I dislike spiders. I always have. They have a face for radio and admit it, their fuzzy legs do not invite cuddles. Through the years I’ve grown to respect them and the role they play in protecting our garden and our ecosystem. I have also grown to respect their magickal aspects as well. But understanding the nature of working with them can be a little tricky. For most people the simple thought of working with a totemic spider is enough to unsettle their energy. I found that although they are not always pretty, they are most certainly always patient, thorough, and brutally honest.
One of the first legends of the spider many of us come across is the story of Arachne, or how spiders came to be and how they got their name. The legend itself has several different translations but each one bears the same result and the general details. Arachne was the name of a beautiful girl from Lydia (or princess as stories tend to vary), who was extremely gifted in weaving. So gifted that either she or her mother bragged that Arachne was even more beautiful and talented than the goddess of weaving herself. While these specifics vary the general meat of the story does not.
Athena, disguised as a crone, visited the girl and challenged her to a contest of weaving to see if the girl truly was the best weaver between Earth and Olympus. They both wove beautiful tapestries each one the subject of which were the gods. Athena wove a glorious tapestry depicting the gods at their very best, brightest moments. Arachne wove a beautiful tapestry as well, but her tapestry depicted the gods at their less than shiny moments. There for all to see were the sordid details of the lives of the gods. All of their pettiness, vindictive streaks, debauchery, and affairs caught in vivid woven strands. Athena was less than amused and instantly transformed into her youthful self. And here is where things begin to get interesting.
Arachne, being a very proud young woman, was so humiliated she attempted suicide by hanging. The goddess took pity on her and transformed her into a large spider, as the story goes.
Athena, aside from being known for her beauty and wisdom, was also a goddess of diplomacy and tactical warfare. Athena taking in consideration how humiliating this would be for the gods and knowing their reactions would bring a horrendous, painful fate on the girl and potentially her family and village as well, settled the issue immediately. Because of her skill in weaving, the girl was transformed into a spider to spend eternity weaving webs but her beauty was gone forever. In some depictions she is half spider and half woman. In others a human sized spider, and in some a rather large spider with various human like qualities. Like the tale of Medusa, this seems to be pretty cut and dry. Girl is arrogant. Girl angers the gods. Girl is punished. And to the gods that is the way it appeared, but like Medusa the fate that befell Arachne is very similar.
It’s not really that Athena disagreed with the girl’s assessment of the gods or their activities. It’s not even a point that she disagreed with the girl’s skill. It is a point of note that Athena knew in advance how fragile the egos of the gods were and to what extent they would go to in seeking vengeance. Being of more intellect than ego, Athena was clever enough to know any transformation into a less appealing form would be settling to the gods’ discontent. If you value irony, consider the saying that you are never more than ten inches from a spider at any given time and yet you never know they are there or they are watching. Spiders know your true self even when people closest to you do not.
The form of the spider itself has many mystical qualities. The shape of the body forms a figure 8, the cephalothorax and abdomen. The spider has eight legs, eight eyes, and spins in a spiral. Likewise the lemniscate, a symbol for infinity, also forms an eight. While this symbol is given mathematical and scientific associations, the lemniscate has roots in philosophical and religious study as the symbol for two becoming one. The number “8” itself symbolizes infinity. cosmic harmony and balance. Pythogoreans viewed the number 8 as the Ogdoad, the sacred number as it is an evenly even number. The serpents of the Caduceus form a figure eight.
All over the world in nearly every culture there is a legend of the spider weaving the fabric of reality, illusion, and creation. In Vedic scriptures the thin veil of reality is called Maya. The Qu’ran and Greek lore attribute weaving with the Fates and countless Native American and other Indigenous tribes around the world attribute the spider with higher wisdom, high intellect, truth, and the creation, destruction, and rebirth of life. It doesn’t take much consideration to view the “curse” placed upon Arachne as more of a transfiguration into a higher being. Arachne herself was transformed into an archetype of Fate, embodying the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone in one single aspect. It’s said she gave birth to all spiders and in some cultures, it is your strand in the web of life that the Grandmother cuts at the end of your life.
Like Medusa, her disfigurement appeased the gods, avoided a massive clash between civilians and the gods, and at the same time Arachne’s gifts lived on and still she continues to weave the fabric of our reality. That is quite a gift. While to some she may appear to have been degraded into a lower form, Arachne was actually exhalted into a goddess in her own right that sees all truths (pretty or not), weaves reality and illusion alike, combines the duties of the Fates as one aspect of the Three, and offers the gift of sacred geometry.
Even viewing Arachne in this light, I still don’t care for spiders. But I have a newfound appreciation for them and the both earthly and cosmic role they play in our universe.