SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - The Devoured Mother & Medieval-time Melancholia
Everything is horror and that's ok!
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
A life well-lived is a life well-examined. A life well-examined always has a little weird and güd within it. This newsletter is an examination of our weird and güd world.
By Kaneko Amury
My home is not a safe space for spiders. Besides an appearance more disturbing than anything even the greatest horror writer could conceive of, spiders live deep within the dark, brutal, amoral bowels of nature.
I don’t care if you think your pet tarantula recognizes you; behind those way-too-many beady eyes is nothing but the primal scream for survival, playing on loop from birth till death.
The nature we know is a cheap sideshow, a game rigged in your favor. You, me, I—all inventions that lead us outside the cave of instinct.
You might love nature, but nature has nothing but the coldest indifference toward you.
The only thing I like about spiders is the way their ugly little forms carry a message from the outside into my orderly, air-conditioned home:
Don’t forget me.
Detail: Matlock Tor by Moonlight, 1777-80, by Joseph Wright of Derby
It’s easy to forget nature amid our fascination with this cute invention we call “me.” There is no you in the natural world, there is only your—your role, your life, your genes. Nature doesn’t ask what you want to be when you grow up or care whether your life is fair; what’s so special about your life compared to a billion others?
There is no “I” in nature. “I” builds society, “I” demands rights. “I” is what makes it nearly impossible for us to understand mother bears who eat their own cubs when food is scarce.
You don’t love nature—you just love a little time spent outside society.
Nature is overflowing with “I” obliterating systems. And what better animal besides the real-world horror monster that is the spider to demonstrate how little use for “I” nature has.
Nature doesn’t come with trigger warnings and neither does this newsletter. Sorry!
Photo by Daniel J. Cox.
Not all spiders are created equal in their dedication to proving that nature deserves a writer’s credit on every horror movie.
There are a handful of spiders (horror) that engage in a lifestyle more dedicated to dissolving the self than even the buddha.
Dissolve is exactly what the Crab Spider does for her young. This spider goes beyond what any overzealous “tiger mom” would dream of. When we say we would die for our kids, it’s with the implication no other option exists. But would you die just to give your kids an edge on the competition?
Maybe our mother’s day cards shouldn’t display pictures of mother bears hugging their cubs, but matriphagous spiders stoically allowing their young to eat them alive.
Matriphagy is a phenomenon that lives in those deep, dark bowels of nature we don’t see on our hiking route. Known only in insects and one worm-like amphibian, matriphagy is simple: a mother voluntarily being eaten by her offspring.
Crab Spiders allow their young to literally suck the life out of them as they slowly shrink, shrivel, and fade away. Black Lace-Weaver spiders are even more theatrical in their sacrifice, intentionally stomping around their web to ring the once-in-their-lifetime dinner bell for their young. The baby spiders suddenly snap out of nursery mode and make their first kill—dear old mom.
…and the abyss stares back.
Matriphagy is nature’s best display of disdain for “I.”
The spiders that sacrifice their lives to give their offspring an edge do so willingly; there’s no hesitation, no struggle, no spider tears of regret for never taking that trip to Paris.
We’ve lived so long outside nature’s realm of straight survival that matriphagy is only understandable in the coldest, most logical terms—nature’s terms. The spider babies who dine on mom outdo their less offensive competitors on every level: they grow larger, they hunt better, they take on larger prey, they survive at higher rates, they even cannibalize their siblings less.
A mother for a brother, I suppose.
Enjoy your nightmares!
When humans try to understand this unthinkable sacrifice, the word “altruism” inevitably comes up.
Is matriphagy an act of altruism, of giving from oneself for the benefit of another? That depends on whether you can be self-sacrificing with no sense of self.
The mother spider isn’t concerned with unfulfilled goals and individual growth—there is no “I” in nature. The spider’s goals are not explicitly known even to her; she acts from instinct, possessed by nature.
The next time you see a spider, forgo placing the invention of “I” upon it and see that spider for what it is—nature’s apathetic reminder that you’re the one that got away.
Would you and a person who lived 1,000 years ago be able to relate to each other?
Though you might be ostracized as a heathen for most of your everyday habits, you have more in common with the minds that worried about curses and demons 1,000 years ago than you realize. And it helps to realize that.
A person you’ll only ever know through as limited a fossil as an oil painting still shares with you one of the most integral and human parts of life: melancholia.
This word—defiantly poetic in contrast to our understanding of mental health today—reaches back through the centuries to ancient Greece, where it was born of the embarrassing parent modern medicine pretends not to see.
The four humors theory was sophisticated in its intuition that balance plays a role in health, but crude in its approach to ascribing that balance to four distinct bodily fluids. Melancholia is rooted in the appropriately goth fictional fluid of black bile, an overabundance of which was believed to cause melancholia.
The Guilt, 2016, by Paweł Jońca
The Hippocratic description of melancholia accurately covered at least six of the nine symptoms for a diagnosis of depression today. But melancholia is more than just another human disorder; the understanding that emotions themselves can afflict us has been around since before the recent invention of specialists we call therapists who deal solely with our emotions.
It’s hard to empathize with people who lived in an unknowable time and unknowable world. What do we know about the fears, the worries, the thoughts, and the sadness people dealt with 500 years ago? Almost nothing, really.
What we can trust about the feelings of humans throughout history is that they too felt the inescapable, unexplainable, often unbearable black weight of sadness and hopelessness we believe is a unique epidemic today.
One historian found the end of the Medieval period in french culture was marked by melancholy, with poems and art and even legal documents twinged with a distinct sense of despair, whether about the end of times or just good old-fashioned suffering.
It was during the next few centuries, from around the 1500s to the late 1700s, that melancholy became more than a bile imbalance. This Medieval-times melancholy transformed into something more recognizable to us today—that characteristically pensive and forlorn temperament of the artist.
Though we coldly categorize it as a mental illness and biological error today, the kind of sadness that sinks into the very soul stretches beyond terms and time.
The way we deal with our eternal sadness, that tax we pay for the gift of knowing that one day everything we love will die, hasn’t changed as much as our external world has.
In 16th and 17th century England, some people took the same approach to melancholy that any good goth does today—they embraced the dread and birthed a cultural cult of sadness.
Depressed writers cloaked in the looming shadows of their bookcases; cursed poets creating moments of beauty before wilting like the flowers; sardonic scholars, self-aware in their intellectual misery—England’s Renaissance emo scene embraced the association between the arts, intellect, and saying hello to Darkness, our old friend.
Interior, 1908 by Vilhelm Hammershøi
When one publication from this time, The Anatomy of Melancholy, has drawn admiration from as varied a creative crowd as Cy Twombly, Samuel Johnson, Jorge Luis Borges, Nick Cave, and Samuel Beckett, the merits of melancholy’s universality stand strong. Written by Robert Burton in 1621, this book is an encyclopedia of suffering, approaching the concept of melancholy from all sides, whether artistic, historic, or medical.
While it’s full of untranslated Latin and not at all written for our restless modern eyes, The Anatomy of Melancholy bears the understanding of internal suffering that transcends time. I’d go as far as saying Burton’s 17th-century analysis of emotional anguish shows a kind of wisdom unclouded by the rational cynicism of today.
Writing about the crucial role of dance and music in treating emotional disturbance, Burton brought the holistic approach to mental health centuries before you’d attend your first teenage drum circle night:
…besides that excellent power it hath to expel many other diseases, it [music] is a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself.
Canus, a Rhodian fiddler, in Philostratus, when Apollonius was inquisitive to know what he could do with his pipe, told him, "That he would make a melancholy man merry, and him that was merry much merrier than before, a lover more enamoured, a religious man more devout."
Even the preface to Burton’s book sounds like the self-admitted struggle of any coffee shop dwelling screenwriter today:
"I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy."
Melancholy is more of an idea than a medical diagnosis today. While the term is used in diagnosing depression to name certain symptoms, melancholy as a condition has expired. In its place are more exacting terms, Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Affective Disorder, and all the ominous acronyms that follow.
Should melancholy make a comeback? Though humans are fond of classifications and categorizations, there’s something to be said for the vague.
As we each recede into our own specific manifestations of suffering, the sense of shared sadness that can come to mark an entire era recedes as well.
The ancestor of our emotional suffering—melancholy—reminds us that our vague sense that something’s wrong, that we are wrong, and that we won’t ever be right, isn’t an idiosyncratic error, but an ancient human experience.
It’s hard not to believe your suffering is unequaled and unprecedented. Yes, you know other people have it worse, but it’s not solely the depth of your suffering that makes you suffer.
Pain is made that much more painful by the sense that your suffering is your suffering, inseparable and inescapable, with you like your own skin and blood.
Yet, that’s exactly what you share with others; as reliably as I can write these sentences, you can believe that, though your suffering is yours, the sense that our suffering is terribly special is itself not so special.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me; share my work or donate to help keep me going.
Enjoy the weird & güd aspects of our world? Join the weirdest semi-secret society online to uncover all the ancient güdness in the modern myths we call movies.