The Hands of the Spider Woman

"How might we live, how might we act, if we saw the world with a Webbed Vision?"

Catherine Keller, Theologian - "From a Broken Web"

"Thought Woman Weaving the World" (2007)

From June 11th to August 17th, 2007, it was my privilege to have been awarded a fellowship at the Alden Dow Creativity Center at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, to develop "Hands of the Spider Woman" - a community arts project exploring the Native American creatrix Spider Woman. I offer my gratitude to the Creativity Center, to the creative spirit of Aldon Dow, Northwood University, my collaborator Kathy Space, and the many people in the community of Midland I was privileged to create with the summer of 2007. I also want to thank the Puffin Foundation for further support for this project, and the Midland Center for the Arts for our final exhibit. In 2008 the project was continued at the Creative Spirit Center, also in Midland. And in 2009, I will continue exploring the theme of "Weaving a Webbed Vision" as a resident artist at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.



Some Random Notes on the Legend of the Spider Woman

Ts' its' tsi' nako,
Thought-Woman, the Spider
named things and as she named them they appeared.

She is sitting in her room thinking of a story now
I'm telling you the story she is thinking. 3

Keresan Pueblo story

Native stories don't end after two hours in a theatre, or when we turn off the electronic box. Like the Hands of Spider Woman, they keep spinning and evolving, generation into generation, from the waking world to the dreamtime. Storytelling, in native traditions, is more than a way to pass on history and religious beliefs to the next generation - it is also a ceremony that acts as a link between the archetypal beings and the people themselves, whose ritual life is based on their mythic cycles. This is the same way sacred masks, throughout the world, are regarded and used - as doorways into the realms of the deities.

Spider Woman appears in stories throughout the Americas, indeed, throughout the world. She is found among the Fates that weave destiny, Arachne, even hidden away within the Odyssey - for Penelope's very name means "with a web on her face" (4) the one who sees "with a webbed vision". My inspiration is derived from her mysterious presence in the Southwestern part of the United States, which includes the rich cultural traditions of the Pueblo Indians and
the Navajo. The Pueblo Indians refers to many native peoples living there, from northern New Mexico to the Hopi mesas of Arizona, with many unique cultural differences. These people are believed to be the descendants of the vanished Anasazi who built cities, cliff dwellings, and ceremonial centers throughout the area.

In Pueblo mythology Thought Woman, Sun Father , and Corn Mother are the most important deities. These primal deities are interdependent. Thought Woman, the Spider Woman is the creatrix, and in some stories she creates in partnership with the Sun. "Thought Woman" imagines things, and as she thinks of them, they become. This is the creative impulse she passes on, originating from the primal center of the Web an eternally generative thread continually expanding and being re-woven.

There are also tales ( among the Hopi ) that say Spiderwoman, with Sun Father, fashioned the first people from red clay. When ceramic artist Kathy Space and I began our community sculpture project we conceived of "prayer ties" to unify a mosaic composed of casts of participants' hands and faces. A Web of minds and hands, made of red terra cotta clay. Terra. The good red earth, the color of life, of blood, of vitality.

The Navajo (who call themselves the " Dine" which simply means "the people") revere Grandmother Spider Woman (' Na'ashje'ii sdfzq'q ) because she taught them how to weave. The Dine are relatively recent immigrants to the Southwest, a nomadic people with origins in Canada, and perhaps even from Mongolia, who arrived several hundred years before the Europeans came. Their language and physical characteristics are very different.

According to cultural anthropologist Carol Patterson-Rudolph,

"The Navajo have their own version of Spider Woman. As with all metaphors, Spider Woman is a bridge that allows a certain kind of knowledge to be transmitted from the mundane to the sacred dimension.........they believe that an individual must undergo an initiation before he or she can be fully receptive to this kind of knowledge. Thus, to the eyes of the uninitiated, Spider Woman appears merely as an insect, and her words go unheard. But to the initiated whose mind has been opened the voice of this tiny creature can be heard. This is the nature of wisdom, conveyed through the metaphor of Spider Woman. 1"

Spider Woman (who lives, the Navajo say, on Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly) is always available to help her descendants. She can best be heard in the wind (or on the transparent threads of synchronicities) - if one is quiet, and prepared to listen. Navajo rugs often have Spiderwoman's Cross woven into the pattern. The cross of Spider Woman, it seems to me, is another very important symbol for our time, because it represents balance - the union of the 4 directions or 4 elements. The fifth element is the unifying force, the mystery at the center. To "walk in beauty" is to be aware of a "moving point of balance" as we walk across the land, and walk through the circles of our lives and relationships.
Spiderwoman has a way of getting around.

Although she can be found in the canyons and deserts and prairies and forests of the Americas it seems her grandchildren traveled to many other places and times as well. Perhaps she was once Neith, the primal weaver of ancient Egypt. In Celtic lore she has her hand on the web of the Wyrd, and in India, there is the great Jewel Net of Indra, wherein each gem infinitely reflects every other gem. Among the Greeks she gave Theseus a thread to guide him through his labyrinth - a thread not unlike the same threads she casts to you, and to me, now and then, on our own journeys.

And today? Well, there are many contemporary ways Spiderwoman makes herself known. Ecologists speak of the great Web of life, while physicists speak of entanglement theory. I like to think that the Internet is Spiderwoman's latest appearance. I have the feeling She's working very hard now to make us pay attention.

Because the truth of Spiderwoman's Web is really very simple. All my efforts to make a more complex tale have failed, and I can summarize it like this:



We're woven into the Web

and the Web is woven

into us,


our future

with the stories we tell.

A cultural paradigm is founded upon mythic roots - the "warp and woof" 2 from which the ideas of a culture grow. So what are those threads? Do they show us how to "walk in beauty" as the Navajo teach? Because to "walk in beauty" is not just a personal practice. It's a blessing in motion for all our myriad relations. Each of us is holding a thread, a lineage, that goes back in time and extends far into the future, a weave we participate in with our thoughts, our dreams, and the manifest creative work of our hands. So perhaps the only real question is an ethical question, as well as a creative one. " What are we weaving?" Competition, or cooperation? Estrangement, or "a Webbed Vision"? Despair, or "a path of beauty"?

I have found that Spiderwoman delights in all things connected, co-creative, collaborative, cooperative, communicative - all those "co" words. Warp and weft. May we all be conscious weavers, beautiful weavers. For all our relations, for the future.

*I've had fun creating a personal BLOG to journal the project - as weaving is, the project is also my life, and it keeps on going.

** Photographs of the Anasazi petroglyphs of Spiderwoman courtesy Bill Pennington.

1 Patterson-Rudolph, Carol, " On the Trail of Spiderwoman" , 1997, Ancient City Press, p. 82

2 "warp and woof : the foundation or base of something ." (Old English owef "weave on") (Webster's Dictionary)

3 Keresan Pueblo Creation Myth - Patterson-Rudolph, Carol, "On the Trail of Spiderwoman", Ibid.

4 "In Homer 's Odyssey , Penélopê is the faithful wife of Odysseus , who keeps her suitors at bay in his long absence and is rejoined with him at last. Her name is usually understood to combine the Greek word for web or woof and the word for eye or face. Until recent readings, her name has been associated with faithfulness, but the most recent readings offer a more ambiguous reading." (Wikipedia)


"Take a deep breath of all the stories that live here. A re-ligious act, to be true to the origin of the word “re-ligios”- to re-tie, re-link - is to find ways to re-connect, re-turn, re-imagine. All of those "Sorcerer" words."

"Spider Woman Speaks", 2004

“What patterns reveal themselves in the tensions, contradictions, and contrasts of the many becoming one in me and in the world? What in my public warp of relations, in my private woof of introspections, do I divine? “

Catherine Keller, "From a Broken Web", 1989