Athenae’s Curse

Grasshopper caught in spider web
‘Death in Paradise’: Water droplets shine like pearls on the web of a funnel spider Hippasa sp., where a young grasshopper has just met its end.
Photo: © Santosh Kundeshwar / Sanctuary Photolibrary

BITTU SAHGAL

Nature is splendidly democratic. No creature is victimised. None favoured. The ‘eat or be eaten’ rule is the universal key to the success of life forms, all shaped by evolution, all specialised to negotiate the survival gauntlet.

In this rain-drenched, green-mansion, a grasshopper nymph’s death spells life for a spider. The battle has its origins in subtle changes that took place around 400 million years ago in the Devonian period, when spider-like creatures first evolved and were able to spin silk, probably to line burrows and mark trails. It would be another 100 million years or so, in the Carboniferous period, that true arachnids, over 40,000 of them, began to emerge. It is at this stage that they began to possess real spinnerets capable of producing a variety of silk strands, stronger than steel or Kevlar! And, yes, they also developed a heady cocktail of alkaline toxins that would turn them into accomplished carnivores capable of trapping, ambushing, killing and then converting their victim’s tissues into a soup. This, they could easily suck back up through the same hollow fangs that injected the digestive poison in the first place!

The ancient Greeks, of course, had another spin to the story! By legend a young, female mortal, Arachne, had the temerity to challenge the goddess Athenae, patron of the craft of weaving, to a contest! Predictably, Arachne’s weaving talents were not a patch on the goddess’ and as a warning to other impudent humans the angry Athenae transformed the challenger into a spider destined to weave all lifelong. Thus the nomenclature ‘arachnid’ that science uses to describe a diverse class of eight-legged invertebrates of which the most numerous are spiders.

Spiders mesmerise me. I accept, but cannot fully comprehend, the unreasoning fear and revulsion they trigger in some humans (arachnophobia). In my book, creatures so tiny that their brains end up spilling into every available body cavity including their legs, and that have survived as long as they have, are to be respected! At home, walking, in a car, bus or ferry, I have found myself transfixed by spiders, the incredible, industrious creatures that Athenae condemned to a life of tedious weaving.

As I contemplate my own existence and that of billions engaged in that utterly human pursuit — the rat race — I wonder who exactly it was that Athenae cursed. Was it the spider, representative of a myriad creatures great and small that comprise the natural world, or mighty Homo sapiens, blessed with wondrous sentience, yet so anesthetised to the wonders of nature and its threats that we have, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, grown “Too busy with the crowded hour to fear to live or die.”

First appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXII No. 1, February 2012

Bittu Sahgal

Editor at Sanctuary Asia
Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Asia, India's premier wildlife and ecology magazine.
Bittu Sahgal

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Bittu Sahgal

Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Asia, India's premier wildlife and ecology magazine.