The Spider

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE SPIDER


Much like a subtle spider which doth sit
In middle of her web, which spreadeth wide;
If aught do touch the utmost thread of it
She feels it instantly on every side.

SIR JOHN DAVIES

 The elders of the 'Peaceful People', those whom we know as the Hopi, taught that in the Beginning all the mysteries and potencies of the Above world belonged to Tawa, while it was Spider Woman who controlled the magic of the world Below. Only these two existed. There was neither man nor woman, bird nor beast, darkness nor light, until these two willed them into becoming. When at last they so willed, the emergence of all such things was effected through aspects of the primordial duo. Tawa divided himself to produce Muiyinwuh, god of all life germs, and Spider Woman's power took on the form of Huzruiwuhti, the eternal bride of Tawa, from whose cosmic womb came the Magic Twins of manifestation and a host of cosmocratores and rulers of specialized forces. In their union, Tawa and Spider Woman swayed side by side and created the first magic song of light and sound and life.

 Tawa's song revealed him as its source. Spider Woman sang, "I am Kokyanwuhti, I receive Light and nourish Life. I am the mother of all that shall come. Let these things that move in the thought of my Lord appear." She chanted, catching up the clay from beside her and giving the thoughts form. With her slender fingers she shaped them one by one and set them aside. They neither breathed nor moved until, laying a cunningly woven white blanket over them, fleecy as a cloud, she and Tawa sang a mighty incantation and the figures stirred.

 "Now I shall lead these created things to the land that you shall cause to appear above the waters", said Spider Woman. She waited and Tawa took down his burnished shield from the turquoise wall of the kiva they had created and mounted his glorious way back to the Above. Spider Woman watched his departure for a moment and then bent her all-seeing eyes upon the creatures around her. She wound her way among them, separating them into groups, creating species and tribes, and led them through the four great wombs of the underworld to the sipapu opening onto the world. Standing, at last, under the open sky, she instructed them in the ways of the law of harmony and they gazed upon her shining beauty with wonder. "I go now, my children, obey and fear not", she said. "Tawa and I shall always watch over you." They assented and looked upward for a moment to the blazing sun. When they lowered their gaze she was gone, swirled downward within the earth in a puff of sandy dust.

 In the Tewa story of Spider Woman she is called the Grandmother of the Earth, who points out the four directions and instructs the people in the art of planting and harvesting corn. The world to which she brings them is called the Middle Place, and it hangs between the Upper and Lower Worlds like a spider's great sheet web stretched out to the cardinal points, a catch basin of all that flows onto it. Out of her substance Spider Woman weaves this world, attaching creatures to it by the thread of their umbilical cord, braiding them into a larger pattern. Just so her small earthly representative, the spider, weaves its web, entwining life forms within its threads, capturing them within the mesh of manifest existence.

 In addition to being a symbol of creative power, the spider is also feared for its aggressiveness, while its net, leading to a central point, represents the cosmic centre of the world. Three seemingly distinct symbols are thus woven together by the eight-legged one, inspiring awe and wonder tinged with fear and, sometimes, loathing in the human psyche. In India the spider resting in the centre of its web is seen as a symbol of Maya, the eternal weaver of illusions. The Buddhists refer to its web as the fabric of Samsara, the ever-changing mesh of conditioned existence. As weaver of illusion and destiny, the spider joins the ranks of the moon goddesses who are spinners and weavers of fate. In Egypt it was an attribute of Neith, weaver of the world; in Greece of Athene, of the Fates and Moirae; in ancient Sumer of Ishtar. Goddesses of fate are commonly imagined as weavers, often depicted in threes representing birth, life and death or past, present and future. Usually two aspects are kind and helpful, the other cruel and to be feared, the Great Mother in her terrific guise, ensnaring, pouncing and bringing death. Just as the spindles of the goddesses motor the revolution of the universe, so the spinnerets of the spider weave its spiral. They create the matrix of deliverance and death, hope and fear, insight and illusion. With its ceaseless weaving and killing, building and destroying, the spider, like the goddesses, symbolizes the alternating forces on which the manifest universe depends. In many cultures the moon is depicted as a spider because of this waxing and waning, while in China it is identified with yin and yang, "the to-and-fro motion of the shuttle on the cosmic loom".

 Even death itself merely winds up a thread of an old life in order to spin a new one.

J. E. CIRLOT

 In weaving, the warp is the vertical plane joining, as it were, all degrees of existence, the quality or essence of them, in an immutable sense. It is constant, direct, active and masculine, like the light of the sun or Tawa. The woof (or weft) is horizontal, expressing Nature in time and space, quantity rather than essence, the variable contingent rather than the immutable. It represents the materia femina, the passive, lunar, reflected light. Both form a crossing at each thread which is a union of opposite, dualistic but complementary forces. Christians have called the warp the scriptural doctrine and the weft the commentaries upon it, while the Upanishads in the Hindu tradition liken Brahmā to "that on which the worlds are woven as warp and weft". Thus the three symbols belonging to the spider converge in a fabric of dualism, laying the basis for the light and dark shadows that converge and divide in an endless stream through human consciousness.

 The fear that nags the wary mind or ensnares the floating dreamer can wear a spider's pincered face. Its slender jointed legs, with their promise of lightning movement and unexpected, staccato touch, can fill the imagination with horror, causing people to act with remarkable irrationality before such a small creature and to develop elaborate myths and theories about its menacing nature. All this leads a more thoughtful individual to wonder whether the spider is man's friend or foe. Is it a cunning trickster, as West African stories make it out to be, or is it more like the old gnarled crone who sits as an aged aspect of Spider Woman in Navajo stories, waiting to paralyse any passer-by and reel him in to death? One of the characteristics of the female spider which contributes to such widely held notions is the cannibalism that so many of them practise upon their mates, a gruesome habit which has inspired some ill-used men to liken women in general to black widow spiders. The picture of the waiting spider, deceptively still in the centre of its web, lingers in the minds of many. The cunning watch kept from a concealment of leaves on the edge of the web's frame convinces others of its frighteningly treacherous nature. The fear that the hairy legs of an ambling tarantula may catapult it without warning straight at one's person shatters the confidence of still others. The spider seems tricky and underhanded, sneaky and greedy. It continually strives to entrap, making its web a net of deception and imprisonment, a means of reducing all comers to victims, all struggling sojourners to fodder.

 "Will you walk into my parlour?" said a spider to a fly;
 "'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy."

MARY HOWITT

 The fact is, however, that spiders kill billions of harmful insects. As one naturalist put it, "If it were not for the number of spiders everywhere, all living creatures except defoliating caterpillars might face starvation." Fortunately, some individuals have felt an objective wonder about spiders and taken the time to observe them carefully in their natural habitats. Probably the greatest of these observers was the son of French peasants who, later in his life, became known as the 'Hermit of Sérignan'. Born in the early nineteenth century, Jean Henri Fabre grew up with a marvellous curiosity about the world and, despite the poverty and illiteracy of his parents, developed a vast knowledge of the sciences, spending all his available time studying the interactions and habits of creatures in Nature. It is amusing to picture one of the greatest naturalists the world has ever known tracked by the local gamekeeper in the vicinity of Sérignan where he had retired. Suspecting him of poaching, that bastion of the law could not imagine that Fabre's stealthy ramblings through the meadows were devoted to the study of spiders and their webs. On one occasion, having watched for a considerable time while the scientist stood crouching over what might have been a rabbit hole, the worthy detective arrested him and took him along for questioning. He never could prove that Fabre was poaching but neither could he believe that anyone could spend hours on end, motionless and silent, in one spot watching a spider.

 Everyone knows the story of how the lovely Arachne wove tapestries of great beauty and renown and how her pride and pleasure in this prompted her to audaciously challenge the goddess Athene to a weaving competition. When Athene saw the excellence of her effort, she became enraged and destroyed it, transforming Arachne into a spider. Arachne, consumed with sorrow at her fate, hung herself by a rope which Athene used as the material for her web. Some say this metamorphosis was to shame her pride and render her ugly and fearsome to the world. Others say that Athene did it because of her own remorse and because she intended that Arachne would be known as the most superlative weaver in the world. Whichever version of the story one feels inclined to accept, it is the patient observation of Fabre and other students of Nature which has cast light upon the nature of what, perhaps as Athene intended after all, became known as the order Araneae of the Arachnida class.

 The term 'spider' comes, not surprisingly, from the German word spinne, the Danish spinder and the Swedish spindel, meaning 'one who spins'. Over thirty thousand species have been identified in Nature. One grassy acre in England turned up two million individual spiders which, in the realm of eight-legged demography, is certainly on the dense side, but their populations show up in almost every region wherein they can weave their webs and find food. When hatched most baby spiders do not find a comforting mother nearby. They are on their own to follow a remarkable instinctive urge to separate themselves out into an ecologically optimal distribution. The method followed by many species is known as ballooning. The young adventurer waits for a breeze, stretches out its legs, tips its abdomen upward and releases a silken thread from its spinnerets. With this drag-line attached to a twig or leaf, the spider lets go and sails through the air. It may fly a few inches or it may soar up as high as two hundred feet and as far as two hundred miles. Such aerial artists have been found on ships two hundred miles out to sea, and, as the thread acts like the tail on a kite, it is believed that they have some control over the flight by climbing it, pulling it in, winding it up or letting out more filament.

I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
 In latter August when the hay
 Came creaking to the barn.

ROBERT LOWELL

 With the same wonderful silk, spiders of various species proceed to weave one of four basic types of webs. The irregular cobweb of the black widow or the common house spider is simply a mass of fine, overlapping threads based on guy lines. The funnel web acts as a runway leading back to a mouth where the spider (ominously) sits and waits. Continually added to, this structure tends to become a large thick blanket, gleaming white in a meadow's early morning light and built to last. The sheet web is a platform on which insects fall after hitting one of the criss-cross threads constructed above it. The spider waits (cunningly) under the sheet and draws the victims through the mesh to which they are stuck. Of all the spider's creations, the most awesomely beautiful is the orb web. This is the masterpiece that has inspired the reverential respect of engineers down through the ages, and there is little doubt that it has lent itself as a guide to many an inventive builder. One has only to observe the establishment of its initial supporting framework to realize that here is the blueprint of the suspension bridge and of all sorts of complex structures related to it.

 Sheet weavers spend most of their lives on their web depending on creatures falling into the trap, whilst orb weavers may build many webs in a season, mending them or starting anew when anything acts to destroy them. Other spiders, such as the tarantula or the wolf spider, rely less upon the web and actively hunt their prey, contributing volumes to the tales of terror told by their human observers. Though potentially far less harmful than a black widow, the size of the tarantula in particular tends to lend it a threatening quality. A Brazilian member of the family, with a body length of three inches and leg span of ten inches, certainly titillates the tendrils of terror even in one who may never have had the dubious pleasure of encountering one in the jungle. One pauses to think of webs ten feet wide made up of alarmingly strong threads. It would not be pleasant to inadvertently walk into such a mesh stretched across a heavily forested pathway.

 Unlike most spiders who live a year or two, the tarantula requires ten years to reach its full growth. The male then undergoes his last moult and scurries off, far and wide, to seek a mate. After succeeding in the object of his search, he dies or is killed by his ungrateful and even larger spouse who, taking it all in her stride (!), goes on to live to the ripe old age of twenty-five or so. One remarkable member of this enduring tribe emigrated in a bunch of bananas to England and ended up as a star attraction at the British Museum. Named Horace (in spite of her gender), the great hairy Araneae learnt to take her food daily from the hand of her enthusiastic keeper and bask in the sunlight of unstinting admiration. When Horace died at the age of twenty odd years, tears were shed especially because her demise occurred as a result of the Second World War and took place ahead of her time. Because of power failures during bombardment, the temperature of the otherwise continually heated museum dropped to below freezing and the popular tropical visitor succumbed.

 The sense-organs of spiders are of great importance in detecting prey. Ground spiders who hunt during the day use their four, six or eight eyes to see what is going on around them. But nocturnal ground spiders rely upon touch and web spiders upon the receptors on their legs which detect vibrations coming from any part of their web. When a spider catches a victim, it covers it with a secretion containing powerful digestive properties so that it is liquefied and sucked up into its stomach by means of an internal pump. Paralysis and dismemberment are fates capable of engendering horror in the human imagination, but liquefaction seems even more ghastly! Unperturbed by such psychological qualms, the spider carries on expertly, according to its nature. Each female lays several batches of eggs during her lifetime, requiring only a single mating. The semen of the male remains viable for a long time and contains enough sperm to fertilize all her eggs. One male can inseminate several females, each time spinning a new sperm web from which he absorbs the semen into the tarsal organs of his front legs. It is these that he inserts into the spermathecal opening of the female during copulation. Fulfilling a role similar to that of Tawa, the male spider is thus the giver of the life germ. If he is killed by one of his mates, it is only his corpse that dies, for his immortal essence lives on through the vehicle of his cosmic consort, passed down for generations without number.

 The immortal germ manifests in the world through the web of life and the weaver weaves the umbilical threads of all its forms, like the Demiurge's handmaiden that she is. The spider's spinnerets (usually six in number) are wonderfully flexible, like sensitive fingers at work. They can combine single threads into various thicknesses, some dry, some sticky-coated, some beaded with globules spun slowly and in jerks. After establishing its first suspension line (by spinning it out from an elevation and letting it float on air until it catches to a twig or leaf), the orb web builder weaves additional threads to strengthen its anchor points, dropping down on one side to make another leg of the frame. Then she walks up and along the bridge to attach a third line which will become the completing side of a triangle in which the orb web can be placed. The weaver next drops a line across the triangle and, going to its halfway point, establishes the centre of her emerging cosmos.

 In this initial phase the spider places lines, shifts them, removes, lengthens, shortens and rolls up old line while new line is pulled from the spinnerets. She sits and then explores an area, dangling from a drag-line, and finally releases the thin line that will become the suspension bridge. Strengthening and extension of this occurs by the drawing in of one thread (supporting the spider's front end) while the new thread (supporting the rear) is drawn from the spinnerets. Thus the spider's body forms a living link between the old and the new, the preliminary and exploratory, and the permanent pattern that is to be. The procedure involves many elements, many types of thread. The framing threads established, mooring threads will be attached to branches and leaves, pulling the corners of the frame outward. Finally, radial threads from the hub at the centre will be fastened. They, like those of the hub and frame, are composed of dry silk, and wherever they intersect they are joined with a sticky globule. The spider rarely misses a juncture, for only if they are secured will they be rendered incapable of sliding past one another. The weaver wants any motion on one part of the web to be readily transmitted to other parts, and this can only be achieved when all parts are completely joined to the pattern.

[The Soul] much like a subtle spider which doth sit
In middle of her web, which spreadeth wide;
If aught do touch the utmost thread of it
She feels it instantly on every side.

SIR JOHN DAVIES

 When the radial threads are attached, the spider quickly builds a spiral scaffolding, circling out in thin lines from the hub to the frame. It is like a centrifugal sketch or design support which will be used in the building of the sticky, permanent spiral that will wind in close rows centripetally from the frame to the hub. Like the outbreathed thought of Tawa, the astral-like provisional spiral streams rapidly through the impulses of the weaver, who scurries to lay down its dry ethereal lines. Only then are things ready for the construction of the earthly, fully manifest web upon whose sticky strands the spider glides with wonderfully lubricated legs. Similar to the progressive complexity of biological evolution in the world, it expresses more detail and greater definition of form. But in creating the viscous articulation of its encircling mesh, the centripetally moving weaver will reach a point in her involution, just short of the hub, where she will leave an open area spanned only by the radial threads. If one saw the whole process in terms of the alternating cycles of life, one might liken this open area to a transcendence of the qualities which bind man and beast to the ever turning wheel of Samsara. The hub built of dry, thickly woven threads might be seen as a laya point where waits, not merely the terrible devourer, but the monitor of karmic law who responds instantaneously to anything affecting any part of the totally interconnected, interdependent world-web.

 Pursuing this analogy, one may consider that it is not so much a matter of avoiding the web by always managing to fly around it, as it is a matter of understanding what the web of the world and one's inevitable physical death in it means. There is web after web built by Tawa's consort and death after death to be experienced upon its ensnaring surface. Will one ever reach the still, dry centre where, like the weaver herself, one can rest freely and unbound while surveying through the soul's sensitive comprehension the world in every direction at once? The 'Uglito', as some have called certain garden spiders, shows the answer. Like her, life appears to be terrible in its seeming treachery and cruelty. Its secret nature, however, lies not in external appearances or behavioural interactions but rather in the fact of its unfailing, alternating expression. The ingenious cunning of the spider is thus a swift reaction to action played out along a web pattern complex enough to authentically symbolize the far greater complexity of karmic causes and effects acting upon physical, mental, psychic and moral planes in human evolution. In this way the spider can be seen as the faithful servant of the divine thought of Tawa, who conceived a universe of harmony and perfect balance against which all disharmony and separativeness cannot match up. Every time an incongruous thought, desire or act hits the fine webbing of life, this faithful Nemesis leaps into action and eliminates the disturbance.

 Like the eight-sided octagon which is intermediary between the circle of the Logos and the square of the world, the eight-legged weaver of illusion and destiny symbolizes spiritual regeneration. As she liquefies' and absorbs the elements of opposition, the spider waxes in strength and perpetuates her lordly consort's design. The web of the cosmos that she weaves becomes a symbol of more than just a stage for death. It becomes a network leading to transcendence of the separative disturbances which cause human beings to live their many lives like insects, flying and feeding and getting stuck in one lethal web after another.

 To become more than another victim in the inevitable cosmic web, an individual must do something far greater than merely attempt to weave his or her own little cunning network of effects. Studying with the patient eye of a naturalist and with the discretion and experimental thoroughness of a spider investigating the positioning of its framework, one who is calm and determined can learn to reach the centre of life's pattern without getting caught on its outermost threads. If one can gradually free oneself from the psychic thraldom of likes and dislikes and all the related effects that they engender, one can exude, as it were, a lubricating fluid of detachment which will permit one to glide, like the spider, across the cosmic web of effects to its centre. From this position the subtle interplay of cause and effect can be perceived and monitored in line with a higher causal intelligence. In this position one can join Huzruiwuhti and the company of all those who pursue the Law of Harmony and serve Tawa, the Logoic Emanator of Divine Thought.

Spider Woman waits by a pathway,
They say people travelling there disappear.
But life is nothing but a pathway
To be followed without fear.