Did you know that spiders love music, and a lot of them sing and dance? Even their homes are wired for tunes, according to research presented by a team of MIT scientists at the spring 2021 meeting of the American Chemical Society.
Being visually challenged, these eight-legged critters - called ARACHNids from the ancient Greek spider-word arachne - navigate their environment through vibrations of varying frequencies like those they feel with their legs as they construct their webs or detect prey caught in them. MIT’s ARACHNologists created devices that transpose the vibrating notes to “spider-web music.” It turns out that, like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” some of the sexiest arachnid rhythms were courtship rituals (Visit You Tube for “spider web sonification,” if you want to listen in).
When the male is trolling for a mate, he’s likely to croon a tune too and even cut a rug. Entomologists have recorded spider guys strutting their stuff and the ladies more or less paying attention. YouTube has a rocking video of a jumping spider’s song and dance routine, and another of the mating boogie of what some call the world’s cutest spider, Maratus speciosus. You can also find the popular animated “Lucas the Spider” on YouTube (lucasthespider.com/), playing five different musical instruments no less.
A lyric from singer-songwriter Samuel Jay Brown’s “ARACHNophone” (from Greek for “spider-sound”) laments the downside: “Communication is evolving like an arachnophone / Scaring everyone out if they feel you get too close.” Indeed, outside the MIT lab and despite the heroics of Spider-Man, you’ll find that far more folks are arachnophobic than arachnophonic.
The fear of spiders (ARACHNophobia) must date back to man’s earliest realization that some of them, like the black widow (inspiration for Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics character) and the brown recluse, have venomous bites. The tiniest, like the Colombian Patu digua, are smaller than a pinhead; the largest, the Goliath birdeater tarantula (Theraphosa blondi), measures about a foot across from toe(s) to toe(s)!
Female spiders are typically larger than males and sometimes devour their beaus even while mating - another characteristic of these mini-beasts that some find a tad unsettling (though maybe no more unsettling than finding deep-fried tarantula on your restaurant menu, as one might in Cambodia for example).
Spiders have over the centuries evoked all manner of terrors. While the “itsy-bitsy spider” that “climbed up the waterspout” in the popular children’s ditty seems harmless enough, he was in another version dating back to at least 1910 the “blooming, bloody spider,” a description he lived up to in the 2019 horror film “Itsy Bitsy.”
The nursery-rhyme spider of Miss Muffett fame, as we all know, “sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffett away.” Far more frightening is the giant spider-demon in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” whose name “Shelob,” from Old English lobbe/loppe and connected to LOBster, means “she-spider.”
Hairy spiders are especially scary, and a gigantic one terrified moviegoers in the schlocky 1955 sci-fi/horror flick, “Tarantula.” Leo G. Carroll, later of TV “Topper” fame, is the obligatory Mad Scientist, and Clint Eastwood (who appeared in the 3D monster movie “Revenge of the Creature” that same year) had a small uncredited part as a jet squadron leader.
In the 1990 comedy-horror film “Arachnophobia,” Jeff Daniels plays an arachnophobic physician who saves his small town, and thereby the world, from a deadly arachnid plague. And in the movie’s video-game spinoff, players must exterminate all the spiders in towns with names like Arachton, Infes Station, and Buggley.
The word “spider” is derived from a pre-historic term that meant originally “spinner,” a reference to their web-making, and is related to English “spin” and “spindle.” Spider-crabs and spider-monkeys, both terms from the 18th century, are so called from their long, spindly limbs. The two-deck card game known as “Spider Solitaire” was given its name in the 19th century for the eight stacks of cards laid out on the gaming table.
You may know the Greco-Roman myth of Arachne, a Lydian maiden renowned for her skill as a weaver. When she foolishly boasted that her talents surpassed even those of Athena, the goddess agreed to a competition to prove her wrong. The young artisan’s work proved flawless, but the scenes she wove into her tapestry insulted the gods. In a fit of rage over the girl’s hubris, Athena attacked her and destroyed her work. When Arachne then attempted to hang herself, the goddess intervened and transformed her into a spider, doomed forever to hang from the webs she ceaselessly spins.
This ancient tale may have been influenced by the even earlier Sumerian myth of Uttu, goddess of weaving, who was depicted as a spider spinning her web. Two millennia later, tales of the trickster spider Anansi, which had originated in West African folklore, made their way to the West Indies and from there into African American culture. Like his fellow trickster B’rer Rabbit, the wily Anansi, a heroic figure in slave storytelling, defeats his enemies by outsmarting them. The legend inspired Neil Gaiman’s 2005 New York Times #1 best-selling novel, Anansi Boys.
Enough for now about these eight-legged creepy crawlers. Maybe for my next column I’ll investigate some related questions. Like, what IS a “tuffett,” and why sit on one eating curds and whey when you could just as well savor a platter of tater tots and tarantulas, battered and fried, and wash ’em all down with a cold Hooter Brown?
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin and Classics at the University of Georgia; his latest books are The Secret Lives of Words, a collection of his widely distributed newspaper columns, and Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. Rick’s Facebook group, “Doctor Illa Flora’s Latin in the Real World,” numbers over 4,000 members. He and wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.