Welcome, as ever, dear readers.
“It’s an ill wind that bears nobody any good” sounds like it belongs right up there with “A third time pays for all” and other proverbs Bilbo quotes his father as saying in The Hobbit and, in my case, this one was true. Covid-19 finally did away with my trypanophobia (fear of needles, based upon two Greek words, the obvious phobia, “fear” and the very graphic verb, tripao/tripo, “to puncture”!).
(how my vivid and terrified childhood imagination saw such things)
I begin my class on monsters asking my students about their fears and I get the usual, everything from heights (acrophobia)
to fear of enclosed places (claustrophobia)
to a fear of clowns (coulrophobia—but a debated term—perhaps bozophobia would be better?)
and I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone suffered from this one, as I find clowns disturbing, too. Perhaps it’s the often sad makeup but the attempt to be comic? Or the suggested distortion of facial features, like exaggerated mouths?
Also among the items on the list was arachnophobia: the fear of spiders.
I never think of this particular phobia without remembering a song by Michael Flanders (1922-1975) and Donald Swann (1923-1994) on the subject:
“I have fought a Grizzly Bear,
Tracked a Cobra to its lair,
Killed a Crocodile who dared to cross my path,
But the thing I really dread
When I’ve just got out of bed
Is to find that there’s a Spider in the bath.
I’ve no fear of Wasps or Bees,
Mosquitoes only tease,
I rather like a Cricket on the hearth,
But my blood runs cold to meet
In pyjamas and bare feet,
With a great big hairy spider in the bath.
I have faced a charging Bull in Barcelona,
I have dragged a mountain Lioness from her cub,
I’ve restored a mad Gorilla to its owner,
But I don’t dare face that tub …
What a frightful looking beast –
Half an inch across at least –
It would frighten even Superman or Garth!
There’s contempt it can’t disguise,
In the little beady eyes,
Of the Spider sitting glowering in the bath.
It ignores my every lunge
With the backbrush and the sponge;
I have bombed it with ‘A present from Penarth’.
It just rolls into a ball,
Doesn’t seem to mind at all,
And simply goes on squatting in the bath.
For hours we have been locked in endless struggle,
I have lured it to the deep end by the drain.
At last I think I’ve washed it down the plughole,
But here it comes a-crawling up the chain!
Now it’s time for me to shave,
Though my nerves will not behave,
And there’s bound to be a fearful aftermath.
So before I cut my throat,
I shall leave this final note;
Driven to it – by the Spider in the bath!”
1. “Garth” a British superhero character, first appearing in The Daily Mirror in 1943—see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garth_(comic_strip)
2. “a present from Penarth” a Victorian seaside resort in southern Wales, so this would suggest a souvenir with an inscription—there is a very detailed account of the town here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penarth
You can hear Flanders and Swann singing it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8z3D5Jutw1Q )
Arachnophobia gets its name from Arachne, a character from classical mythology, whose history is wonderfully described in Ovid’s (43BC-17/18AD) Metamorphoses, Book 6, Lines 1-145, where we see the human weaver who makes the huge mistake of claiming that her brilliant work is all her own and challenging the goddess Minerva, who clearly inspired her, being the patron of weaving, to do any better. Minerva first appears as an elderly woman to warn her to remember who her patron is, but, upon receiving a boastful reply, appears as herself and the two settle down to a contest, Minerva depicting scenes of impious humans, Arachne scenes of male gods seducing human females. At the end, Minerva can only admire the work(wo)manship, but is also so angry that she tears Arachne’s weaving apart and smacks her three times on the head with her shuttle.
Arachne is so humiliated that she attempts to hang herself, but Minerva saves her by turning her into a spider, with legs and abdomen
…de quo tamen illa remittit
Stamen et antiquas aranea telas.
“…from which that one, a spider, still sends out and back
Thread and [her] traditional weavings/webs.” (Book 6, Lines 144-145—if you’d like to read the whole story, or even the whole of the Metamorphoses, start here: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0028%3Abook%3D6%3Acard%3D1 )
For all of Minerva’s anger and Arachne’s fate, this conclusion seems so gently domestic that it might be hard to see such as threatening—unless you have very large ones,
who wait in the trees to drop down and seize passing dwarves,
(a particularly disturbing illustration by Ted Nasmith)
or are even larger ones who attack hobbits.
(by the Hildebrandts)
So, with such creatures in two of his major works, did their creator suffer from arachnophobia? Let him tell us:
“…and I knew that the way was guarded by a Spider. And if that has anything to do with my being stung by a tarantula when a small child, people are welcome to the notion (supposing the improbable, that any one is interested). I can only say that I remember nothing about it, should not know if I had not been told; and I do not dislike spiders particularly, and have no urge to kill them. I usually rescue those whom I find in the bath!” (to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 217)
But, as Dante (1265-1321)
mentions Arachne twice in the Commedia, once in L’Inferno XVII(16-18) and then in Purgatorio XII (43-45), I wonder how he felt about spiders?
As ever, thanks for reading.
Be kind to things which fall into your tub,
And remember that, as always, there’s
It seems that the earliest recorded version of the proverb with which I began dates to John Heywood’s (1497—died post 1578) A Dialogue of the Effectual Proverbs in the English Tongue Concerning Marriage (1546)—you can find it on page 93 of this edition: https://archive.org/details/dialogueofeffect00heywuoft and this is a fun book just to browse through, with proverbs of all sorts done in a long coupleted form. Bilbo’s father would have been pleased.