The First Spiders

An Irish Traveller tale

The First Spiders

Source: Why the Moon Travels, Oein DeBhairduin, Skein Press (2020)


Once upon a time, there were old women who would wander through the land gathering roots, bark and herbs in baskets made of willow. They particularly loved to gather fleece which was caught on brambles. These old women wore black dresses, but the bottoms of their dresses were adorned with red, white and yellow stripes. Sometimes, they’d have extra stripes made of different colours – one for each of their children. They carried beaded purses which were studded with medals, buttons and other tokens, and their long grey hair was neatly braided.

At the end of every day, the old women would return to their camp, and dye the wool they’d gathered in a large cast iron pot which they boiled over their fire. The wool would be coloured red. They’d spin the dyed wool all night, singing as they worked; and as they spun, they’d weave prayers and charms into the cords they were making from the wool for all the children of the world. Then, during the day, the old women would sleep. But with the passing of the years, the number of children born into the world grew, and the old women struggled to keep up. They worked as hard as they could to make their red cords, but they couldn’t find a way to make enough of them for all the new children. So, one day, they decided they’d weave a single red cord which would be long enough to encircle the world, so that no child would be left without access to a blessing.

It was long, hard work, and the old women didn’t stop to rest or even to eat. Over time their fingers grew dark from the ashes of their campfire and the coal which fuelled it. Still, the old women who gathered continued to work, and their camp grew ever more silent as they focused solely on this one task. They worked so hard and the fire grew so hot that they sweated, and the sweat which ran down their faces washed the red dye from the cords, and the cords began to turn grey. Thinner and more delicate the cords became, and gossamer-soft – but at their heart they were as strong as the old women who wove them. And those old women worked on. They worked so hard that they grew thin and bony, and eventually they began to shrink, and their fingers started to wear away.

As time went by, the old women who gathered grew smaller and smaller. They began to fade, to become creatures less of this world and more of the Otherworld, until eventually the day came when they looked like little more than a bundle of fingers, always spinning and weaving, with their baskets on their backs, as they went about their gathering and their work. The old women who gathered, you see, had become the very first spiders. And even today, the spiders spin on, spinning the strong, silken cords, weaving the webs that bring blessings and healing to the people of the world.

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