There are Spiders and then there are spiders

In Hanis and Milluk there are two words for spider. Both languages share the word wa’wá’atl’ (occasionally shrunk down to 2 syllables, wawatl’), and then a second word based on the verb ‘to weave, to pile up, to spread’ which is winq- and milq-, respectively. The nominal forms winqas/milqes can mean spider as well as basket start or bottom, water striders, octopus, and mat (these latter two I’ve found for Hanis, but it may be true for Milluk as well). Whereas wa’wá’atl’ only refers to spiders. The use of winqas/milqes often refers to the rough shape – a central ‘blob’ with spokes or numerous legs or tentacles coming out, and in the case of a mat, it’s going with the meaning of ‘weave’, a woven object.

So when did speakers use one word or the other? There isn’t really a clear pattern. There is a story Jim Buchanan told where Spider-Old-Woman is a wise person.  She lived in the sky, but enemies from the world below killed her family when she was away. When she returned home, she found her home was nothing but burned ruins.  She was able to rescue one grandson from pulling him out of his dead mother’s body. She raised him, and taught him a strong spirit power that the grandson was able to use to defeat his family’s enemies. Throughout the story she is called Winqas Huumik’ – Spider (aka Weaver) Old-Woman.

However, not all myth spiders get that title. Jim Buchanan and Annie Peterson told different versions of a trickster story, where a Trickster gets into the sky world and encounters an older couple with burned heads. The Sun travels through there every day, and she is too hot. Trickster ends up ‘fixing’ the sun by cooling her down. It’s only hinted at in Buchanan’s version, but Annie stated explicitly the older couple with burned heads were a pair of dark spiders – wa’wá’atl’. Later she told Jacobs a short story about spiders (the same or related to the ones in the Trickster myth) who created snow whenever they cleaned ashes out of their hearth. In Jacobs’ notebook notes, he jotted down that she said they were big dark spiders. He wrote ‘tarantulas?’, as he was trying to figure out what exactly Annie meant, although so far as I know we don’t have tarantulas on the Oregon coast.

However, Annie then used the words winqas/milqes to describe little spiders that alight on people. “If you see a little spider alight on or by you then go up again it means company is coming.” (Melville Jacobs notebook 99, page 138).

Annie’s niece Lottie said “wɷ•wά’ɑtɫ [Wa’wá’atl’]-a great big spider that comes down from the sky-not these little spiders at all…white looking…It has a string that shines just like silk, it is supposed to come from heaven. Once we saw this, they told us: don’t you ever touch it! It lit on the rush. This was when we were at [Yachats]” (Harrington 22:857a)

When Harrington asked Frank Drew for Coos words for spider, at first he thought winqas only meant weaver, and wa’wá’atl’ was spider, but as he thought about it he did recollect winqas could also mean spider.

So as far as I can tell, which word to use – ‘weaver’ (winqas/milqes) or the ‘regular’ word for spider, wa’wá’atl’ – wasn’t connected to any obvious rules, except maybe wa’wá’atl’ might mean larger spiders and winqas/milqes smaller ones. However, my lit-major husband pointed out that the stories Buchanan and Peterson told were oral literature, and many other cultures that old long sagas often played with words and phrases to create poetry. The old Norse had a kind of word play they called kenning, where descriptive words or phrases were used in place of the usual one.  (My favorite is ‘whale road’ for the ocean). Storytellers in particular were probably very playful with words – so using a word like ‘weaver’ in place of a pedestrian word for spider was probably done to make a point. In the story of Spider Old Woman, she is knowledgeable and has power, so it makes sense to portray her as a weaver, a woman of great skills who also had a strong spirit power she was able to teach to her grandson. Whereas the couple with their dirty hearth, the wa’wá’atl’, are not necessarily so skilled or powerful.  When little winqas/milqes spiders briefly alight on you and then climb back up to the ceiling, they are trying to pass along a message – company’s coming!


About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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