A diminutive spider accompanied by its tiny shadow had me captivated as I pondered the sociology of spiders and fear.
Spiders inspire irrational fright, despite the fact that most spiders can’t harm humans. The small percentage that can are not usually found in our homes and they don’t specifically seek us out for attack. Yet even I overreact at the sight of a spider at home (or in my swag during a recent camping trip!).
Our collective fear of spiders in urban areas is culturally determined, and it far outweighs the risk posed. Spiders feature as focus and metaphor for different types of fears in Western societies. Even amongst educated people, spiders are a source of disgust and anxiety. Why might that be the case?
Impact on conservation
A study by American sociologist Andrew Knight (2008) finds that amongst people who support the conservation of endangered species, spiders (along with snakes and bats) draw contempt and so people are less likely to care about spider protection due to this negative perception.
Where does this come from? Many people might think this fear is the outcome of evolution, but that’s not the case when we look at different cultures around the world. In other cultures, spiders occupy a positive place in collective imagination.
Take the example of David Zeitlyn’s (1993) ethnographic research amongst Southern Cameroonian cultures. The Mambila people rely on “benge” (oracles) who use a “ngam” (spider divination) to make decisions. This involves a ritual where the oracle interprets a person’s question or problem by reading a spider’s movements around specially placed cards and objects. Up until the mid-1990s these spider divinations were admissible in court (“the spider does not lie!”).
It would be easy to dismiss this spiritual practice without understanding its cultural significance. Does Western culture not place the same mythical power and danger on these small creatures crawling across the wall? If we had a more spiritual or cultural understanding of spiders, conservation of endangered spiders (and other similar insects) would benefit.
Spiders also feature in Aboriginal cultures in Australia. For example, bark and rock paintings in the Northern Territory and the Central Coast of New South Wales depict large spiders in prominent ways.
Spiders are a Burnungku clan totem for the Rembarrnga/Kyne people in central Arnhem Land. ‘Spiders in their webs are associated with a sacred rock on the clan estate and the design is connected with a major regional ceremony. These spider totems provide a link with neighbouring clans who also use spider totems in their rituals.’
Artist Harry Tjutjuna, who paints at the Ninuku Arts Centre in northern South Australia, is famed for his breathtaking Wanka (Spider) artwork. Wanka is the powerful spider man, a Ngankari or traditional healer. Tjutjana explains: ‘I am the spider man, Ngankari.’ The documentation for this work states:
‘This is a big spider man. Watipaluru Ngankari (A male healer, traditional doctor). He is a powerful man. When rain comes he hides in his nest. He is a clever man. At night time he changes colour. His name is Wanka, spider. That’s the story. Minyma wanka tjuta, these are all the women and the children for this man (around him). I am the spider man, Ngankari.’
The symbolism of spiders works differently, but it nevertheless alters our behaviour and attitudes across cultures, from fear to reverence.
Did you know that the Australian huntsman spider can recognise its kin? Amber Beavis and colleagues find this is one of the few cooperatively social arachnids. It refrains from eating non-kin, even to the point of starvation amongst the young. How many spiders do you think might behave socially?
Art Gallery of NSW, (nd) ‘Wanka (Spider).’ Sydney: AGNSW.
Knight, A. J. (2008) ‘”Bats, Snakes and Spiders, Oh My!” How Aesthetic and Negativistic Attitudes, and Other Concepts Predict Support for Species Protection,’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(1): 94-103.
Nicholls, C. J. (2014) ‘”Dreamings” and Place – Aboriginal Monsters and Their Meanings,’ The Conversation, 30 April. Online resource last accessed 9 February 2019.
Zeitlyn, D. (1993) ‘Spiders In and Out of Court, or, “The Long Legs of the Law”: Styles of Spider Divination in Their Sociological Contexts, International African Institute, 63(2): 219-240.
A versio of this post was first published on my Instagram.