An Tale of Fear Retold

February 21, 2019

When it comes to spiders, I am as guilty as the next arachnophobic of discrimination. All I need to see is eight legs or dark fast movement and my first response is to either jump or step on it. Oddly, size does matter. If it’s larger than pea, I take my shoe off and elevate myself on the nearest chair or table. The thought of something large under my foot terrifies me. Like all prejudices, mine was established as a child. The oldest memory I have of a spider invading my world was when my family came home from a drive-in movie. It was a horror movie, so I was already scared. I turned on the light in my room to see something black on my pillow move quickly underneath it. I screamed and my father came and calmly killed it, but I sat on the other edge of the bed for the next hour, exhausted but terrified enough to wonder if he had a family somewhere close by. On another occasion, I noticed a white silk covered entity in the corner of my room. It looked like it was breathing. Terrified, I sprayed it with whatever cleaner was available and sucked it up with the vacuum. This is the way I have dealt with spiders most of my life, a fear and loathing of life I don’t understand.

I know I am not alone in this fear. Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears to modern man. What is it about them that paralyzes us? The speed at which they move or is it that it seems to be toward us. Is it the way they stop suddenly, like they’re plotting how and where to move up your leg? And yet when you look more closely, although just as frightening, there is something fascinating in their glass eyes, their patience and tenacity, the symmetrical beauty of their habitats.

Spiders have been the subject of world myths, both good and bad, for centuries. The ancient Greeks tell of Arachne, a master weaver who challenged the goddess, Athena, to a contest. In the end, Athena acknowledged Arachne’s talent but was angry at her arrogance and cursed her to become a spider. In parts of Africa, the tale is told of how the trickster god, Anansi, earned stories of wisdom from his father by capturing the world’s four most feared beasts. One story told was how a spider built a web so thick, it kept King Saul’s soldiers from searching the cave where David hid, thereby saving him. A variation of this same story is that the web saved the prophet Mohammed from his enemies. Probably my favorite story, though, is that of the Apaches. Apache mythology tells of how the world was formed by the Tarantula who pulled the cords of the four directions to create the earth. Life and creation are mysteries, so in a way that is uniquely mankind’s, telling stories that help us understand has gone on for centuries. The fear of spiders generated legends that give us respect for these creatures.

There are some wonderful facts about spiders that we don’t think about. For example, the silk of a spider gets its endurance from the locks of protein created in the process. It is not, contrary to legend, the toughest material on earth. It can, however, catch insects that are much larger than the spider who weaves it. And yes, just like that scene of the sewer in the movie Spiderman, it’s the vibrations of their webs that alert them that something has been caught. Female spiders do eat their mates after mating and although most spiders are not maternal, the wolf spider carries her young on her back until they are ready to leave. But some facts you might not have know are that spiders have blue blood from a chemical in their blood called hemocyanin. Another fact; spiders have several silk glands they use for different purposes in building their webs and they digest their food with stomach acids outside their bodies before sucking it in.

I confess as I looked these things up, even watched some videos, I still cringed and shivered. But having read the stories and seen the footage filmed by some brave soul, I have more respect than I did before. These eight-legged wonders have earned the respect of our ancestors enough to tell stories of their origin and of modern scientists enough to explore fascinating facts, then maybe it’s time for me to see them differently, too.

But if it’s all good with you, I’ll do it from a distance.

“8 of the weirdest facts we know about spiders.” Plunket’s Pest Control.

“What is the spider silk made of and how can it be so strong to hold a spider?” UCSB ScienceLine. 15 March, 2001.