The spider as an artist/ has never been employed
— Emily Dickinson
The windows had accumulated such thick coverings of web that I had to wipe at the rough corners of the wood frames from every direction, but rather than ceding to my efforts the webs collected into stubborn balls of thread impaled on wooden splinters. I do not like spiders. I have been afraid of them for much of my life, a fear that has matured into a minor distaste—a sensation of crawling on my skin—when I see one or even imagine it in detail, but I cannot resist the perfection of a new web, nor the ragged beauty of a broken one. These were mostly old and covered with dust. Long legged spiders stood on the walls, and sloped ceiling. Smaller spiders scurried their dark little bodies into the shadows. Deep in that room, away from the light coming in through the open doorway, I imagined all those spiders, seen and unseen, and judging by the amount of webs, there must have been as many as there were knots in the wood of the floorboards and walls, I imagined a hatred in them; how could they not hate as they watched me swipe at their homes and livelihoods? I walked through many webs. My face broke their strands so that they stuck to my skin seconds before I feverishly wiped at them. These were strung fresh each of the two mornings of my work. Revenge? It is possible. Aristotle wrote that some spiders eat animals:
They will attack and surround with their web animals larger than themselves; for they will attack small lizards, and beginning at the mouth, will emit the web until their mouth is covered, and then will approach and bite them. This is the nature of these animals.
(How long did Aristotle wait to witness these deaths? He must have sat very still, and close to see all of this, while the spider crouched in the shadows: the spider and philosopher waiting for their prey.) If the spiders worked together they could attack me, already one or two have sought to cover my mouth with their webs. If twenty, or eighty worked in unison… This is the nature of these animals, and my mouth is not so big; I have seen it in mirrors.
The spider god combines a spider’s neck and head, with the mouth of a large cat and the beak of a bird.
The spider in the centre of its web recalls the Minotaur in his labyrinth. Built by Daedalus on the orders of the Minotaur’s father Minos, the king of Crete, to hide his shameful son, it was guarded by Ariadne, the Minotaur’s half-sister. Every nine years she presided over the sacrificial sending of seven young men, and seven young women across the threshold of the labyrinth. Once inside they would be killed and eaten by the Minotaur. In three years nobody had regained this threshold, until the arrival of Theseus, son of the king of Aegeus, who volunteered to go, and kill the Minotaur. Ariadne instantly fell in love. Unable to face losing Theseus, she gave him a ball of pitch, and a ball of thread. The pitch was to be stuffed in the Minotaur’s mouth to choke it. The thread was for Theseus to unwind, as he passed through those manifold corridors, so he could find his way out. She gathered this thread by unravelling her robe, giving him, essentially, the clothes off her back so he could kill her half-brother. Three aspects of the spider are found in this myth: the thread, used by the spider to build the web; the sticky pitch (spiders coat the inner circles of their threads with a strong glue that traps insects); and the female, Ariadne, as it is almost always the female spider who builds the web. Theseus used the tar and thread against the Minotaur, like a fly using the spider’s body against it. Having killed the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne absconded to the island of Naxos, where Theseus abandoned her while she slept.
Between the years 1912 and 1970, Giorgio De Chirico painted 50 paintings, maybe more, of the sleeping Ariadne. In each, a statue of her lying on a plinth can be found in the centre of a desolate town square where the sun is forever setting and drawing shadows across the canvas. If you were to see one of De Chirico’s works on the wall of a gallery included among the paintings of other artists the subject would be as it appeared: Ariadne asleep, or solitude or whatever it is the individual sees. But if all of his canvases featuring the sleeping statue of Ariadne were to be presented together in one exhibition, as occurred in the Philadelphia Museum of Art during the winter of 2002, the meaning of Ariadne in these paintings would grow beyond a singular representation of the sleeping woman—a woman near the end of her story—and in doing so it would represent the structure round which her life revolves, the labyrinth. De Chirico’s obsession creates this without, I imagine, his understanding, and it is only in as singular an exhibition as that held in Philadelphia in 2002 that it can be seen. The viewer walking through that gallery walks through a labyrinth. Ariadne, repeated over and over in those 50 paintings, becomes its centre, as she lies in the centre of each of these paintings, but she also every wall so that the visitor walking through the exhibition created by that multitude of sleeping figures, sees paintings that barely deviate from each other, just as the stones in the walls of the labyrinth look so alike from afar, and so different when seen up close. She becomes the spider in the labyrinth; lost in her solitude.
De Chirico first learned of Ariadne when reading Nietzsche in Florence. And his earliest painting of Ariadne, Melancolia, depicts her statue on its plinth in the centre of a city square. She rests her head on her hand while she looks to the ground: a pose remarkably similar to that much reproduced photograph of Nietzsche (this is the only time De Chirico depicted her awake). In an unpublished fragment Nietzsche writes, “A labyrinthine man never seeks the truth, but only his Ariadne.” Through his reading of Nietzsche, it is possible that De Chirico was transformed into this man, forever seeking his Ariadne, and in the process of seeking, he created a labyrinth in which every wall on every corridor bears her image.
Thomas M. Greene in Poetry, Signs and Magic, notes a significant difference between the textual and the visual labyrinth. The textual one as found in the writings of Ovid, Homer, and Jorge Luis Borges is multicursal; full of blind alleys, corridors doubling back on each other: a space designed to confuse whoever enters and prohibit them from leaving. Engravings of labyrinths found throughout southern Europe, and further to the east, between 1000 CE and 2000 BCE all share the same pattern: an entrance leads into the first of seven connecting concentric pathways which lead to a centre clearing. This image has been found in Spain, Italy, Syria, Ireland (carved onto a large stone found near Hollywood in Co. Wicklow by men hunting ferrets in 1908), and England. In Galicia, the same design has been found but with images of deer beside them, suggesting a connection with hunting: the labyrinth as a method of finding, trapping, killing. For so many to have been drawn so singularly their meaning must once have been widespread. Perhaps it was a replica of the web.
That it is the textual labyrinth that is so much more complex and confusing than the visual is not surprising. Words themselves are labyrinths, through which we wander in our search for the world and its meaning. Our attempts to reach the object, to describe it, are akin to winding through many corridors, some of which double back on each other, others revealing dead ends, so that our sense of direction is unraveled by the seventh or was it the eight turn, and often, I imagine, we believe we have found the centre, but it was only a dead end in the outer corridors where we blindly reach for the objective through the confusion of our subjectivity. We all are wandering. The spider’s web looks much like the visual labyrinth, though from the perspective of the insect caught in it, the web is more like the impossible complexity of the written: to the fly it must feel like time has been frozen.
Labyrinths are found on the floors of many cathedrals, most famously at Chatres. In the cathedral in Auxurre, a dance was performed at sundown at Easter. This was an annual ritual lasting from about 1396 to the sixteenth century, as a sixteenth century document explains: The newest canon gives a leather ball (pilota) to the dean of the cathedral, and at the same time the clergy
begin antiphonally the sequence appropriate for the feast of Easter, Victimae paschali laudes. Then taking the ball in his left hand, he danced to the meter of the sequence as it was sugn, while the others (a hundred canons), joining hands, danced around the maze. And all the while the pilota was delivered or thrown by the dean alternately to each and every one of the dancers whenever they whirled into view. There was sport and the meter of the dance was set by the organ.
This dance may have symbolized, as Thomas Greene writes, “a garland where life and death seem almost inextricably entwined.” The leather ball might also be one of the two balls given to Theseus, the ball of thread, or of pitch. Or the dance may have a connection to the ritual dance the male spider performs as he enters the web of a female. As spiders are mostly blind, a male must distinguish himself in order to avoid being mistaken for prey, and eaten by the female (this must be the kiss of the spider woman). So the male dances, vibrating the web in an attempt to hypnotize the female.
The spider is a patient and meticulous hunter. This is what it does. It spins a sticky thread and drifts it on a gust of wind, and waits for the thread to catch on a distant surface. Initially the thread is part of the spider: a temporary limb sent out into the world. Once it catches on, say the branch of a tree, the spider, feeling this vibration, tightens the thread and snips it so that it becomes a bridge from its position to the branch. Like a tightrope walker, it steps along this bridge to the branch, spinning a second thread in its wake to strengthen the original. This is the foundation line from which the web will hang. The spider spins a looser thread following the line of this initial bridge, walking back toward the branch, then retraces its steps into the centre of this last line which droops as it walks. When the spider reaches the centre, which by now is close to breaking, it spins a new line, and rappels down, creating a Y. The bottom of this will form the bottom point of the web. The spider completes a triangular shape with threads running from either side of the foundation line to the base of the Y. The corners are reinforced. She lays radiating lines into the heart of the thread, much like the ribs of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica (the first thread, incidentally, of the baroque movement in architecture). Now the foundation of the web is secure the spider begins the threading of the circles, in a clockwise direction, large ones at the start, then smaller and smaller circles until the centre of the web is reached. These circles are a guide, like the thread Theseus unwound as he entered the labyrinth, and are set down to mark where the spider will lay the final circles which are made of capture silk. This can trap the spider just as it traps its prey, so the spider carefully avoids stepping on it once it is spun. And so it must follow its guide lines, as it slowly walks back, anticlockwise now, to the outer rim. Here it waits. The web is no longer part of the spider, and so if the spider, who is blind, is to know when an insect has been caught it must keep a leg on a part of the web, until a vibration, an insect, a fly, a soft bristled brush disturbs the stillness. Some spiders remain in the centre of their creation, their legs spread so that they feel as much as the web feels, as if they identify with their creation so much that they cannot leave it. Others hide on the outskirts.
This is created just before the dawn, in about an hour. Sometimes it will speed and sometimes it pauses, as if struck by an idea. Like our finger prints (those miniscule labyrinths), our genetic structures, or a writer’s voice, every web is different and it is by this difference that the spider who spun it can be identified. Some species of spider even create decorations in the centre of their webs, jagged lightning strikes, or miniature webs that replicate the greater spirals that house them, and while these might have some practical purpose, many believe, and I would like to believe this too, that these decorations are more akin to a signature. The spider creates until it cannot. In experiments, run by zoologists, after two weeks of starvation, having lost weight, and surely exhausted, it continues to create, though the webs are sparse, with great gaps between their threads. The spider is patient, obsessive, creative, it is envied by the artist (or it should be).
NB: A spider has landed on my screen, and clambered up across the writing. Small enough to look like a fly. I am sitting outside, reaching for a cup of coffee on the window sill.
The itsy bitsy spider
climbed up the waterspout.
(In primary school we played a game, which in hindsight feels slightly sinister, where we would creep behind a friend, and whisper this rhyme in their ear while tracing the upward path of their spine with our fingers.)
Down came the rain
and washed the spider out.
(Wriggle our fingers down again.)
Out came the sun
And dried up all the rain
(Climb our fingers up to where the spine meets the skull.)
and the itsy bitsy spider
climbed up the spout again.
(Blow on the nape of their neck. They shivered, as I did when it was done to me. And I often shivered in anticipatory delight as I arranged my fingers inches from an unsuspecting spine.)
The spider was once the artist, Arachne. A talented weaver, she was proud of her work and denied the influence of Minerva, the goddess of weaving, and women’s arts. Minerva, hearing of this arrogance disguised herself as an old woman and advised Arachne to acknowledge the goddess, and ask for her forgiveness. Disgusted at the thought of having to ask forgiveness, Arachne claimed that not only was her art independent of any god, but she was a better weaver than Minerva, and would easily prove this in competition. Minerva revealed herself and accepted the challenge. Arachne blushed but said nothing. Ovid writes: “She stood by her resolve, setting her heart/ her stupid heart, on victory and rushed/ to meet her fate.”
Minerva wove a scene depicting her beating Neptune in a contest as to who had the right to the city now known as Athens. She wove the twelve gods sitting on their thrones marvelling at her victory. In the corners of her tapestry she wove scenes of gods transforming mortals into animals for having dared challenge them. Her composition was stately and classical, the centre images framed by the warning stories.
In response, Arachne wove scenes of Jupiter, who might as well have been the god of serial rape, transforming himself into a variety of forms (a white bull, an eagle, a swan, a satyr, a golden shower, a flame, a shepherd, a spotted snake) so as to deceive and rape mortal women (Europa, Asterie, Leda, Antiope, Alcmena, Danae, Aegina, Mnemosyne, and Proserpine). She weaves stories of Neptune’s rapes of Candace, Iphimedia, Theophane, Ceres, Medusa, and Melantho, while disguised as a bull, the form of Enipeus, a ram, a horse, a winged bird, a dolphin, and a hawk. And Apollo’s rape of Isse, Bacchus’ rape of Erigone, and Saturn’s of Chiron.
On seeing Arachne’s tapestry, filled with the god’s deceptions, all beautifully woven so that it seemed the depicted gods and mortals were about to take their next breath, Minerva knew it was the better and, likely enraged by the impudence of a mortal reminding her of the god’s duplicity, and of their sexual licentiousness (Minerva is also the god of virginity), she destroyed it. She hit Arachne on the forehead with her knitting needle (a large one made of hard, polished wood). In protest, Arachne slipped a noose of thread around her neck and hung herself, but before she fell, Minerva grabbed her and removed the noose: “Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!” She then poisoned Arachne, who underwent a metamorphosis into that of her namesake:
All her hair falls off. And with it go her nose and ears. Her head shrinks tiny; her whole body’s small. Instead of legs slim fingers line her sides. The rest is belly; yet from that she sends a fine-spun thread and, as a spider, still weaving her web, pursues her former skill.
Arachne is condemned to a life devoted to her art. As a punishment this is not wholly severe, yes, Minerva has condemned Arachne and her ancestors to a life as ugly eight legged insects, but there is a respect for Arachne’s weaving included here, so that while of course given the choice most would choose to be human than spider, it is better than being transformed into any number of insects which appear to do nothing but live and die. Her metamorphosis can be compared to Kafka’s metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa. Having woken from troubling dreams, he is transformed into a “horrible vermin”:
He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.”
Gregor’s metamorphosis into a horrible vermin is a more disastrous fate than that of Arachne’s; his legs are pitifully thin, while Arachne has, instead of legs, “slim fingers lining her body,” fingers which allow her to continue her weaving, all the more so since she now has eight rather than two. Her metamorphosis is more like that written by nature, where an insect is transformed from a state of immaturity into its adult form; the spider is the ultimate weaver. Unlike Ovid, Kafka follows Gregor the insect’s brief life after his transformation. It is possible that the fate of Arachne may be just as disastrous as that of Gregor’s. She might have been stepped on by mistake by one of the nymphs who had gathered to watch their competition, for example, but whatever happened, Arachne the woman disappeared into myth, and the first spider was born, whereas Gregor is one monstrous vermin among many. Arachne “rushes toward her fate.” Ovid writes this early, before they had begun their competition. She was aware of the ugly and unfair behaviour of the gods toward mortals. The subject of her weaving makes this clear. In a presentiment of her fate, she entraps the gods in her tapestry, forcing Minerva to transform her. She loses her humanity for the sake of her independence, and her art: as the completed work could not result in anything other than a metamorphosis. Walter Benjamin wrote: “the work is the deathmask of its conception.” The web on the side mirror of the car, on the window frame, between leaves, this is the deathmask of Arachne, which she recreates over and over no matter how many times it is brushed aside. Arachne the spider, the insect that must create to live, condemned to create.
At the time, weaving was one of the few art forms accessible to women, and as such was often used as a metaphor for poetry. There are some who believe Ovid saw himself as Arachne (Arachne c’est moi). He, like Arachne, suffered for his art, having been banished from Rome by the emperor Augustus for writing transgressive literature. Minerva’s tapestry depicted the gods as benevolent beings, and her as victorious; it was a paean to power. Arachne’s revealed the imbalance between immortals and mortals. Like Ovid, Arachne’s weaving was transgressive, depicting numerous rapes by the gods, rapes depicted throughout Ovid’s Metamorphoses (in fact her tapestry could act as a table of contents for his Metamorphoses). And Arachne’s work continues to upset the powerful. A web is always unwelcome in a home. After all I began this essay clearing old webs from window frames. Minerva, in condemning Arachne to an eternity of weaving webs, created a continual reminder of the material uselessness of art, which is its importance, and its power in opposition to the powerful in society. Literature and money mix about as well as oil and water. Every time a web is wiped away, the human takes on the role of the immortal, doing what was once done to the human. And she continues to weave her webs. Creating beauty regardless of its audience, and often in spite of them.
Diego Velsaquez depicted these scenes in his painting, The Spinners (1664). In the foreground, Arachne and Minerva prepare their looms, Minerva faces us, still in her disguise as an old woman while we see only Arachne’s back, her right foot, and her hands. Velasquez focuses on Arachne’s work, on the art, rather than the artist. The two are assisted by three young women, likely the fates: daughters of Zeus, mysterious beings who wove the future. All are dressed in the clothes of 16th century Spanish women. In the background, Velasquez portrays the midsection of the myth. Back here, a second Minerva now has her back to the viewer. She wears her warrior helmet, and her raised hand holds the knitting needle above Arachne who sits in the centre of the painting. Arachne’s belly, as many have noted, is the centre point of the painting, the belly that will be transformed into the body of a spider. On the wall behind her is a reproduction of Titian’s The Rape of Europa, which depicts the first image Arachne wove in her tapestry.
By foregrounding the weaving, Velasquez places the process of art as the most significant part of the myth, even moreso he foregrounds the thread, the material of their art. The closest object to the viewer is Minerva’s spinning loom, while beside Minerva, Arachne holds in her right hand a ball of thread, while with her left hand she gathers the strands of thread on the frame of her loom. Below more sparse threads are looped across the frame, reminiscent of the circular lines of the spider’s web. John Berger notes how Minerva’s outstretched leg is of the same colour as her thread. The colours of Arachne’s blouse and arms are found in her thread.
In this foreground of the painting the figures loom large, the folds of their clothes are stark and dramatic, whereas the background depicting the moment before the decisive act in the myth of Arachne appears almost as an afterthought. The figures are small and blurred in the distance, as if on a stage in an amateur production of the myth. They might even be a part of the tapestry just behind them which depicts the rape of Europa, already woven into myth. This is Velasquez’s second time to return to Arachne’s story. In his previous work, Las Meninas, he inserted a copy of Peter Paul Reuben’s Pallas and Arachne, which shows what he does not show in The Spinners: Minerva striking Arachne, though this is set high on a dark wall in the background, making it, perhaps, not so much a feature but a reminder.
Clearly, the myth of Arachne, beyond being the mythical origin of the spider, and its compulsive spinning of webs, is the story of the transformation of the artist. Or at the least, this is one strand of meaning among many. Arachne, when transformed into the spider, could be said to have finally found her voice. As a spider she could work freely, without stumbling, without lapses in ideas or inspiration. There was only necessity. An art monster, as Jenny Ofill writes in Dept. of Speculation:
My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters concern themselves only with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera Licked his stamps for him.
Arachne became an art monster, but to do so she had to lose everything, including her life.
Shakespeare, in Cassius and Trolius, combines Arachne with Ariadne in writing “Ariachne.” There is a great distance between those first two letters and the last two, that Ar and that ne. In this distance the fates spun differing threads, creating different stories, but each of these women is bound to the archetypal thread that people speak of when they talk about narrative.
As John Berger saw in the painting of Velasquez, the clothes and skin of Arachne could have been woven by her thread so alike were they in colour; and remember that Ariadne gathered her ball of thread by unravelling her clothes. How likely is it that Ariadne’s thread, which she gave so lovingly to Theseus, was the same colour as her skin? Perhaps the reason why these two women are so important, and why artists and writers become obsessed by them is that they, within these myths, are woven by the narrative but at the same time they are in control of their narrative: both control the thread: Arachne weaves her own myth, and Ariadne unravels hers. Both ultimately lose their lives (as tends to happen in life and literature): Arachne becomes the spider, and Ariadne becomes the constellation. They undergo a metamorphosis but they are that rare phenomenon: characters who became their own authors. And it must be remembered that these stories existed before they were written. Myth, like water, retains its essence.
Author scuttles across floorboards. Author has a segmented body and 48 knees. Author is small and ugly and kills without mercy. One morning author wakes and builds a web between the bedpost and the wall. Reader, arriving that morning to congratulate author on their latest book, and to request a signature, and perhaps some advice on their own writing, sees this web and, enraptured by its beauty, steps closer. And closer. In the centre of the web is a much smaller spiral, an exact reproduction of the web itself, a web inside the web, dense in its movement. Disbelieving that something so small could be so intricate, imagining it to be a mirage—having spent two hours on a train, and having been unable to sleep in the night before due to excitement at meeting author this morning—reader reaches out to touch it. Author emerges from the shadows.
Hugh Fulham-McQuillan‘s fiction and essays have been published in Ambit, gorse, The Stinging Fly, and The Irish Times among others. He has work forthcoming in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2018. He is working on a PhD in Psychology in Trinity College Dublin. His first collection of short stories will be published by Dalkey Archive Press. @HughFMcQ