Spiders weave their webs in the darkest places. They weave intricate patterns across all of our narratives. Their stories are ancient and ubiquitous. Like their prey caught helplessly in their webs, spiders ensnare our imaginations. We are always captivated by them, and, in the cases involving the oldest and largest specimens, we are sometimes literally their captives.
After countless stories shared by adventurers in the dim light of guttering candles, voyages to the deepest places of our world and beyond, and encounters with the myths of our very creation, I am thrilled to present the very first trilogy in the history of Novus Bestiary. Over the next three issues, I will relate the legends of the most notable spiders of all time. We will learn more about their unique behaviours, dissect their physical properties, and analyze their commonalities.
Arachnophobes, I beseech you: stop reading now.
Table of Contents
Part I (this issue)
- Arachne (Greek myth)
- Shelob, Ungoliant, and the spiders of Mirkwood (Tolkien myth)
- Djieien (Senecan myth)
- Lolth (Demon queen of spiders from D&D) - Honorable mention: The Spider Queen of Metebelis Three
- Tsuchigumo (Japanese Yokai) - Honorable mention: Jorōgumo
- Aragog (Harry Potter bestiary)
- Anansi (African Myth)
- Honorable mention: Iktomi (Lakota myth)
Arachne (Greek myth)
Spiders are old. Older than almost any other creature on earth. Of this, we are certain. But because of their ancient lineage, we can not be certain of their origins. We will consider many different stories for comparison. Some will claim a noble, god-like origin, while others claim something more sinister and still other claim a natural beginning. In the story of Arachne, spiders descend from a single human by the gift of a god.
Among the gods of Olympus, Minerva was the weaver. The intricate patterns she could weave and the materials she could muster were fit for the gods. She was certain, in the way only a god can be, that none could surpass her at her chosen craft. One day she heard a rumour that a simple, peasant girl named Arachne claimed that her weaving was the greatest on Earth. She claimed it was greater even than a god's. Outraged, Minerva went straight to Arachne's village and challenged the insolent girl to a contest. In the cloudy morning light, a small crowd gathered around to watch as they set their looms up in front of the house. The weaving began and more people stopped to stare as they witnessed the raw materials, threads of gold and silver and every other colour, being transformed at a supernatural speed before their eyes. Both women were intent on their work and finished quickly. Minerva's weave was truly the stuff of gods: ornate and with every colour placed flawlessly so that the eyes could barely look away. But her smug grin began to tighten as she noticed the villagers staring, not at her work, but at Minerva's. The final piece from Minerva was not only perfect in its execution, it was equally ornate and more: it seemed to warm the very air around it, as if it had been left out in the sun for hours.
Minerva was furious. One does not simply claim equality with the gods and get away with it. In her fury, she lashed out and beat Arachne over the head with her shuttle, making it clear that the girl was never to weave again. The villagers scattered in terror for a god's fury is too much to bear. Arachne wept and cried out. Afterwards she hid at home feeling disgraced and embarrassed. Her dark mood festered and Arachne later hung herself rather than live with the shame of giving up her life's work.
When Minerva heard of Arachne's suicide, she had a change of heart. She remembered the beauty of Arachne's work and dedication and she even felt some regret – a very rare thing for a god. Minerva found the girl's body and took it down from the noose. She bent over her and whispered words of apology and more. When she rose and left the house, Arachne's body was gone, and in its place was a spider. The spider scuttled off into the forest and kept its skill in weaving forever after.
Shelob, Ungoliant, and the spiders of Mirkwood (Tolkien myth)
“Sam came up behind as fast as he could urge his legs; but glad as he was to be free, he was uneasy, and as he ran, he kept on glancing back at the dark arch of the tunnel, fearing to see eyes, or some shape beyond his imagining, spring out in pursuit. Too little did he or his master know of the craft of Shelob. She had many exits from her lair.
There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Lúthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Dúath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.
Already, years before, Gollum had beheld her, [...] And he had promised to bring her food. But her lust was not his lust. Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.”
In Shelob, we see the potential for the spider to represent our darkest fears. Shelob is a giant spider with many terrible eyes who dwells in her labyrinth of caves and traps her prey. When she moves, it is described as a sort of gurgling and creaking sound, sounds that terrify us in the darkness. She represents a crude sort of fear and yet she is crafty in the ways that such old things can become.
Before Frodo and Sam encountered Shelob in the caves near Mordor, Frodo's uncle Bilbo went on a famous journey to steal back a treasure for some dwarves. Near the beginning of that journey, Biblo and the dwarves were captured by a family of giant spiders in the darkness of Mirkwood. In the passage above, we learn that those giant spiders were the offspring of Shelob, who is much older and much larger (she is about the size of a large horse). This is a fact of spiders, that they have many children, and that they may have them in a violent fashion, killing the father at the moment his reproductive role becomes obsolete.
The most terrifying features of Shelob, though she has many, are her bottomless hunger and her endless capacity for growth. These are also features of fear itself: if you continue to feed fear, it will continue to grow and grow without end. The passage above briefly mentions a lesser known but much more terrible spider who embodies the potential that Shelob could one day have reached had she not been stopped. That spider was Shelob's mother and was called Ungoliant. Any who know her tremble at the sound of her name.
Ungoliant was a gigantic, primordial spider. Also known as "Gloomweaver", she was born before the world itself. She was an incarnation of the pure evil, of Non-Being itself. She wove webs of utter darkness and horror that Tolkien described as the "Unlight of Ungoliant". She eventually merged with the original Dark Lord, who was called Morgoth. In the end, Ungoliant, in her unsatiable hunger, devoured herself and returned to the void from whence she sprang.
Djieien (Senecan myth)
A djiein is a monstrous, 6-foot-tall spider that attacks its prey recklessly. They do not fear being killed because they hide their heart in a secret place, thus making themselves immortal. Although they are extremely rare, an adventurer should always consider the possibility they are fighting a djeien if they are attacked by a large spider. If you identify it as such, you should flee immediately for a djiein must be defeated by your cunning. Much like a Lich, one must first deduce where the djiein has hidden its heart and destroy it, rather than attack the beast directly. There was once a great hero of the Senecan tribe near Lake Ontario named Othegwenhda who killed a djiein in such a way.