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The Life of the Spider

The Black-Bellied Tarantula
The Spider has a bad name: to most of us, she represents an odious, noxious animal,
which every one hastens to crush under foot. Against this summary verdict the observer
sets the beast’s industry, its talent as a weaver, its wiliness in the chase, its tragic nuptials
and other characteristics of great interest. Yes, the Spider is well worth studying, apart
from any scientific reasons; but she is said to be poisonous and that is her crime and the
primary cause of the repugnance wherewith she inspires us. Poisonous, I agree, if by that
we understand that the animal is armed with two fangs which cause the immediate death
of the little victims which it catches; but there is a wide difference between killing a
Midge and harming a man. However immediate in its effects upon the insect entangled
in the fatal web, the Spider’s poison is not serious for us and causes less inconvenience
than a Gnat-bite. That, at least, is what we can safely say as regards the great majority of
the Spiders of our regions.
Nevertheless, a few are to be feared; and foremost among these is the Malmignatte, the
terror of the Corsican peasantry. I have seen her settle in the furrows, lay out her web
and rush boldly at insects larger than herself; I have admired her garb of black velvet
speckled with carmine-red; above all, I have heard most disquieting stories told about
her. Around Ajaccio and Bonifacio, her bite is reputed very dangerous, sometimes
mortal. The countryman declares this for a fact and the doctor does not always dare deny
it. In the neighbourhood of Pujaud, not far from Avignon, the harvesters speak with
dread of Theridion lugubre, {1} first observed by Léon Dufour in the Catalonian
mountains; according to them, her bite would lead to serious accidents. The Italians have
bestowed a bad reputation on the Tarantula, who produces convulsions and frenzied
dances in the person stung by her. To cope with ‘tarantism,’ the name given to the
disease that follows on the bite of the Italian Spider, you must have recourse to music, the
only efficacious remedy, so they tell us. Special tunes have been noted, those quickest to
afford relief. There is medical choreography, medical music. And have we not the
tarentella, a lively and nimble dance, bequeathed to us perhaps by the healing art of the
Calabrian peasant?
Must we take these queer things seriously or laugh at them? From the little that I have
seen, I hesitate to pronounce an opinion. Nothing tells us that the bite of the Tarantula
may not provoke, in weak and very impressionable people, a nervous disorder which
music will relieve; nothing tells us that a profuse perspiration, resulting from a very
energetic dance, is not likely to diminish the discomfort by diminishing the cause of the
ailment. So far from laughing, I reflect and enquire, when the Calabrian peasant talks to
me of his Tarantula, the Pujaud reaper of his Theridion lugubre, the Corsican
husbandman of his Malmignatte. Those Spiders might easily deserve, at least partly,
their terrible reputation.
The most powerful Spider in my district, the Black-bellied Tarantula, will presently give
us something to think about, in this connection. It is not my business to discuss a medical
 
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