Many years ago, spending the school vacation at a country estate, I used to stand at the window of the old carriage house and look out on an abandoned olive orchard, on the chance of seeing a rare bird, or a squirrel or cottontail, or even perhaps a coyote, for the place teemed with wildlife. But one day I saw a large brown spider in the act of building its huge web across the window-pane. It had already laid in the ribs or spans and the outer edge, and was now starting to fill in the marvelous mesh of cross weaving. This was a priceless opportunity for observing the small architect at work at close hand, with only the thickness of the glass between us. I stood there entranced, for how long I don't remember.
Without haste, without rest, the spider moved in its spiral path, spanning the gaps between its guy-ropes, pausing only long enough on each to make fast its silken thread, then on to the next, in a rhythm precise yet fluidic. Eventually it would come to rest in its self-created universe. Young as I was, I was deeply impressed, because it seemed to me that the busy creature worked as if guided by an unseen presiding intelligence.
The spider — enigmatical, silent, peculiarly alone — has always been intriguing to the imagination. Whatever may be said of the general abhorrence in which it is held, one thing is certain: it can never be ignored. It, with its web, figures in the creation myths of various times and peoples, perhaps because of its very self-sufficiency, building its home and means of livelihood out of the substance of its own body. The web itself, with its symmetry, lures the thought to the mystery of genesis when "the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Then the Word sounded through the universal void, and the worlds came into being. In a still older record, the Stanzas of Dzyan, the coming into being of a universe is given this symbolism:
Father-Mother spin a web whose upper end is fastened to Spirit, . . . and the lower one to Matter; . . . and this web is the Universe spun out of the two substances made in one. — The Secret Doctrine, I, 83
So the web is used to signify the world stuff or atoms in the primordial condition of cosmic birth. When the web expands, the universe comes into being: when it contracts, the beings pulsating with life feel the end of their cycle, "return into their mother's bosom at the end of the 'Great Day' and rebecome one with her."
A mind not yet reduced to a state of learned ignorance will sense the beauty of the opening Stanza:
The Eternal Parent [Space] wrapped in her ever invisible robes had slumbered once again for seven eternities. Time was not, for it lay asleep in the infinite bosom of duration. Universal mind was not, for there were no Ah-hi [celestial beings] to contain it. The seven ways to bliss were not. The great causes of misery were not, for there was no one to produce and get ensnared by them. Darkness alone filled the Boundless All, for Father, Mother and Son were once more one, and the Son had not awakened yet for the new wheel, and his pilgrimage thereon. . . .
This is the essence of many ancient fairy tales, such as "The Sleeping Beauty" which carries much the same truths in simpler form.
Among the American Indians the identical legend exists, in essentials, having been handed down from generation to generation over a period of some 20,000 years. With the Hopis, it is "Spider-woman" who, inspired by Tiowa, the Primeval One, fashions the worlds, skies, oceans — and finally man — out of her own "milky substance." She builds the worlds and creatures from her own world-stuff. We could postulate that when God went to work on the new Creation he found materials ready to his hand in the vast storehouse of the Formless, the Unmanifest; matter from the last indrawing, but preserved in the subjective worlds until the thrill of life was again felt, and the atoms responded to another outbreathing of their "Creator."
As for ourselves, the infinitesimals of this present universe: are we in our turn self-wrought weavers and spinners? Where do our deeds, and therefore our characters, originate? They have their gestation in our own consciousness — what the psychologists call the Unconscious, which is the subjective memory of ages of experience. In response to the play of circumstance in our daily lives, what we are comes to the surface in thought and desire, having birth at last in action, all the while we are literally drawing from within ourselves the substance that becomes the outer expression of our character — the components of our own particular world or universe. This process is a copy in miniature of what is taking place in the greater cosmos. In this way we are the heirs of ourselves, the weavers and the dreamers of dreams, indeed.
Something of this has occurred to a poet or two. There is the passage in a famous letter of John Keats, 19th February, 1818:
Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel — the points of leaves and twigs on which the spider begins her work are few, and she fills the air with a beautiful circuiting. Man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Web of his Soul, and weave a tapestry empyrean full of symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering, of distinctness for his luxury.
And Walt Whitman surely had in mind the silent wonder of a spider projecting its web when he wrote:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere,
O my soul.
There comes a time when for the moment the spider's web is spun to a finish, . . . but thought is born, and lives on.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1985/January 1986; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)