I AM ARACHNOPHOBIC. Not, it has to be admitted, to the same degree as the lady, cited by the author of this curious book, who couldn’t even write the word ‘spider’ – she undoubtedly would not be able to so much as look at the cover with its illustration of two particularly ‘spidery’ spiders. Nevertheless, I have been trapped for three hours in an empty house because a large spider had positioned itself on the carpet immediately ouside the door (I could not possibly step over it); I have woken screaming from dreams in which spiders were nesting in my hair; and I once tore off my clothes in the middle of a party because a ‘friend’ had pretended to drop a spider down the back of my neck. On one late-night occasion, drunkenly forgetting my phobia, I attempted to rescue a bath-stranded arachnid with a bare hand; when it did what spiders always do in such circumstances, move with lightning speed in random directions, the heart-stopping fright of it sobered me up instantly.
So it was with a mixture of apprehension and fascination that I approached Hillyard’s book. He, being a spider specialist at the Natural History Museum, loves them and is anxious to help the ‘arachnophobic British’ (apparently about 50 per cent of all women and 10 per cent of men in this country ‘express at least some fear of spiders’) come to a better understanding of the beasties’ essential harmlessness and usefulness.
And he does dispel some of the arachnophobe’s favourite myths: not all female spiders dine on their males after mating; spiders, even the big South American ‘bird-eating’ kind (commonly referred to as ‘tarantulas’, although strictly speaking they are not), do not on the whole want to tangle with humans; and most of the ‘poisonous’ species are not in fact fatal to humans.
However, sufferers of even the mildest arachnophobia will find more than enough to justify their fears. All spiders are venomous (except for members of the Uloboridae family, who construct some of the most intricate webs in which to entrap their prey, having no venom glands); they are all predators; most are cannibalistic; and of the 35,000 known species, some 500 or so are capable of sinking their fangs into humans with extremely painful consequences, even if not causing death.
The ‘Brazilian wandering spider’, with a five-inch leg span, is a vicious creature which has no need to construct webs as its venom is so powerful. Although an outdoors night hunter, it sometimes wanders into houses for daytime shelter, and is quite unafraid of larger species such as humans. Far from scurrying away, it will leap on to a broom handle and run up it to attack. Its bite causes ‘immediate and intense pain which spreads throughout the body’.
The ‘Sydney funnelweb ‘ is commonly found in the outer suburbs of that city and ‘strikes repeatedly and furiously at anything that moves’. Its large fangs can pierce the skull of a small animal or a human fingernail. The process of dying for an adult can take more than thirty hours. Somebody should introduce it among the neighbours of Ramsay Street.
The black widow spider may be shy and retiring, feigning death if disturbed, but it is also small, and its very timidity means that you are unlikely to notice it as you pluck a bunch of luscious grapes from the vine (particularly as it resembles a grape), and its bite can be fatal. In the Middle Ages, the black widow of Southern Italy was responsible for annual mass outbreaks of ‘tarantism’, in which those bitten indulged in a long and often lewd dance known as the ‘tarantella’ to flush the poison from the body. The phenomenon spread to France and Spain and lasted for 300 years!
‘Recluse spiders’, quaintly known in Chile as the ‘spider behind the pictures’, are not as reclusive as their name suggests, often crawling into clothes and bedding. Hillyard tells the story of the Los Angeles housewife who after being bitten by one fell into a five-month-long coma, during which time gangrene took hold of all her extremities. Both her legs and arms and the tip of her nose had to be amputated. This was in 1993, and Hillyard offers no source for the story, merely commenting that it was ‘widely reported’. Have you heard the one about a friend of a friend who … ?
South American Indians, the Kalahari Bushmen, Aborigines, Cambodians and Laotians all enjoy spiders as a delicacy. Yes, they eat them, cooked or raw. Some taste similar to ‘raw potato mixed with lettuce ‘, others like hazelnuts or chicken bone marrow. The ‘goliath tarantula’ of Venezuela is prized indeed, with its ten-inch leg span and ‘ tennis-ball-sized abdomen’ , the contents of which are squeezed out on to a broad leaf that is then rolled up, rather like a pancake, and cooked on hot coals. The legs taste like prawns. The fangs are used as toothpicks.
Throughout history, spiders have been revered and feared, and Hillyard gallops through their representation in myth, folklore and literature, together with their uses in medieval medicine. In later chapters he supplies a fairly dry account of the development of spider classification, which can be of only limited interest to laymen. Hillyard is at his best on spider detail – their extraordinary feats of engineering, their ability to ‘balloon’ through the air on loops of silk, their ingenious methods of catching prey. And it’s all riveting stuff, providing lots of facts with which to astound (or bore) friends, arachnophobic or otherwise.
For me, the moment of truth came with the discovery of the existence of the woodlouse spider. This is easily recognised by ‘ its cream abdomen, red cep halothorax and legs .. .Its bite may cause the limb to swell for several days, and dizziness may occur’ . It is fairly common in urban Britain. And I saw two, for the first time, last year, in my flat. They were dead, thank God!