It was a cool balmy spring day as Emily sat with her friend, Robert, in a couple of overstuffed mix-matched chairs, drinking coffee and talking. It was their weekly ritual to stake out a place for themselves around lunch time at the local coffee shop. Sunlight streamed into the tiny shop through its floor to ceiling windows, glinting off the glass tabletop between Emily and Robert. The sudden flash of light instantly reminded her that she had something she desperately wanted to talk to Robert about. Reaching over, Emily caught her friend’s attention by waving her hand excitedly in his face. Seeing him look up from his coffee mug, she started relating her story to him.
Emily had a strange dream a few nights before which she jokingly called her whirlwind into wonderland. She said that it started off with her walking through a forest where she came upon a wide open field filled with what looked like dark blue grass. As she got closer, she noticed that it wasn’t grass at all. The field was filled with iridescent indigo flames which rose out of shards of broken glass littering the landscape. Suddenly, Emily noted that there was a bear next to her, nudging her forward with its nose. It was as though, the bear had randomly come out of nowhere in order to get her to step into the field of glass and flames. So, she made the choice to move forward.
Heart pounding and drenched in fear, Emily took her first tentative steps into the field. To her amazement, as she placed one foot in front of the other, she was neither burned nor cut by the obstacles in her path. Because of this realization, her footsteps quickened and became more confident. Before she realized it, she was close to the center of the field and could look into its heart, where she discovered a gigantic boulder.
Emily stood, lost in thought, causing her to effectively miss the shadows which had started passing over her head. One particular shadow began to grow larger and larger, as though something were descending from the sky. And as the shadow grew in size, it finally drew Emily’s eyes skyward where she was confronted with the most terrifying thing she had ever seen. She found herself looking up into the numerous eyes of a humongous black spider with an hour glass on its back, as it descended from the heavens and landed on the boulder.
At that point, Emily transformed into a small brown spider and climbed on the back of the larger creature. The larger spider turned and crawled up a thin silvery thread that stretched down from the sky. In a single moment, Emily found herself surrounded by darkness. And as the darkness stretched out into infinity, she saw other thin silvery threads cascading in every possible direction. Where each glistening thread met another, they became connected by a small shimmering gemstone. Just as there were gemstones everywhere, she also discovered other smaller spiders, moving around the infinite chaos of the web, in every shape, size, and color imaginable. In that moment, even in a dream, she felt a sense of wondrous understanding she had never known before.
When she was done talking, Emily asked Robert what he thought it meant. He laughed, smiled, and sipped his coffee, before looking at her and shaking his head to indicate his indecision. And finally he told her, “I don’t know. But whatever else, Em, lay off the scary movies before bed from now on.”
Much like Emily, it is common for people to attempt to interpret their world through archetypes, symbols, and metaphors. This is done in order to find a way to explain and explore the unknown in a way that is easily navigated by the person doing the interpreting. Contrariwise, there are also people like Robert, who dismiss the interpretation process when it touches upon issues they do not wish to deal with, like arachnophobia.
The spider archetype has a long history in the annals of western civilization. It is traditionally associated with a creator, the fates, a teacher, a destroyer, a trickster or infinity. When some of these associations are combined with the idea that an estimated eighteen percent of men and fifty five percent of women, in western society, experience moderate to extreme levels of fear toward spiders, the idea of the spider can be construed as a conceptual metaphor within many western cultures. In that metaphor, the spider is depicted as something that is viewed with fear and is ultimately reviled.
The meaning of this metaphor shifts dramatically when a person moves outside of the narrow scope of western civilization, and begins to understand how other cultures and religions perceive something as small and insignificant as a spider. Native American tribes, such as the Hopi and the Cherokee, view the spider with reverence, telling parables of her herculean feats and giving her names like Spider Woman or Grandmother Spider. In other cultures, there are Goddesses dedicated to weaving, since weaving was such a staple of society, such as Neith of Egypt, Athena of Greece, and Minerva of Rome. Even in religions like Buddhism and Islam, the spider is offered respect through stories where the spider interacts with religious figures of note.
Through the expansion of awareness about this one metaphor, from the singular view point of western civilization to that of a more broad based worldly perception, a door is opened. This door can potentially lead to the development of cultural empathy, where in, a person begins to understand, and even identify with, the feelings, thoughts, and/or behaviors of people from other cultures and religions. This is only one baby step among many to reach that point, though. It is also one which can easily become marred or tainted by perceptual filters like religiosity, racism, gender bias or even something as simple as disgust for a spider.
Perceptual filters occur when people view the world through a narrowed lens, thus limiting their perception of the external world in some aspect. There are both positive and negative types of perceptual filters, and this is not a wholly negative thing. It becomes a hindrance to things like the development of cultural empathy, when one person projects their personal feelings, ideas, biases and beliefs onto the way they perceive and interact with others. A good representation of this harkens back to slavery in the United States, where in, white slave owners believed themselves better than the slaves that they claimed as property and used indiscriminately as labor.
These beliefs were often rationalized and justified through religion. An example of this kind of justification can be found in the Bible in Genesis 9:25-27, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japeth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave’. ” The purpose of this quote is to act as a foundation for the rationalization of slavery by associating it with the word of God, which to most Christians is incontestable.
When a person’s perceptual filters are tainted, their perception of certain aspects of reality can become skewed. This is true not just in respect to cultural empathy, but also to a person’s ability to interpret external stimuli through the association of personal experience and knowledge. It can range from an inability to read/interpret emotional and societal cues during social interactions to a rush to judge, based on prejudices, biases, and beliefs, to seemingly overinflated, irrational fears like arachnophobia.
Despite the potentiality for misinterpretation, archetypes, metaphors and symbols, much like the spider, stand as gateways or stepping stones along the journey to broaden perception and expand awareness. It can help the human mind stretch out beyond its self-imposed boundaries and explore all of the things that are waiting to be discovered in the dark unknown. One small metaphor can act as a catalyst; just as a spider’s web glistening in the morning light can stop you in your tracks and force you to appreciate its simple glory.
As for Emily, if she were to delve into her dreams and explore, in depth, some of the metaphors and symbols that permeate her dreamscape, she would probably discover the ability to interpret her own dreams, instead of requiring someone else’s input. Thus she would begin to learn more and more about herself, and by extension, the world around her. Robert, on the other hand, exhibited a predilection toward avoidance when confronted with Emily’s dream of the gigantic spider. Instead of offering any genuine thoughts or advice, he jumped straight into fight or flight mode, colored with sarcasm, and deftly avoided any serious discussion. If he, instead, had chosen to enter into the discussion seriously, he would have discovered that his initial fears, which brought him to the point of being flippant with Emily, were a gross overestimation. As well, he might have come to understand that the spider of Emily’s dream was purely metaphoric and represented something esoteric in nature. In the end, he would have discovered reality is a much larger place than the world he perceives through the tainted perceptual filters of arachnophobia.