This holiday season, while you are sitting beside the fire with your loved ones, why not tell them the story of the original Spider-Man? It’s true! Before we had Marvel and Tobey Maguire, the Ashanti people from modern-day Ghana had Anansi, a beloved, intelligent, and often devious little arachnid whose fame eventually spread all over West Africa and into the Americas. Sometimes depicted as a spider, or half man-half spider, Anansi was a mythological spirit who, despite his diminutive size, was believed to have created the sun, stars, and moon, and to have given night and rain to the people.
More often though, Anansi was seen as a trickster, who used his intelligence to accomplish some very impressive feats. In one popular tale, a seemingly bored Anansi went to his father, the sky-god Nyame, to ask for stories (since at that time there were none on earth). Since his father was a reasonable guy, he asked only for a random and dangerous assortment of creatures in return, including a Python named Onini, Osebo the Leopard, and some hornets.
Anansi being an astute arachnid, he was able to come up with all sorts of fake stories to trick the animals into being captured. Nyame was so impressed that he crowned Anansi god of stories. And so, despite his often selfish behavior, Anansi is celebrated for bringing stories to the world, and as a symbol of hope that even the little guy can overcome seemingly impossible odds…and of course, annoy a lot of animals much bigger than him in the process!
Which makes sense, because, despite their relatively small size, spiders often do loom large in our collective imaginations, whether we fear, respect, or even love them.
But, as long as you don’t try to jump out of a moving vehicle to get away from one, the overwhelming majority of spiders currently known to science (over 34,000 species), are actually harmless to humans. Unlike Anansi, real spiders don’t talk their way into getting what they want, but they do have an infamous trick: venom. In most species this venom is only harmful to their food (insects and some mammals, birds and reptiles), and in the cases where the bites are harmful to humans, even black widow, Australian funnell web, and Brazilian wandering spider bites are treatable with antivenom and rarely result in deaths in healthy adults.
Not only that, there are some truly beautiful and amazing spiders in the world.
With flashes of gold and silvery white in a sea of blue-green, the sunny Orchard Orb Weaver (Leucauge venusta), is one such species. Even it’s name, venusta, means beautiful in latin.
Members of this species can be found in open, light areas from Southern Canada, along the Eastern US, all the way to South America, hanging upside-down on one foot-wide orb webs built low to the ground on trees and shrubs.
Across the world, but in the same genus, Leucauge decorata spins its orbs in the forests of Southeast Asia and Australia. It’s a unique-looking species, with a long separation between the spinerets (the silk-producing organs), and the tip of its pointy abdomen, and painted in brilliant silver, green, and gold.
But to the human eye, they sure do look like tiny disco balls! The glittery spots, which look like pieces of mirror glued to the spider’s back, are actually composed of reflective guanine, a compund well-known for its presence as one of the four main bases found in DNA and RNA. It has a slightly less classy association too – as one of the components in many seabird and bat droppings – a white, amorphous substance called guano.
But spiders and scorpions produce a special, crystalline form of guanine, which just so happens to be a beautiful by-product of protein metabolism in their cells. Crystalline guanine, which is also found in the scales of many fishes, is used in various products like shampoos, eye shadow, nail polish, and even metallic paints. So if you were wondering how to get that pearly, mirror spider-like glow, look no further than your local drug store!
And finally, we have an imaginary species of spider in the genus Griswoldia, which belongs to a family of harmless wandering spiders found primarily in Australia and South Africa. Real spiders in this genus are actually rather small and cryptic. This one was inspired by Anansi’s wonderful color pallete and larger-than-life personality, which reminds us not to overlook the smaller and more maligned creatures on the planet, because if we give the little guys a chance (and forgive their shortcomings), we just might find them wandering into our hearts… and also possibly our shoes!
A big thank-you to the following photographers for allowing me to use their beautiful images!:
Kevin Council: https://www.flickr.com/photos/45014657@N04/
Chuck Wulmer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cwulmer/
Hen Wang Tan: https://www.flickr.com/photos/spintheday/
Robert Whyte: https://www.flickr.com/photos/robertwhyte/