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  • Writer's pictureAntiques in Oxford

Spider Jewellery. A Brief History

Spiders, as a general rule, are not well-loved by humans. Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears that people deal with. I would bet many of you have experienced the sudden anxiety of seeing a spider in your bedroom and losing it two seconds later. So, the question remains – why are we so obsessed with them? Spiders appear all throughout history in iconographic culture. We also see spider jewellery reoccurring all around the world and at different points in time. Let us look at the history of spider jewellery and how different cultures have interpreted our 8-legged foes.

 

Ancient spider jewellery

When looking at the ancient world, spiders pop up everywhere. For example, in ancient China, they were called “ximu” which roughly translates to “happy insects”. They were believed to be good luck, and even in contemporary culture, they’re associated with happiness and wealth. In The Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid recounts the story of Arachne – the woman who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving competition. The story goes that in a fit of rage, Athena turned Arachne into the first spider.

Perhaps one of the cultures most taken with the image of the spider is the Moche culture. The Moche civilisation inhabited large parts of northern Peru between 100 and 700 AD. The Met Museum in New York now houses a large collection of Moche artefacts, including many pieces of spider inspired jewellery.

Their collection is vast with items such necklace beads with anthropomorphised spiders, earrings designed as webs with a large spider seated at the centre, and geometric jewellery worn in the nose. Spider iconography is quite common in this part of the world. Other ancient cultures such as the Salinar culture, which predated the Moche civilisation, also produced jewellery which is held at the Met. Spider iconography in ancient Peru appears in other areas of life aside from jewellery. We see spiders decorating plates, pots, and walls. This is most likely due to a shared spider deity which frequently appears in art from this area.

 

Into Modern Day

It is not just the ancient world that has been taken with the imagery of the humble spider. They crop up all throughout history and all around the world. The Akan people in Ghana used spiders in some of their ceremonial objects. In Victorian England, insect jewellery was increasing in popularity. Jewellery modelled after butterflies, beetles, dragonflies, as well as spiders was very common. Many Victorian women took this a step further, and it is reported that they would sometimes wear live insects, often with diamonds stuck to them, on strings attached to brooches so that they would wander across their clothes.

A recent example of spider jewellery in modern times is of course, Lady Hale’s brooch.

Lady Hale’s spider brooch, which she wore while delivering the verdict that the prorogation of parliament was unlawful in 2019, sparked conversations all over the country. It was quite quickly adopted by feminists and was interpreted as a symbol of defiance. Hale has an amazing collection of brooches  many of which are insect-themed. But this particular spider really made waves. It has been replicated by many companies, and printed on t-shirts, the profits of which went to the homeless charity Shelter. Hale even went on to reference this iconic moment in the title of her most recent autobiography Spider Woman.

Although Hale has stated that she intended no deeper meaning with the brooch, its public reception is demonstrative of the power of symbols such as the spider.

 



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