Spiders in mythology and medicine

Spiders have been incorporated into native lore and medicine the world over and in many tropical countries the larger species are seen as an important foodstuff.

Last summer I was fortunate enough to spend a month in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, collecting data on both marine and rainforest wildlife for an international organisation. Mexico was famously home to the ancient Maya and their ancestors today still make their livelihoods on the grounds once roamed by one of the most impressive and expansive cultures of the new world. Although I worked alongside a few scientists of Mayan origin that impressed me both by their knowledge and cultural integrity (not to mention their willingness to tackle crocodiles in murky swamps), there was never much discussion of the significance of certain animals to Mayan life or culture.

We encountered tarantulas a couple of times whilst on our forays into the jungle but none of the scientists on our expedition were arachnologists and so spiders were met with intrigue and respect at a distance, rather than actively studied. On returning to my native country and a stable internet connection I have stumbled across references to tarantula usage across Mexico, a country that continues to surprise me even after leaving.

The following is a list from one source on the folklore and medicinal uses of tarantulas and other large spiders across different ethnic groups and states:

  • Treatment of tumours via spider bite in the affected area – Chiapas State.
  • Using the bird-spider (lightly toasted) to treat asthma – Bahia state.
  • Reference to the tarantula as a “mata caballero” or “horse-killer” because it bites horses, causing the death of the animal due to leg rot – this is a common belief of many central and South American cultures.

A study which investigated local beliefs surrounding spiders in the Chol societies of Chiapas and Campeche revealed that the Mexican red rump tarantula Brachypelma vagans was not considered dangerous and was rather common because no attempt was made to eradicate them.

From a modern perspective the venom of tarantulas such as Grammostola spatulata has been used in pharmaceutical research. The venom contains a peptide called GsMtx-4 that may be used as a drug to help diagnose and treat ailments including muscular dystrophy, glioma and arrhythmia of the heart (Machkour-M’Rabet, et al., 2011).

I was also quite surprised to find how big a part spiders play in the mythology of cultures around the world. Many of these myths relate to creation and the beginnings of man and below is a list of the conceived functions of various spider deities (Chamberlain, 1897):

  • During the dawn of civilisation man first learnt to spin from the spider – A belief held by many primitive races.
  • In the lower world the first being and therefore creator was Stisslstinnako a spider who brought forth two women and then all other creatures by singing.  – Sia Pueblo Indians of New Mexico.
  • The spider as the Creator – certain West African tribes.
  • The spider taught net-making to a raven who wished to fish salmon – Bilqula people of British Columbia. Net-weaving is also an invention referred to by Indians from the North American coast.

 

References

  • Machkour-M’Rabet, S., Hénaut, Y., Winterton, P., and Rojo, R. (2011). A case of zootherapy with the tarantula Brachypelma vagans Ausserer, 1875 in traditional medicine of the Chol Mayan ethnic group in Mexico. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine7(1), 12.
  • Chamberlain, A. F. (1897). The mythology and folk-lore of invention. Journal of American Folklore, 10(37), 89-100.

About Top Cat

I'm currently in the final year of a Zoology undergraduate degree at the University of Reading. Ever the naturalist it has been my desire to embark on a career in research, conservation and science writing. The academic part of my degree is the first step towards this goal but being able to translate science into public consumption is a valuable skill too. For a hopeful science writer this is essential and blogging is thus a great way to improve science communication skills. It has to be said that far flung exotic locations tend to entice the fresh and eager scientist like myself but it is also true that a bounty of natural history sits in our back gardens waiting to be discovered (yes even student house gardens). I hope the blogs express how even the unassuming creatures of Reading deserve more than a footnote...
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