A Challenge to the Gods

Originally published November 2011

Hello everyone! The other day I was walking through our little reserve in the glorious Autumn sunshine when I came across a vista that both delighted and inspired me thus ensuring the topic for this month’s ramblings. Before I divulge the source of my inspiration I will start with a suitably eclectic ‘show of hands’ question. What is the link between a traditional remedy for bleeding wounds, a mythological lesson in humility and, as I witnessed, one of the most commented upon early morning sights to greet us in in our gardens?

The answer, as I am sure many of you know, is the ubiquitous spider web or cobweb (from Old English coppe-spider). With over six hundred species of spider in the UK it is no surprise that we are constantly caressed by silken threads as they float on the thermals or as we walk through intricate webs that appear overnight at the garden gate. Everyone will be familiar with the magical scene of bushes bedecked with webs that sparkle in the early morning dew.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was the sight of several of the trees in Quarry Wood joined together by hundreds of long strands of silk, each one seeming to pulse with energy as the sun glinted on them, that reminded me of the classical tale to which we owe our taxonomic nomenclature of our phobia-inducing neighbours. According to Greco-Roman mythology Arachne, a young lady highly skilled in the art of weaving and embroidery, was so proud of her work that she audaciously challenged the goddess Minerva (the Roman equivalent to Athene) to a contest. Furthermore, as her competition piece, she went on to produce a cloth with scenes depicting all the failings and errors of the Gods. Given that those particular deities had a penchant for petulant behaviour and petty vengeance this was an incredible show of both bravado and foolishness in equal measures. Onlookers were less than surprised when the angry goddess, though admiring the magnificent work, destroyed Arachne’s cloth and shuttle before touching the mortal on her head and producing within her such a feeling of guilt and shame that she immediately hanged herself. TQW arachne_minervaAt this point, Minerva took pity on the young girl as she dangled from the rope and commanded her to live. Of course there had to be a lesson in there somewhere and to ensure that all of Arachne’s descendents learned from her impiety the goddess turned her into the first spider hanging from a silken thread. Not surprisingly the fossil evidence is somewhat at odds with this tale. Two years ago a Prehistoric piece of amber containing the remains of an orb-shaped web was found on Bexhill beach. It was dated at 140 million years old and provided us with proof that spiders were around and web spinning well over a 100 million years before Homo sapiens started daubing cave walls; let alone perfecting the art of tapestry!

However, thanks to the classical education of the early taxonomists, Spiders belong to the Class Arachnida which also includes Scorpions, Ticks, Mites and Harvestmen. They are all wingless, with four pairs of legs and distinct head and body regions. The latter are not always easy to see on some species of Harvestmen and Tick but most Spiders have an easily identifiable head sporting a set of venemous fangs and between two and, more commonly, eight eyes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot all Spiders create webs but every species is capable of producing silk from a spinneret, an aptly named organ at the rear of the abdomen. The silk is produced in liquid form from protein and other organic molecules and solidifies before it is released. The resultant material has an extremely high tensile strength and is, pound for pound, stronger than steel. Numerous tests have shown that silk strands retain their strength in temperatures ranging from –40oC right up to 220oC, a fact not likely to be relevant under natural conditions; hopefully! A single spider can produce up to seven different types of silk depending on whether it is to be used, among other things, to create a web, as a drop line, to leave a trail or for prey immobilisation. Spiderlings even use it to travel with; sending out several fine threads (the original gossamer of the Middle Ages) into the air to form a kind of parachute. Once adrift on the convections and air streams they can cover vast distances over land and sea enabling them to populate the most isolated island or mountain top.

TQW 91tcal_04Traditionally, with only a few exceptions, Spiders have not been treated favourably in literature; from The Hobbit to Harry Potter the descendents of Arachne have been cast in an evil role. Despite this, extremely unfair, view of these fascinating animals I would wager that most people allow themselves a moment of grim satisfaction when they come across a web bearing the remains of many of our small biters! The web silk itself has been used by mankind for a number of purposes, from the cross-hairs on telescopic sights and fishing lines to current research into bullet-proof clothing and arterficial tendons. Spider silk contains high levels of the blood clotting agent vitamin K and as far as we know the ancient Greeks were the first to utilise its properties by applying it to wounds. It is the Bard himself who alludes to this practice in a rare literary nod of approval to the eight-legged ones.

TQW cobwebBottom: I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master Cobweb. If I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 3 Scene 1)

So there it is! Whether they fascinate or are the stuff of nightmares, Spiders have been creating their unrivalled works of art for millions of years and for that reason alone have earned and demand our respect. At the very least we can pause to take pleasure in the sight of a bejewelled web in the early morning!

Put me right at pgcrow@yahoo.com

Paul Johnson

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