Spiders are incredible creatures that produce amazingly strong structures of a very flexible silk protein. They are awesome but also incite a tremendous amount of fear. So, where did they get the name Arachnid? Why, from a beautiful woman, of course.
Naturally, we have this habit of building mythologies around the things we fear and/or don’t understand, so it’s not surprising to find that the taxonomical class name comes from a character in ancient Greco-Roman mythology who was known for her incredible ability to spin and weave: Arachne. Of course, as happens with mythology, there are multiple versions of Arachne’s story, but the basics stay the same throughout.
Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter, so it was a matter of tradition that she would learn to weave the wool harvested from her father’s sheep. Spinning and weaving was considered an artistic trade, the talent for which was allegedly handed down by the goddess Athena, who was the greatest of all weavers. Arachne’s talent surpassed all others, but when she refused to acknowledge that her gift came from the goddess, Athena herself showed up at the girl’s door dressed as an old woman and issued a weaving challenge.
By most accounts, including that of the poet Ovid, Arachne’s weaving was superior to Athena’s. However, the girl wove a picture of Zeus (or Jupiter) seducing and tricking mortal women which angered Athena and the other gods. Stories differ greatly as to exactly what happened next, but the end result was that Athena turned Arachne into a spider so she could spend the rest of her life spinning and weaving without a loom. Whether that was a blessing or a curse depends on how the story is told.
We love anthropomorphising spiders and giving magical power to their webs, but spider webs are pretty incredible all on their own. Made of protein and heavy in vitamin K, spider webs have incredible nutritional and medicinal value. Ancient peoples would put spider webs on open wounds because the webs have the ability to aid clotting and reduce blood flow. Older webs that have lost their stickiness are still heavy in protein and have been used successfully in soups and stews. Spiders even recycle them by eating their old webs in order to spin new ones.
Spider webs are so influential that this very medium we’re utilizing now, the Internet, was named the World Wide Web for its ability to gather and share information. Early explanations of exactly how the Internet works relied heavily on the illustration of a spider web whose strands reached even the most disparate parts of the world to bring people together.
Still, there’s nothing quite as unsettling, for us or for the spider, as walking into a web spun across a pathway. To look out a window and see a large web makes many stomachs queasy for fear that a large web must mean an equally large spider must be attached (rarely true).
Holy spider web, Batman, if we were to accumulate all the stories and songs and pictures influenced by spiders and their webs over the span of human history, the result would be a collection larger than the main unit of the New York Public Library. Beautiful yet fearful, spider webs are a certain sign of Spring. Be not afraid!