This article is part of a series where we look back in history at strong women – from real life, fiction, or the blending of both into legend – who blazed new trails, had great adventures, and stood up for what was right. They are the originals that our grandmothers and generations of women before admired and who became the stepping stones for us: the Geek Gals of today. We shall call these female forbearers our Classic Geek Gals.
I’d like to introduce to you our next Classic Geek Gal: The Spider Woman.
Who is she?
Spider Woman, also known as Grandmother Spider, is a creation figure from many Native American cultures. The Spider Woman appears as a wise, old woman who guides people to wisdom and knowledge. She created the world with her thoughts and songs. And she shows the connections in life like the connections through the many spokes of her web. Spider Woman whispers in our ear the path we should tread to a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. If you heed her valuable advice, your feet will be sure and your way will be true.
The spider woman is the wisdom keeper, the grandmother figure, the female figure. When I wanted to get out from my illness, there was a spider woman in my mind who spoke to me, and she became my strength and my courage to pull me out.Hopi artist Michael Kabotie (from the American Museum of Natural History’s exhibit “Totems to Turquoise”)
She was a creative goddess.
In Hopi mythology, Spider Woman (the Earth Goddess) along with Tawa (the Sun God) created the Earth and all its creatures, breathing life into them by giving them souls. They then created humans from their own image and sang them into existence. By organizing the people into tribes, Spider Woman taught them about roles and religion.
She was a teacher and guide to early humans.
Spider Woman’s legend did not end with the Hopi myths of creation. Unhappy with their inability to live in this first world, Tawa sent Spider Woman to guide the early people up through the levels of the world. She taught them along the way to plant, weave, and make clay pots, helping the people to survive. After many dangers and losing tribe members along the way, they reach the fourth world where they finally settle. There is even a fun story of how a coyote witnessed (and unwittingly helped) Spider Woman create the many stars in the night sky!
She understood survival skills.
In Navajo mythology, Spider Woman not only helped create the world with Spider Man, she also aided those who sought her assistance. When the Navajo people worried about surviving the brutal winter, Spider Woman taught the women how to use sheeps’ wool for yarn, dyeing and weaving it into beautiful rugs. The villagers used the rugs to warm their homes and sold the rest, thereby making it through to the spring.
She is small but brave.
Spider Woman is not a towering giant, but a tiny being with a big heart and spirit. The Choctaw believed that Spider Woman stole fire and gave it to the humans (“Grandmother Spider Steals Fire”), whereas the Cherokee honor her as stealing the Sun itself (“Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun”). But the Osage hold her in the highest regard as a symbol of their people themselves. In the myth “The Spider and the People”, the chief is looking for a symbol of strength for his people and scoffs at Spider’s offering to be the symbol. Spider, undeterred, tells him, “I am patient. I watch and wait. If your people learn this, they will be strong indeed.” And the chief saw it was so.
What can she teach us today?
Spider Woman lives on in everything from woven baskets and pottery (“The Gift of Spider Woman”) to theater (“Spiderwoman Theater”). If she were here today, I think she would be both fascinated and amused by the internet–our own digital web–and how it connects such far-flung people and places to each other, sharing wisdom through the speed of fiber. Ultimately, though, I believe she would look on us today and the webs we weave with our social circles of family and friends, and she would smile, and say, “Yes, my children, you were always the answer.”
For more fascinating stories about Spider Woman and the creation of the universe, see “The Spider Woman and the Twins,” a Hopi legend, and “Spider Rock,” a Navajo legend.
Read more of Courtney’s articles.
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