Thursday, December 8, 2016

SPIDER WOMAN’S HANDS: A Metaphor for Our Time

I've been feeling unable to "center" ever since the election, confronting the division and hostility that seems to be overtaking our country so quickly.  I guess the image of "a webbed vision" seemed important, along with circles...............

Spider Woman's Hands

“What might we see, how might we act, if we saw with a webbed vision?  The world seen through a web of relationships…as delicate as spider’s silk,
yet strong enough to hang a bridge on.”

Catherine Keller, Theologian, From a Broken Web (1989)

Years ago I climbed the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, just outside of Phoenix, where I used to live.   It was a long and hot climb, and I was exhausted when at last I sat beneath a mesquite tree to enjoy a panoramic view of the Sonoran desert below.   The silence was broken only by the sound of wind whistling through the needles of the great saguaro cactus, and an occasional cry of a red tailed hawk circling overhead.  

I happened to be sitting before a spider web, stretched between two dry branches.  By shifting my point of view  I could view the entire landscape through the web’s intricate, transparent pattern…..a  landscape  seen through the ineffable strands of an almost, but not quite,  invisible web that shimmered with the currents of the air. 

I think I’ve been seeking “a webbed vision” ever since, trying to reclaim that overlay and underlay of an invisible, yet tangible inclusiveness - to see the links, instead of the breaks and tears, beneath everything.  I’ve been on the trail of Spider Woman. 

Spider Woman is ubiquitous through the Americas.  Pueblo mythology tells that when each of the previous worlds ended, it was Spider Woman who led the new people through the sipapu, the kiva (or birth canal) into the next world, after a great catastrophe destroyed the previous era.   According to the Hopi Calendar, as well as that of the ancient Maya of Mexico, the Fourth Age has ended, and we have entered the Fifth Age.  Spider Woman, revealing the ultimate interdependency of all beings, is once again the Midwife to a sustainable paradigm.   

The Pueblo people, from northern New Mexico to the mesas of Arizona, still inhabit their ancestral lands.  They are descendants of the ancient Anasazi peoples, who built cliff dwellings and ceremonial centers throughout the area over millennia, including the famous Chaco Canyon.  Spider was the first weaver, bringing order and form, balance and symmetry to the primal, formless chaos.   Spider Woman is also called Tse Che Nako, Thought Woman, the “one who creates the world with the stories she tells”The world shaping power of story is also a gift she gives to her relations - an eternally generative thread.

Stories don't end after we close the book, or turn off the electronic box. When we talk about “spinning a tale“ we’re participating in something that has to potential to keep evolving, generation into generation, from the waking world to the dreamtime, back into the past, and forward into the stories of those who are yet to come.  So what kind of stories are we telling about being in the world, about being a part of the world?

The Navajo (who call themselves the Dinah) revere Spider Woman (Na'ashje'ii sdfzq'q) for teaching them how to weave, which may be seen as a spiritual practice more than simply a craft.  Wool rugs often have “Spiderwoman's Cross” woven into the pattern, representing the union of the four directions.  Some Navajo weavers, it's said, still leave a flaw in the work - because the only perfect web is that of Grandmother Spider Woman, the first weaver.  To the Navajo,
Spider Woman is a wise guide but one must be prepared to listen.2 Spider Woman is a bridge that allows a certain kind of knowledge to be transmitted from the sacred dimension to the mundane among those who have been initiated and can thus be receptive to her teachings.  To immature eyes she will appear only as an insignificant insect, a web invisible, unseen and unheard.

Weaving and spinning, the creation of baskets and rugs from cotton (and later wool) was important throughout native America, just as it has been in other parts of the world. It was both a practical and a holy activity, and is usually associated with women.  Among the Maya,   Ix Chel was an important earth goddess, matron of childbirth and weaving. She was reincarnated as the Aztec Goddess Tlazolteotl, “the great weaver”, illustrated in Aztec art holding spindles and with strands of cotton fibers in her earrings.

In shell ornaments belonging to the Mound Builders, the prehistoric Mississippian people, a ubiquitous spider with a cross within a circle on its back symbol occurs.   And among the Osage, until little more than a generation ago, important women had spiders tattooed on the backs of their hands.

  Spider Woman has a way of getting around.   Some say that the World Wide Web is her latest appearance.  Although she can be found in the canyons and deserts of the Americas, her archetype is found in many other places and times.   In the Odyssey there is the faithful wife Penelope who wove and unwove a shroud each night as she waited for Odysseus.  Yet the name Penelope probably derives from a much earlier oracular or fate goddess, because it means "with a web on her face".  Another way of translating the origins of this name might be expressed as one who “sees with a webbed vision

Spider Woman wove the world with the stories she told, and she reveals the timeless web of interdependency that unites all beings.   Even today, among some Navajo when a  girl is born a spider web is rubbed into her hands so she will become a good weaver. 

May we all be good weavers, rubbing a bit of spider web into our palms.


Loftin, John D., Religion and Hopi Life, Second Edition, Indiana University Press, 1988

Keller, Catherine, From a Broken Web , Thames & Hudson, 1989

Patterson-Rudolph, Carol, On the Trail of Spiderwoman, Ancient City Press, 1997

Franke, Judith   A., The Gift of Spider Woman,  Dickson Mounds Museum, “The Living Museum”, volume 61, No. 2, 1999

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