How Spiders Got Bald
The Ashanti people of Ghana, on the west coast of Africa, liked to tell stories about Anansi (“A-non-see”), a tricky spider/human character whose tricks often backfired...
One day, Anansi's friend invited him to come over for a supper of spicy chili beans. Anansi loved free food! Greedily, he arrived too early but his friend was glad to see him. "Anansi, I need your help. I don't have enough salt for this big pot of beans. Please stir the pot while I go next door and borrow some salt from my neighbor."
Anansi happily stirred the beans. They smelled so good that he couldn't wait! "My friend won't notice if I eat a few of them now." He couldn't use one of the bowls from the table: his friend would know. But he had a clever idea. "I'll use my hat!" He scooped boiling hot beans into his hat and stood blowing on them, Pfff pfff pfff!
Suddenly Anansi heard the sound of his friend coming home. He was too greedy to pour the beans back into the pot, but he had another clever idea. "I'll put my hat back on my head. My friend won't see the beans I took. He'll never know!"
But when he put on his hat, the boiling hot bean gravy soaked through his thick curly hair and began to burn his scalp. "Oo! Ah!" It hurt so much that Anansi started to hop from one foot to the other. His head was so hot that he had to let in a little cool air, first on one side of the hat, then on the other side. "Oo! Ah! Oo! Ah"
His friend came in and saw him hopping around, lifting his hat and crying out. "Anansi, what are you doing?"
Anansi thought fast. "I'm doing a new dance which I composed in your honor," he said. "It's called The Hat Shaking Dance."
"A dance for me?" said his friend. "Oh, thank you, Anansi. That's wonderful! I will dance with you." Anansi's friend put on his own hat and began to hop around with Anansi, shaking the hat and crying out "Oo, ah! Oo, ah!" They danced all around the room.
The neighbors heard the noise and came to see what was happening. Anansi's friend said, "Look, this is the new Hat Shaking Dance which Anansi composed in my honor! Grab a hat and dance with us!" All the neighbors joined in the dance. They hopped from foot to foot and shook their hats and cried, "Oo, ah! Oo, ah!"
After a while, everyone became tired and hungry. Anansi's friend said, "Let's have a party! I have a big pot of beans with chili and spices. Help yourselves!" The neighbors brought bread and vegetables and fruit and beer. Everyone had a wonderful time. "Oh, thank you, Anansi, for teaching us this new dance!"
But Anansi went home unhappy. "I only ate four bowls of beans. I expected I would eat at least half of that big potful!" Greedy Anansi was still hungry.
But he was very clever. He remembered, "I still have a hatful of beans on my head!"
He took off his hat, leaned over, and scraped those cold beans off his head. The hot gravy had burned his scalp so badly that all the hair came off too. He was bald!
I don't know if greedy Anansi ate those hairy beans. But I do know that Anansi's hair never grew back. In fact, if you look closely at a spider today, you will see that it is bald. This, they say, is because of Anansi's greediness and his "Hat Shaking Dance."
Are spiders really bald?
Some kinds of spiders have smooth hairless legs and bodies; doubtless their heads are bald too. Others are very hairy, like our Oklahoma brown tarantula (a.k.a. Texas brown tarantula or Missouri tarantula: Aphonopelma hentzi) which we sometimes see crossing the road in autumn. The females, who can live 20 years and more, are looking for a good spot to build a winter burrow. But the males, who generally live only a year past maturity, are probably looking for females.
Shy and mild-mannered, Oklahoma brown tarantulas are often adopted as pets. You can even hold them in your hand if you are gentle, but be careful: they are fragile. If you panic and drop them they can suffer serious damage.
Take a look. Are they bald?
I asked this question when I taught the “Hat-Shaking Dance” to Tulsa zoo docents. They showed me their caged Chilean Rose Tarantula whose head (cephalothorax) was indeed bald, despite her hairy abdomen and legs! They explained that after each molt, her new skin has hair all over; but when frightened, she brushes hairs off her head or abdomen into the eyes of the attacker, quickly scraping her head bald. These are urticating (stinging) hairs which would surely make a fox or crow think twice about snacking on the spider!
You can see for yourself whether garden and house spiders are bald. If you are uneasy about getting that close to a spider, catch it in a clear glass or plastic jar. Then you can look very close and not be nervous. (Then, of course, let it go.)
I bet it will be bald. But not because of boiling hot beans.
My retelling is based on The Hat-Shaking Dance and Other Tales from the Gold Coast by Harold Courlander and Albert Kofi Prempeh, Harcourt Press 1957.
If you’re on Facebook, you can watch a feisty jumping spider trying to catch the cursor on my husband's computer screen. Very cute.