The Spider Woman

Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

© AMNH / Denis Finnin

A Southwest Native Myth

"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

Spider Woman appears in stories throughout the Southwest, often as a powerful teacher and helper. In some Southwestern cultures, Spider Woman taught people to spin thread and weave cloth, thus sharing with humans the spider's ability to make webs.

The Hopis speak of a Spider Grandmother who, conscientiously weaving her webs, thought the world itself into existence. In the Navajo creation story, people travel up through four lower worlds, creating chaos and disorder until they are banished from each in turn. At one level, they are threatened by a devastating flood but Spider Woman rescues them by weaving a web to create solid ground before the water sweeps over them.

In this excerpt from the Hopi Snake Myth, recorded circa 1900, a young man journeys to the home of the Snake People. There, with the help of Spider Woman, he meets a beautiful Snake Maiden.

Spider Woman and the Birth of the Snake Clan

On the walls of the kiva were hanging many costumes made of snake skins. Soon the chief said to the people: "Let us dress up now," and turning to the young man bid him to turn away so that he would not see what was going on. He did so, and when he looked back again the men had all dressed up in the snake costumes and had turned into snakes, large and small, bull snakes, racers, and rattlesnakes, that were moving about on the floor hissing, rattling, etc.

While he had turned away and the Snake People had been dressing themselves, Spider Woman had whispered to him that they were now going to try him very hard, but that he should not be afraid to touch the snakes; and she gave him many instructions....

Spider Woman whispered to the young man that the one that acted so very angrily was the pretty maiden and that he should try to take that one. He tried, but the snake was very wild and fierce. "Be not afraid," Spider Woman whispered.... He at once grabbed it, held and stroked it four times upward, each time spurting a little medicine on it, and thus freeing it from its anger.

The snake then changes back into a beautiful maiden; the two later marry, and their children become the ancestors of the Snake Clan.