There’s a (modern) urban myth that we swallow eight spiders every year in our sleep. Personally, I have had this repeated to me many times. Even if people know this bizarre little ‘fact’ to be untrue – which, sleep easy arachnophobes, it is – many still feel the need to pass it on. The legend has generated pages and pages of Google results and earned a place in both Scientific American and the pithier cracked.com’s Six most frequently quoted bullsh*t statistics.
The story behind ‘swallowing eight spiders a year’ is frankly odd and unclear; we’re not sure where it came from. Many point to a journalist called Lisa Holst who, according to some sources, deliberately created the ‘fact’ in the early days of the internet to see how far it would be disseminated. But this has by no means been confirmed. Some have tried to track Lisa Holst and her article (from which the fact ostensibly came) to no avail, and the internet detectives continue to be perplexed about its source.
Perhaps, however, if we were less concerned with origin hunting, or myth-busting about whether or not we do actually swallow eight spiders in our sleep every year, we might see something different and more interesting: the tenacity of the character of the spider in storytelling throughout time. For this certainly isn’t the first time we’ve created myths about spiders. From Anansi in West-African folklore to Arachne in Graeco-Roman myths, and even the many modern reincarnations of Spider-Man, spiders are important characters in legends and stories.
Considering this ubiquity, it is perhaps not so surprising that spiders also figured in medieval stories. But there is a stranger similarity between the Middle Ages and modernity than a shared fascination with telling stories about spiders. In the high Middle Ages in particular, these stories were also – like the eight spiders a year fact – about swallowing spiders.
Take for instance an episode from the vita (a saint’s life) of Vitalis of Savigny, an Anglo-Norman holy man, whose life was written in the early 1170s by then Bishop of Rennes, Stephen of Fougères. One day when taking the Eucharist, Stephen tells us, Vitalis found a spider in the chalice. Not able to get her out, Vitalis swallowed the spider with the wine. Since all spiders were considered poisonous at this point in time, the fact that Vitalis had not died was miraculous.
Yet the story did not end there. Stephen continued: as the spider had entered the body by miraculous means, it was only appropriate that it exited in the same way. And so the spider came out of Vitalis’ foot while he was preaching a few days later.
Interestingly, Vitalis of Savigny was not the only medieval holy man said to have undergone such a miraculous episode. In fact, the story appears in at least four other lives of medieval holy men. In these, we can count among the body parts the spider exited the mouth, the nose (by sneezing), an arm, and of course a foot, as we have seen.
This little meme had spread not through the World Wide Web but through the web of hagiographic authors (those who wrote the lives of saints), and who were notorious for borrowing from each other.
There was, of course, a rather different point to these stories than the swallowing eight spiders a year ‘fact’. In modern times, I would conjecture that a ‘fact’ about swallowing spiders in your sleep spreads because people like making others squirm, particularly given how many people have a fear of spiders. Not so in the Middle Ages. Occurring during the Eucharist (a powerful intercessory moment itself between man and God), the holy man’s survival of ingesting the spider and its subsequent expulsion demonstrated the mystical power of God in the temporal world and vindicated the saint’s spirituality.
But spiders were also chosen because, believed to be poisonous, overcoming their toxin presented a particularly saintly feat. In a sense this is not actually so dissimilar from the fear that probably kept the modern eight spiders myth alive for so long: fear makes both pieces of information effective. It turns out that our aversion to spiders – whether evolutionary or cultural – makes the arachnids particularly good storytelling devices, particularly good pieces of gossip.
So the swallowing eight spiders a year ‘fact’, no matter how it started, cannot simply be a test of the speed of the spread of information. Instead, I would suggest that it taps into something much deeper, much more historical than the early days of the internet, and is a comment upon our continual use of spiders to create effective stories. For something so small but so feared spiders, it seems, can be strikingly important.
 See the Vita Vitalis, ed. E. P. Sauvage, in Analecta Bollandiana 1 (1882), bk 2.7, pp. 376-7.
 Roger Wilmans, ed., ‘Vita Norberti Archiepiscopi Magdeburgensis’, in MGH SS, vol. 12, chap. 2, p. 672; Uodascalcus, ‘Vita Chounradi Constantiensis Episcopi’, in MGH SS, vol. 4, chap. 10, pp. 433–434; Jocelin of Furness, ‘Vita Sancti Waldevi’, in Acta Sanctorum, August 1, chap. 1.25–6, p. 256.
Robyn Parker recently completed a PhD in medieval history at the University of Sheffield.
Image via wikicommons,