Spider God Creator
A very different and notable male spider deity is Nareau, from Kiribati mythology. The tradition comes from The Gilbert Islands, located south of Hawaii, between North America and Australia. The story says that the spider Nareau hung in the Te Bo ma Te Maki (the darkness and cleaving) alone. There are multiple versions of the myth. One says that he created several other gods from the sand and water: an octopus, an eel, a woman and another version of himself, but a mischief maker.
Nareau the Elder instructed the version of himself, Nareau the Younger, to kill him and use his body to create the Earth. Upon doing so, Nareau the Younger made the sun and moon from his creator’s eyes, his brain was scattered across the night sky to make the stars, islands were made from his flesh and trees from his bones. The other gods he had created were charged with making men to walk the new Earth. Nareau the Younger was also a spider, and as such wove fates and daily obstacles for the men of Earth. His obstacles tested the will and intelligence of the men and his intention was always for the men to find solutions and overcome, thus becoming gods themselves.
Influence of Weaving & Myth in Today’s Western Cultures
As weaving became automated with better technology and increasingly advanced tools over time, women in some places found themselves free to create something with their weaving abilities that other tools were unable to do yet. The earliest records of lacemaking are from the fifteenth century, and it is unclear if there was a single point of origin since the technique could have been evolved from several processes. By the end of the sixteenth century, lace was popular all over Europe and the Catholic Church taught lacemaking to women living in poverty and to Native Americans to give them a profitable skill. The creative art of weaving has morphed into other but similar crafts. All still generally rendered by women: knitting, crocheting, tatting, needlepoint and even still weaving and spinning remain a pastime all over the world.
In some rural areas of the Appalachian United States, long-standing forms of nature worship take place. This is an amalgam of several older traditions, Native American lore, superstition and some organized religion. Following along the lines of many Native American myths, Grandmother Spider is colloquially revered, though not worshiped usually. A spider in the house will often be released outside rather than being smashed; doing so could bring bad luck, (folk tradition also suggests that eating a live spider between two slices of bread will bring good luck). Spiders seen crawling on plants outside are left alone and sometimes thanked for their medicine in keeping other pests away. Some look for messages in spider webs, especially if the web is found in a peculiar place, as if the spider herself were leaving a message.
Humans have always looked for meaning in work done every day. To spin yarn and weave all day for most of one’s adult life could be tedious to say the least, and attaching a divine nature to the work would be a simple way to make it more meaningful aside from practicality. Making it a godly task would also generate inspiration to create graceful detail within something functional. Wives and mothers have always been observed as creators within a family whether it is regarding childbirth, feeding the infant for the first year of its life, or cooking for the family, and naturally from there the spinning of yarn and weaving of fabric. The parallels to a spider’s daily, patient work are clear. The spider spins a new web sometimes every day, carefully and perfectly placing each thread of her web in its right place so elegantly that certainly she must be working in the creative shadow of a weaving goddess.
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