Great horns she had, and behind her short stalk-like neck was her huge swollen body, a vast bloated bag, swaying and sagging between her legs; its great bulk was black, blotched with livid marks, but the belly underneath was pale and luminous and gave forth a stench. Her legs were bent, with great knobbed joints high above her back, and hairs that stuck out like steel spines, and at each leg’s end there was a claw.
The Lord of the Rings
It is said that humans instinctively find certain features attractive – large eyes, for example – and this is why babies (both human and animal) appeal to us.
In the same vein, a dislike of sudden scuttling movement, multiple appendages and the like is also thought to be inherent. Humans have an a priori fear of spiders.
Now, I am NOT particularly scared of spiders. Growing up in suburban and semi-rural South Australia brought me into frequent contact with black house spiders, white-tailed spiders and redbacks. I once brought a red-headed mouse spider home for identification; and for many years, one of my designated household jobs was the removal of huntsman spiders – some with a leg span of around 20cm – from the kitchen and neighbour’s house. Even today, I am quite happy to let one of the small wolf spiders that enter my house crawl onto my hand so I can take it back outside.
But there is one spider that does manage to give me the willies. Jorogumo.
A member of the golden orb-web family, Nephila clavata is beautifully coloured. The females are large for web spinners – body lengths of 25mm are not uncommon. They also have very long legs and spin large webs, up to a metre across. The whole trampoline effect intensifies their already rapid-but-jerky movement. As I said, humans are predispositioned to dislike this.
I also mentioned their bright colouring – yellow and black striped legs with a blue-ish tinge near the body and a yellow and black abdomen, often with a red band. In nature, bright colours, particularly red, are usually a warning sign – “Mess with me and you’ll regret it”.
However, these are not aggressive spiders, and their venom is not known to be dangerous to humans.
I should point out here that practically every spider is venomous. There are just a number of factors determining whether or not the bite is dangerous – the ability of the fangs to penetrate human skin, the type of venom, the volume injected, individual allergic reactions, and the presence of bacteria on the spider’s fangs.
The jorogumo (女郎蜘蛛) is sometimes confused with spiders of the genus Argiope (the genus that includes the St. Andrew’s cross spider), particularly Argiope amoena, known locally as koganegumo (黄金蜘蛛). I hope to write about these spiders in a later post.
There are two popular theories as to the origins of the jorogumo’s name. The more common one is 女郎, basically a prostitute; the other is 上臈, a high-ranked court lady. The former name is also sometimes shared with a mythical creature in folklore (also written 絡新婦 – “ensnaring bride”) that possesses some arachnidian traits.
Old stories tell of men meeting a beautiful woman and falling for her charms (sometimes marrying them, sometimes being led to their house) When the man falls asleep, the woman transforms into a giant spider, binds him in her web, and devours him. Eventually a young samurai sees through the deception and kills the spider.
A variation has the woman carrying a child (possibly representing the spider’s egg-sac). The woman asks the samurai to hold the child. The samurai sees through the disguise and makes to slash at the woman and child. The child screams, and the samurai escapes. He returns the next morning to find a giant spider crushed under a huge rock, and countless human skulls under the house. Had he carried the child, he would have been pinned down when it transformed into the rock and been easy prey for the jorogumo.
Typical of many spiders, mating is a dangerous affair for the male – he often ends up getting eaten as part of the bargain. His chances of survival are best if the female has just eaten or has just molted.
As I write this, the spiders are approaching the final stage of their life cycle. Eggs are laid in late autumn and early winter and hatch in the spring.
A big thank-you to workmate Mat, who took time out to help me find and photograph specimens for this post.