Spiders and Man

"Will you walk into my parlour?" said the spider to the fly;
"'tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy.
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
and I have many curious things to show when you are there."
"Oh no, no," said the little fly, "to ask me is in vain,
for who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again."

From 'The Spider and the Fly' by Mary Howitt 1821 :- click to see the whole poem.

Spiders have been around a lot longer than people, at least human people, however it is inevitable that humans have known something about spiders for a long time. Spiders are certainly ubiquitous and every body knows what a spider is, were I to mention Collembola (Springtails) far less people would know instantly what I was talking about even though there are more than 6,000 species of Springtail on the planet. Everybody who speaks English knows, or thinks they know, what a spider is.


The word 'spider' is of course just the term we use in the English language to describe a certain animal we all perceive, but other languages have words to name these wonderful animals.

A Spider By Any Other Name Would Be As Cute
Language Name   Language Name   Language Name
English    = Spider | Bulgarian    = Payak | French    = Araignée
German    = Spinne | Greek    = Arachne | Italian    = Arágna
Swedish    = Spindel | Hindi    = Makdi | Korean    = Geomi
Marathi    = Makdi | Indonesian    = Laba-laba | Dutch    = Spin
Irish    = Damhán | Hebrew    = Akavish | Croatian    = Pauk
Turkish    = Örümcek | Chinese    = Zhi-zhu | Flemish!*   = Spinnekop
Lingala*    = Lifofe | Faroese    = Eiturkoppur | Danish    = Edderkop
Norvegian    = Edderkopp | Farsi (Persian)    = Ankaboot | Byelorussian    = Pavuk
Russian    = Pauk | Polish    = Pajonk | Portuguese    = Aranha
Spanish    = Araña | Arabic    = Ankabot | Hungarian    = Pók
Kannada (India)  = Jeda | Telugu (India)  = Saleedu | Malayalam (India)  = Ettu kaali
Tamil (India)  = Ettu kaal poochi | Kiribati**  = te Ntakareau | Afrikaans  = Spinnekop
Tagalog ***  = Gagamba | Haitian Creole  = Zaranye | Maori **** = Torohuka
Japanese  = Kumo | Romanian  = Paianjen | Thai  = Mang moom
Pedi (South Africa)  = Sohoko | Eebo (Nigeria)  = Oodoodo | Korean  = komu
Sri Lankan  = Mokkara | Punjabi!*  = Makkari | Laos  = Mang moom

     * Lingala is spoken in the western part of the former Belgian Congo (Zaire) and along the Congo river.
     ** Kiribati was formerly the Gilbert Is. It is prononced 'n-tak-ar-ow' 'ow' as in owl.
     *** Tagalog is Filipino language.
     **** The Maoris do not classify nature in a way that relates well to the Western mind, hence in their language there are a number of words which can mean spider, but they can also mean something more or even different. Papangu, papanui, papapango, paparangi and tuturi may all refer to spiders. (He ingoa ngarara / Insects and Spiders, by Arihia Smith)
      !* Flemmish is not really a language but a collection of dialects spoken in northern Belgium.
      !!* Punjabi is spoken in both India and Pakistan

Please note that many of these words are not normally written in the western alphabet and they have been written here in an anglicised form. Where two vowels are writted together both vowels should be pronounced, thus Pauk is 'Pay uck', with the emphasis on the last syllable in this case. Also in some languages there is not a single word for spider in the Gujrati language (from India) for instance there are two words " Maakdo" for male spider and "Maakdi" for female spider. In other languages the word is impossible to render with the English alphabet. Thus in the Cheyenne language of the American Indians 'Spider' becomes Ve?ho?e where the '?' signify glottal stops.

The English word spider comes from the old English Spithra for spinner.

With thousands of cultures spread out across the planet it is inevitable that an animal both as common and as remarkable as the spider should be involved become involved in many myths and beliefs, and so it has been, I will only be able to touch on a few of them here but I hope you can enjoy what I have supplied. Lets start with a quote from The World of Spiders by W. S. Bristowe, one of the worlds master arachnologists of the world.

The really remarkable feature of all these diverse thoughts and beliefs, of multiple origin throughout the world, is that in every continent and in nearly every country they seem to have yielded one common idea - that it is unlucky or unwise for a man to kill a spider. ....and leads to the sparing of spiders' lives by Europeans and Mohammedans...
Hence we have the rhyme common in both the USA and England.
If you wish to live and thrive
let a spider run alive.

The British people are renowned for their love, often eccentric, of animals and this probably at least partially explains why in 1936 a policeman controlling traffic on the Lambeth bridge in London stopped all the traffic to let a large spider cross the road in safety. His actions were much appreciated by the nearby pedestrians who cheered wildly as the spider made it safely to the other side.

The Hausa tribes of West Africa make spiders into the heroes of folk tales believing they possess great wisdom. The Bhil and Mat people of India believe that the spirits of their ancestors live on in the bodies of spiders, particularly those that share their houses. The Chibchas of South America tell us that the sould of the dead need the webs of raft spiders so that they can cross the river that separates the living from the world of the dead that is at the cetre of the earth.

In a number of other legends the spider is the creator of the world, given the creative capabilities of the spider it is easy to see how such myths could evolve. For example the Pueblo and Navajo peoples have a myth that relates how the first being was Spider Woman, and that she created created all the other beings of the world out of clay and that she attached each person and animal to her with a thread of her silk. In some West African tribes there are legends that relate how the spider's thread symbolises our connection with God. This use of the spiders web to symbolise the interconnectedness of life that the people saw in the world around them is very interesting.

In Borneo the spider is also a strong creative figure. There is a legend there that Mother spider spun a huge web that covered the whole world including the original tree, then with the help of an insect larvae she was able to stimulate the tree to produce human beings from its leaves.

In China spiders are part of the Wu Tu or five poisonous animals, however they are also reverred as the apostles of Confucius and thus possess much wisdom. In Japan the spider god is a great tactical genius and in Italy the garden spider Araneus diadematus was honoured because of the white cross on its back. The wisdom of spiders is also reflected in their use in divination, widely disparate cultures such as those in Bali, Indonesia and Cameroon in Africa used spiders, amongst other animals as a means to see into the future.

Incey Wincey Spider
Incey Wincey spider
climbed up the water spout;
down came the rain
and washed poor Incey out;
out came the sun
and dried up all the rain;
and Incey Wincey spider
climbed up the spout again


This little rhyme originally comes from Mother Goose but I learned it at primary school in Australia where it was an action song. We used our hands to act out Incey climbing up the spout, the rain washing him away and then the sun coming out and his triumphant conquering of the drain pipe mountain, at least thats how I saw it then.

Surprisingly, the Egyptions say little about spiders though they can hardly have been unaware of them. Also most of the Old Testament Bible and the Quran whose writers were normally good observers of nature refer to the spider only in terms of the frailty of its webs. Only in the Proverbs of King Solomon do we find some appreciation of the spider.



Proverbs Chapter 30
"There be four things which are little upon the earth
but they are exceeding wise;
the ants are a people not strong,
yet they prepare their food in the summer;
the conies are but a feeble folk,
yet they make their homes among rocks;the locusts have no king,
yet they go forth all of them by bands
The spider taketh hold with her hands,
and is kings' palaces"

There are three very similar tales involving spiders hiding people from their enemies. The first is from the Bible where David was being hunted by Saul, when David hid in a cave god sent a spider to weave a web across the entrance, when Saul and his henchmen arrived they saw the web and so assumed nobody could be inside because the we would have been broken. The Prophet Mohammed is also reported to have been similarly protected from the Coreishites when he hid in a cave after having been forced to flee Mecca. Finally a 12th century Japanese hero called Yoritomo is also supposed to have been saved by a spider spinning a web across the opening of a hollow tree he was hiding in.

The most famous story of a spider influencing human history is perhaps the story King Robert the Bruce of Scotland. He was involved in a war with King Edward of England who was trying to conquer Scotland. In 1306 he was hiding out in a cave, (or a barn depending on which version you believe), he had already fought 6 battles against King Edward and had been beaten back six times. While he was taking his rest he watched a spider trying to set up the support lines for its web. The spider tried and failed six times. He said "Now shall this spider teach what I am to do, for I also have failed six times." The spider made its seventh attempt and this time succeeded. Inspired by this King Robert the Bruce of Scotland set about rallying his troops and in 1314 he defeated King Edward of England and drove him out of Scotland.

Spiders of course have appeared in literature for centuries and Shakespeare used them often one example from The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene II Shakespeare likens the wiles of women to the web spinning of a spider.

Here in her hairs
the painter plays the spider, and hath woven
a golden mesh t'entrap the hearts of men

The scientific study of spiders, as with so much of zoolog, is considered to have started with Aristotle (385-322) BC. However as he incorrectly contradicts Democritus' claim that spiders produce the silk from within their body as a "superfluity or excretion" it might be more honest to give Democritus the title of the father of Arachnology. In his Historia Animalia he included spiders with the insects, he divided them according to whether or not they spun webs and then on the basis of the types of webs they spun. He also reported on their web building techniques and reproduction. Not everything aristotle recorded was correct, however it was to be more than 1,800 years before anybody else wrote anything intelligent about spider biology.

The first people to write some fresh observations on spiders, rather than just repeating the errors that had been handed down from translations of Pliny (Ancient Rome) and Aristotle, were zoologists like Robert Hooke, Martin Lister, Antonie van Leeuwhenhoek, John Ray and Jan Swammerdam all of whom were born between 1600 and 1700. Carolus Linnaeus is normally considered to be the father of the binomial (two name) system we still use to name animals, however we now know that Svenska Spindlar (Swedish Spiders) published in 1756 by Carl Clerck was actually the first zoological work to use a binomial naming system. He described 68 spiders, whereas Linnaeus' Systema Naturae 10th Ed. published the following year described only 37 species. Hence spiders, as far as I know, are the only group of animals to have their classification predate Linnaeus' great work.

The first ever Professor of Entomology, the Frenchman Pierre Latreille (1762-1833) was the first to give spiders a number of genera within their own family, but they were still considered as insects. It was left to the German Carl Ludwig Koch to give the spiders the write to be a class in their own name and so the Arachnida came into existance in the middle of the 19th century. Following him we find names like Blackwall, Hahn, Keyserling and Koch developing the methods of classification, taking more notice of the smaller species and using characteristics such as the number and arrangement of the eyes and the shape of the male palpal organ. From this time on the number of names of scientists who did great work on spiders starts to increase considerably and now there are thousands of books on spiders around the world, many of which will be hidden in the back rooms of your library, these old books are often fascinating reading so why not ask your libraran to dig some of them out for you.

Human Uses of Spider Silk

Humans have used spider silk for a number of uses for a long time. The Roman encyclopaedist Pliny tells us that spider web is excellent for sealing wounds, and this is true as far as I know, it has certainly been used by many people since then. The answer may lie in both its immunity from microbial attack and its strange combination of softness and strength.

Many peoples have also used spider web silk to make clothes from, when woven it is both strong and light. Although the weaving of spider silk has never become a commercial proposition it is still carried on by a few traditionalists in places such as Madagascar. Spider silk is known to have been woven by primitive peoples to make simple bags, such as those once used to carry arrow heads by the natives of the New Hebrides and as such must be a skill that has been practised for a long time. Spider silk was also regularly woven more technologically advanced places like India and China where it was worn by the richest people only. In 1896 a Chinese delegation to Europe presented Queen Victoria with a spider silk gown. Spider silk never had a chance to compete with silkworm silk because spiders are much more difficult to raise in large numbers, and because their silk lacks the lustre of silkworm silk.

Silk has found other uses however, in the early ninteenth century a family of painters in Innesbruck made a name for themsleves by painting on cloth of spider silk. One of the interests of this is that the silk is so thin the image can ben equally clearly from both sides.

Primitive peoples have found ways of using spider webs other than weaving them. The literature of several European explorers contain references, sometimes quite detailed, to the use by various native peoples in the Austropacific area of spider webs to make nets, both for fishing and for catching butterflies. These nets were either made from several webs collected across the fork of a branch, or by bending and tying off a branch to make a metre wide hoop and then encouraging a spider (probably Nephila sp.) to spin a web within the hoop.

As a slight digression before I finish this page I must mention that man and spiders are not the only animals to find a use for spider silk. Birds also like spider silk, it is in someways the perfect substance for binding up the materials that make a small birds nest. In the Africa the Americas, Asia Australia and Europe there are birds who not only enjoy spiders as a tasty meal but who also rob them of their webs. Some Hummingbirds make ropes of spider silk to suspend their nests from, and others build their nests almost entirely from spider silk.

No discussion of spiders and man, even as brief a one as this, would be complete without mention of the giant figures dug into the earths surface 2,000 years ago by the by the Inca people of Nazca Peru. Among the meny animals depicted is a spider, by far the largest spider image in the world this incredible piece of art is 50 metres or 160 feet across. Nobody really knows why it was created. However this is not the oldest, spider image in the world, that record belongs to a splotchy image drawn by an unknown prehistoric artist on the wall of cave in Gasulla Gorge Spain. This painting is not only interesting because of its great antiquity, but also because the spider is attended by 6 smaller blotches that some people interpret as flies. Since these ancient times spiders have often featured in human art works and now it is not unusual to find modern art and jewellry representing spiders and their webs. You can now easily buy clothing and wall posters decorated with spider motifs.

Finally I must leave you with one more piece of poetry and an unusual tale. One of the first books published in the English language on spiders was the Theatrum Insectorum by Dr Thomas Mouffet. This book was finished in 1589 but was not published until 1634 long after Dr Mouffet had died. Dr Mouffet was fascinated by spiders and thought they were wonderful, not only to look at, so that he kept many in his house, but also as a medicine for many different ailments. He had one daughter called patience whom he forced to partake of these medicines, including eating live spiders. Is it any wonder poor Patience suffered seriously from Arachnophobia. It may be that she is remembered in the following poem later published in the Mother Goose anthology.

Little Miss Muffet
sat on a tuffet
eating her curds and whey.
There came a big spider
and sat down beside her
and frightened Miss Muffet away.





Well I hope this small collection of bits and pieces of spider law have helped you appreciate spiders more fully. Don't forget there is a lot more spider information on this web site.

The Spider Menu
Introduction Spider Anatomy Bibliography and Reviews
Feeding Ecology Reproductive Ecology The Fear of Spiders
Ecological Considerations Tarantula Myths Spiders and Evolution
Caring for your Tarantula A House-spider Safari Fear of Spiders



Have You Seen The Other Earthlife Web Chapters
The Home Page of the Fish The Birds Home Page The Insects Home Page The Mammals Home Page The Prokaryotes Home Page The Lichens Home Page

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