Tarantulas and their Myths
Origin of the word “Tarantula”: During the Middle Ages, dancing was forbidden in Italy because it was considered a custom that could lead to sin. But in the southern region of Italy, in the city of Tarento, there was a popular collective dance called the Tarantella, which was said to cure the madness of people bitten by the “wolf spider” (Lycosa tarantula) that was native to that region. The people of Tarento would claim to have been bitten by a spider and therefore have an excuse to dance without the risk of being accused of promiscuity. It was believed that the more people joined in the dance, its healing powers improved. That was a good excuse, wasn’t it? Nowadays, it is a very popular dance in Spain. This wolf spider is a pretty big spider, and when the Europeans first visited the new continent, they were horrified when they saw such huge creatures, and they gave the name of tarantula to all big hairy spiders. And that is how the name came to be.
Biologist Roberto Rojo describes for us the different names given to these animals in Mexico and the rest of the world.
Along the Pacific Coast and down to the state of Chiapas they are called “mala hierba” (bad weed), “hierba” (weed), “matacaballo” (horse killer), “picacaballo” (horse stinger), or “grandes velludas” (big hairy).
Ancient Nahuatl Indians, such as the Aztecs, called these theraphosids (tarantulas) “ahuachtocatl” (sprayed spider), because certain species show dew droplets suspended on their body hairs during the morning. The great tarantula, the Brachypelma Smithi, very colorful and common in the westerns states of Mexico, such as Guerrero, Jalisco, and Michoacán, was called “tlalhuehuetl” (drum of the ground), since it usually pounds its body against the ground, supported by its legs (Hoffmann, 1993).
In the Mayan region that spans the states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Campeche, in Mexico, as well as Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize, they are known as “Chiwo”.
In English, they are also known as “bird-spider” or “bird-eater spider”; in German, “vogelspinnen”, “arañas pollito” (chick-spiders) in Uruguay and Argentina; and “aranhas caranguejeiras” in Brazil.
The French call them “mygale”; the Asian species are known as “earth tigers; and in Africa they are known as “baboon spiders” or “monkey spiders”.
In Mexico, there are many myths surrounding the hairiest spider in the world, all because it is big and hairy. To this, we add the stories made up by Hollywood about giant man-eating spiders that feed on people´s ignorance to help sell their movies.
There are hard-to-believe myths of unknown origin. One of them says that they can jump from great heights. This is physically impossible, since they are not prepared for this. If a tarantula falls from a height greater than 30 cm, it will face almost certain death. Another myth surrounds horses: In the south of Mexico, they are called “horse killers” in some areas. It is said that the hooves of horses and cattle will fall off after they have been licked by a tarantula. These poor cows and horses are probably victims of an illness called podo-dermatitis, caused by bacteria that grows in their hooves, and proliferates with the excess humidity in their stables. But, licked?! What for? Tarantulas are also said to lick and shave the hair around the hooves to use it to line their dens.
They are also called “yerbas” (weeds), since it is believed when a horse or cow eats a tarantula it get a weed-like poisoning. Another less common name is “chick spider”, since it eats bird chicks.
The great irony in all this is that we are talking about a timid animal, harmless to humans, that far from being a problem to us, it is a controller of pests harmful to rural and urban people.
It would be hard to name all the myths surrounding tarantulas if we go by geographic zone, since there are myths as grave as that they poison everything they step on, even to those that state that they hypnotize their victims by licking them before they bite. Definitely, ignorance is the worst enemy of these creatures.
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