Spiders are some of the most formidable predators in the insect world, and have been living with mankind since we were walking through their webs to get out of the cave. Despite the majority being harmless to humans, the horror that a spider sighting ignites in most people is the reason they have been a potent and fearsome creature in myths and stories.
From the early beginnings of spiders in rock art, spider mythology evolved into the Greek myth of Arachne. Another mortal who fell out of favour with the fickle gods of Olympus, Arachne was a confident and unwisely boastful woman regarding her skills in weaving. With the gods, this sort of ‘I am better than the gods’ statement never ends well. The goddess Athena cursed her, and she was transformed into a spider, her very name becoming the scientific name for all spiders, arachnid.
From there on, it doesn’t get any better for spiders. In the early sci fi days, Frank Powell’s 1906 novel, “the Wolfmen” had a menagerie of creatures, one of which was a giant enraged tarantula spider. His book, which is quite rare, is part of the lost world idea, and authors such as Verne, Conan Doyle, Rice Burroughs and Michael Crichton have all made their contributions to this rich tapestry.
Tolkien also used the spider motif in both The Hobbit and LOTR, with the giant Shelob, who nearly ended the ring quest early for Frodo and Sam. Her vile descendants were encountered in a foreshadow by Bilbo in Mirkwood a generation earlier. Both continue the tradition of the inherent evil predatory nature of spiders. More recently JK Rowling created the fearsome Aragog, beloved only by Hagrid. In both of these stories the heroes barely escape with their lives.
In movies spiders fare no better. In the 60’s movie ‘Food of the Gods,’ giant spiders grow from toxic chemicals, and Joan Collins gets monstered. Even the more recent ‘8 Legged Freaks’ and ‘Arachnophobia’ continue the scary spider tradition.
However, there are some stories where spiders emerge as heroes, which is no mean feat. In ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ the spiders’ weaving gave the pig a reprieve from the frying pan. In one Enid Blyton story, Miss Muffet ends up giving the spider a mustard foot bath, as he is only grumpy because of a cold. Spider-Man is the most recent where spider characteristics emerge from the darkness and become good characteristics.
I imagine the use of spiders as a subject to terrify is not yet over, so long as there is a need for a terrifying thing, well, you may as well make it big and hairy with dripping fangs. But maybe it takes a greater effort of imagination and belief to turn a stereotype on its head and make us like it.
What do you think? Are spiders hard done by in fiction?