Navajo and Hopi oral creation myths
Spider Woman appears in the mythology of several American Indian tribes, including the Navajo, Keresan, and Hopi. In most cases, she is associated with the emergence of life on earth. She helps humans by teaching them survival skills. Spider Woman also teaches the Navajos the art of weaving. Before weavers sit down at the loom, they often rub their hands in spiderwebs to absorb the wisdom and skill of Spider Woman.
In the Navajo creation story, Spider Woman (called Na'ashjeiiasdzaa by the Navajo) helps the warrior twins , Monster Slayer and Child of Water, find their father, the Sun. The Keresan say that Spider Woman gave the corn goddess Iyatiku a basket of seeds to plant.
According to the Hopi, at the beginning of time Spider Woman controlled the underworld , the home of the gods, while the sun god Tawa ruled the sky. Using only their thoughts, they created the earth between the two other worlds. Spider Woman molded animals from clay, but they remained lifeless. So she and Tawa spread a soft white blanket over them, said some magic words, and the creatures began to move. Spider Woman then molded people from clay. To bring them to life, she clutched them to her breast, and together with Tawa, sang a song that made them into living beings. She divided the animals and people into the groups that inhabit the earth today. She also gave men and women specific roles: women were to watch over the home, and men were to pray and make offerings to the gods.
Another Hopi myth states that Tawa created insect-like beings and placed them in the First World. Dissatisfied with these creatures, Tawa sent Spider Woman to lead them, first to the Second World and then to the Third World, where they turned into people. Spider Woman taught the people how to plant, weave, and make pottery. A hummingbird gave them fire to help them warm themselves and cook their food. However, when sorcerers brought evil to the Third World, Spider Woman told the people to leave for the Fourth World. They planted trees to climb up to the Fourth World, but none grew tall enough. Finally, Spider Woman told them to sing to a bamboo plant or reed so that it would grow very tall. She led the people up the hollow tube of the bamboo stalk to the Fourth World, the one in which the Hopi currently live.
Spider Woman in Context
Spider Woman may be related to a Mexican deity known as the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan (pronounced TAY-aw-tee-wah-KAHN). She is known mainly from ancient murals, where she is shown surrounded by or covered in spiders and spiderwebs. Many scholars speculate that this goddess is associated with vegetation, like Spider Woman, and with the underworld—much like Spider Woman led the first people through the successive layers of the underworld to reach the surface. Both goddesses reflect the importance of agriculture in these early cultures, where hunting and gathering alone could not support larger communities.
Key Themes and Symbols
Spider Woman represented wisdom and education. She provided the first people with the skills they needed to survive, such as planting crops and weaving. The spider so closely associated with the goddess is a symbol of the ability to weave and to create something from one's own body, just as a spider makes silk.
Spider Woman in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Spider Woman is an important part of American Indian mythologies throughout the Southwest, but is not well known outside of these cultures. Playwright Murray Mednick wrote a series of one-act plays called The Coyote Cycles (1993) that featured Spider Grandmother as a main character. It is worth noting that the term “Spider Woman” has been used by many other characters—ranging from the villain of a 1940s Sherlock Holmes film to a series of Marvel Comics super-heroines—that have no connection to the Spider Woman of American Indian myth.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research Spider Rock in the Canyon de Chelly National Monument. How is this formation related to Spider Woman? What does Spider Rock reveal about the significance of Spider Woman to the Navajo people?