Wednesday 25 April 2018

Kevin Myers: It's an unlucky person who doesn't like spiders

The story of the hour is surely the appearance this week at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London of a full length golden cape made from the silk of Madagascan Golden Orb spiders. Over the course of five years, 24 she-spiders were captured at a time, and coaxed of their silk by teams of 80 silkers. The little beasts were then freed and replaced by fresh captives, and so on, in endless relays, as fresh spiders were lassoed and duly milked of their steely extrusions. In all, over a million spiders toiled to make the cape.

Technically speaking, spiders do not produce 'silk', for this only comes from silkworms, the pupa-children of the silkmoth, an insect. 'Silk' is a peculiar word, for, though similar forms exist in Old Norse, Russian, Lithuanian, and Prussian, it comes originally from the Greek, Seres, meaning 'easterner'. That's how the west commercially learnt of the orient; through the mysterious fabric arriving on the caravans in Persia. Thus the glories of trade; for Arctic musk and mink would be traded by Viking trappers in return for this precious, wondrous material, whose secret source was for so long protected by trained assassins of the ancient Chinese dynasties. Who could possibly have thought that mere insect-larvae could have woven such fabric, so delicate, so strong?

Then someone reasoned that what was good for the silkworm was good for the spider, and so its web, of steel-like strength, in due course was exploited. It is an unlucky person indeed that does not cherish the spider. No spider comes to any harm in my home. She might be shooed into some corner where she is less likely to cause hysteria amongst females, who -- my wife excepted -- are usually hostile toward arachnids; though of course, spiders themselves are for the most part female. The males of the species are sad, forlorn creatures: plaintively pleading for sex, to which the female usually surrenders only as a prelude to devouring him. Most young human males are, metaphorically at least, acquainted with this experience.

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