“This pattern is called ‘The Spider’” our guide said excitedly while gesturing towards a zillige-covered wall. “The Prophet Mohammad was hiding in a cave from his enemies when a spider came and built a web over the entrance. His enemies believed he couldn’t be in the cave because the web was unbroken. This is why it is haram (forbidden) to kill spiders and why this pattern is called named after the spider.”
I’m not sure when I first heard the story of the cave and the spider web. This time the story was told to me on visiting a 14th century medrassa in Fes. I was happy to learn the name for a zillij pattern. And I was intrigued to find another instance of the symbolism of eight within Moroccan design.
The symmetry of eight, according to Keith Critchow, is central to the genius of Moroccan pattern. Even though I read Critchow’s book “Islamic Patterns” I wanted more information on the role of symmetries of eight in Moroccan design, which is why I researched and wrote about the origins and meanings of the eight-point star.
The story of the spider web covering the cave isn’t in the Koran. That story is included in a hadith, stories covering the life events of the Prophet. The Koran includes 114 chapters (surah) including ones named after bees, ants, and spiders. In the Spider, it is written:
“The likeness for those who take to themselves guardians instead of God is the likeness of the Spider who buildeth her a house: But verily, frailest of all houses surely is the house of the spider.” (source)
In the hadith story, it is the fraility of the spider’s house that makes the enemies of the Prophet certain he couldn’t have entered the cave without breaking the web.
So what is the symbolism of the spider pattern? Strength? Fragility? Protection?
Stories of the mystical spider webs occur in multiple cultures. Just as the symbolism behind the eight point star is not uniquely Moroccan, I think the symbolism of the spider pattern is something more primal. The number eight helps us make sense of our world, like a compass with the eight familiar directions: north, north east, east, south east, south, south west, west, north west.
(You’re right, Gene. I posted the wrong photo but added the correct image to the beginning of the post. Others – the old photo is below.)