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Cultural Interpretations of Spiders: What Spiders Symbolize Around the World

As a person who is fascinated by spiders—in dreams and in real life—I have collected stories and ideas about spiders from around the world.

Cultural Interpretations of Spiders: What Spiders Symbolize Around the World

Cultural Interpretations of Spiders: What Spiders Symbolize Around the World

The Symbolism of the Spider

Spiders have always captured our attention. Even the earliest civilizations paid special attention to spiders, weaving stories and spinning yarns about their special powers.

Spiders have always played dramatic roles in the subconsciousness, fears, mythologies, and imaginations of most human cultures, starring in dreams, songs, myths, superstitions, folklore, and popular culture.

Considering the spider's amazing talents (producing silk, weaving webs, and even flying), it's no surprise that such a small creature can command so much attention—but what is surprising is how differently different cultures and generations interpret spiders. Although about 3% to 15% of people experience arachnophobia, fear is not the only emotion spiders elicit—spiders also command awe, gratitude, inspiration, and even adoration.

Below, you will find a list citing many notable cultural references to spiders around the world, throughout the ages.

In Lakota mythology, Iktomi is a spider trickster spirit and a hero to the Lakota people.

In Lakota mythology, Iktomi is a spider trickster spirit and a hero to the Lakota people.

Ancient Cultural Views of and Folklore About Spiders

In various cultures throughout history, the spider has represented a variety of concepts—both positive and negative. Some see spiders as a curse because of their ability to cause a slow and painful death with toxic venom. Others believe the spider represents patience and persistence due to its unique hunting technique of spinning webs and waiting for prey to get enmeshed.

In Lakota mythology, Iktomi is a spider trickster spirit and a hero to the Lakota people. They believe any warrior adorned with a spider symbol is untouchable and indestructible. Those are the strongest of all warriors, incapable of losing a battle.

The Ojibwe have a dreamcatcher legend: In order to help the Spider Woman bless all the children, women wove magical webs (aka dreamcatchers) to help her find them. It is believed that the dreamcatcher filters out bad dreams and allows only good thoughts to enter the children's minds while they are asleep.

In Ancient Egypt, the spider is associated with the goddess Neith, the weaver of destiny. She is called the “spinner” and “weaver” of the future and is believed to have woven the whole world into being on her loom. They say she reweaves the world over again every day, just like a spider that consumes and reweaves its web.

In Ancient Greece, the word arachnid (spider) refers to the princess Arachne, who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving competition. Arachne, adept at the art of weaving, dared to think herself superior and challenged Athena to prove her skill. As punishment, she was turned into a spider.

In Ancient Islam, according to one ancient oral tradition, Muhammad—being pursued by Quraysh soldiers—took refuge in a cave. Allah sent a spider to weave a web over the cave's opening, hiding them and saving the day.

In the Jewish Tradition, in the story where David is being chased by King Saul, David hides in a cave and Saul doesn't follow him because a spider spins a web over the cave opening.

 l’Araignée qui pleure: The crying spider.

l’Araignée qui pleure: The crying spider.

In Many African Countries, the spider is known as a trickster in many folklore. There are many names used to describe this trickster—Kwaku Ananse of the Ashanti and anglicized as Aunt Nancy in the west indies.

In Oceania, spiders are associated with the sacred rock in central Arnhem Land on the Burnungku clan estate of the Rembarrnga/Kyne people. A spider totem is often used in their rituals.

The Hopi and Navajo tell creation myths of a Spider Grandmother who imagines the world into existence by weaving webs. In many traditional Southwestern native stories, the Spider Grandmother is a powerful, creative force.

In Ancient Peru, the Moche (aka Mochica), an Andean civilization that existed from the first to the 8th century CE, had many stories and depictions of anthropomorphic spiders, as seen in many artifacts from that time. This Moche spider has a human face on its abdomen and seemed to represent ritual sacrifice, duality, rain, and the cycle of life and death.

Note: In Southern Peru, giant figures were carved into the desert floor sometime between 500 BCE and 500 CE called the Nazca Lines. One, called the Nazca spider can still be seen clearly from the air above.

The Nazca Spider in Peru measures 150 feet and is defined by one continuous line carved into the desert floor.

The Nazca Spider in Peru measures 150 feet and is defined by one continuous line carved into the desert floor.

In Ancient Japan, Jorōgumo, one of the most famous Yōkai of Japanese mythology, is a mythical creature depicted as an enormous spider that can disguise itself as a beautiful woman.

In Ancient Mexico, Pre-Columbian civilizations of Teotihuacan made many murals depicting what appears to be either a spider goddess or a mixed-gender deity who wears a headdress shaped like a bird and a nose pendant with fangs. This spider figure is believed to have represented the underworld, earth and water, war, darkness, and creation.

The Cherokee had a story about Mother Spider bringing light to the world. In this legend, she is responsible for ending the darkness: She took a bowl of clay and rolled it to the sun (weaving a web as she went), placed the sun in the bowl, and rolled it tenderly home with her eight legs.

The Ancient Celts had a powerful goddess named Arianrhod who was associated with spiders and said to be a weaver of fate. Her name meant silver wheel, which some researchers suggest is a reference to a spider web. The Welsh thought of her as a weaver goddess who influenced the passage of time and the cycle of life.

Arachne: Illustration by Gustave Doré in the 1861 edition of Dante's Inferno.

Arachne: Illustration by Gustave Doré in the 1861 edition of Dante's Inferno.

Charlotte's Web. The wise and kind titular character of E. B. White's 1952 novel is a spider who uses her web-writing abilities to save a pig from slaughter.

Shelob. In The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien introduced Shelob, a giant spider whose lair lies in Cirith Ungol leading into Mordor.

Spider-Man. A superhero created by Marvel Comics in 1962. When Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, he gains spider-like abilities like the ability to "stick" and climb tall buildings, strength, agility, and spider senses.

Aragog. J.K. Rowling introduced a giant spider in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Symbolism of the Spider

With so many vivid stories about spiders in so many cultures, it's no wonder that spiders also play vivid roles in our dreams.

From a psychological perspective, as discussed in What Do Spiders Mean in Dreams?, to dream of spiders can indicate that the dreamer is being controlled by someone in their waking life. Spiders are sneaky—they manipulate their prey into their webs—and spider dreams can represent a feeling of being trapped in a clingy relationship. A dream of a spider can also represent the fear of someone or something sucking the life right out of you. The dream spider represents mystery, growth, and power. It may symbolize the dark aspect of your personality.

Carl Wilhelm Hahn (1786-1835), German zoologist and artist.

Carl Wilhelm Hahn (1786-1835), German zoologist and artist.

Spider Dreams Interpreted

Killing a spider: If you are scared of spiders in your waking life, they will often represent terror in your subconsciousness. To kill a spider in your dreams could indicate that you are working through this fear and/or the fear of being trapped. If you kill multiple spiders in a dream, it could represent your struggle with a difficult situation.

Bitten by a spider: To dream that you are bitten by a spider could represent a conflict with your mother or other female figures in your life. Freud might say you had a bad relationship with your mother or sister growing up, marital issues to resolve, or issues with female co-workers or authority figures.

Chased by a spider: To dream you are being chased by a spider can represent a desire to escape or run away from fears, the past, or from dominant female figures in your life.

Scared of a spider: A dream in which you are scared of a spider can indicate the fear of being hurt by a person or situation in your life.

Eating a spider: Eating or just having a spider inside of you can represent the idea that you are able to control the situation.

Tarantula: A tarantula can represent the dark or hidden side of your personality, health, or relationships.

© 2019 Miranda Scott


Happy New Day on July 18, 2019:

First related article offering a jolt of recognition, which of course was stumbled upon whilst Googling something entirely different...

A very low shooting star with the wrong trajectory? (This evening I witnessed streaks of bright light begin and end above a 3 story house like a silvery white silent firework 15 meters long.)

Thank you ... My dream was of lots of baby spiders so new beginnings it is!x