Spiders differ from insects in that the head and thorax are fused together to form what is called a cephalothorax. In insects, these body parts are separate. Spiders have eight legs while insects have 6. Spiders are similar to insects in that they also molt (empty spider skins can sometimes be found near or attached to the webs). Spiders are arthopods, members of the class Arachnida.
The class name comes from a story in Greek mythology. Arachne was a simple peasant girl who boasted that she could weave better than the gods. Offended by this claim, Athena, the weaver among the gods, challenged Arachne to a weave off and lost. Unhappy about the outcome, Athena so frightened and humiliated Arachne that, soon afterwards, she committed suicide. Saddened by this turn of events, Athena revived Arachne changing her into a spider with skill at weaving.
Grandmother Spider of Hopi Indian tradition is one of the more famous spiders. In the Hopi origin story (see "Spider Woman Stories" by G.M.Mullett or "The Book of Hopi" by F. Waters), Grandmother Spider is the Mother of all that shall ever come, having been given the task of molding the clay and later imbuing it with Life. Among other things, She sets out the division of labor between males and females. For those on heroic quests, She provides food that is never used up, magic medicine to calm savage monsters, and magic feathers for protection. When necessary, Grandmother Spider becomes very small, riding on the ear of the seeker, ready to whisper important advice. A benevolent force, She reminds her people that "only those who forget why they came to this world will lose their way" (see "Changing Woman and Her Sisters" by S. Moon).
Spider Woman also is a force in Navaho tradition. According to one story, Spider Woman punishes naughty children at her home on top of Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly. In "Navaho Folk Tales" by F.J. Newcomb, it is Mrs. Spider who weaves a silk ladder so that the People can escape the rising flood waters and enter the next world by climbing through a hole in the sky.
If you come across any interesting spider lore, please let me know. (If you consult the books referenced above, you will find that the English translations of the names used by the Native Americans are not always spelled the same. Because of culture and language differences, the depth and subtlety of the stories you find may not be fully conveyed in their translations.)
Ron Lyons (volunteer 1990-1999)