I am not a fan of spiders - Mrs. Flattery can testify to that. I recognize the benefits to having them around and I think they are interesting, but try as I might to think rationally about it when I'm confronted by one I still can not get over that innate revulsion that I feel. I invariably feel horrible but it usually ends up becoming a "this-town-ain't-big-enough-for-the-two-of-us" situation, particularly in the winter when it seems even more cruel to toss them outside.
This phobia of mine makes working in historic buildings and museums fairly interesting (one school group was witness to a legendary duel between yours truly armed only with a broom and a gigantic wolf spider armed with olympic speed). But my phobia also made a particular 19th century decoration style catch my attention: that is, the use of spider motifs as house decorations. After seeing it for the first time, I have been noticing more and more depictions of spiders in historic homes (keep your eyes out the next time, maybe the next house you visit will have some of their own). It seems that while a few mythologies and legends do depict spiders as malicious in one way or another, many cultures actually view them as symbols of good luck and good fortune. The more I read about the topic the more myths I find, but it is intriguing how many of them are tied to luck or good fortune. Here are some of the interesting things I've learned through the use of Mrs. Flattery's "School of Google".
First of all, while many people have viewed spiders themselves as good luck, just as common is the belief that killing a house spider (emphasis on house) will bring bad luck to someone (this would certainly explain a lot of things about my life). Most of the rhymes and sayings regarding this seem to focus on the idea that killing spiders, who are industrious and build homes like us, will injure our own homesteads or work ethic. However, one rhyme that I found here at Purdue's website focuses less on the symbolism behind spiders and more on their practicality:
"Kill a spider, bad luck yours will be
Until of flies you've swatted fifty-three."
Certain Native American cultures, for instance some of the Pueblo Nations, believed that "Spider Woman" created the entire Universe. An article at a website called Natural History Mag claimed that ancient Indian texts tell of a very similar story. The Greeks also saw spiders as the weavers of fate and destiny. I know very little about religious stories and texts, but a lot of people online talk about how spiders supposedly spun a web over the entrance to the cave that hid the baby Jesus from Herod; there are similar stories online about David and Muhammad as well. Some people link these myths and religious stories to the beginning of the belief that spiders are good luck, or at least something you should not harm. To me, luck and fortune seem pretty interchangeable with fate and destiny.
The second page of that Natural History Mag article I mentioned also discusses how there are superstitions about spiders and medicine, where they are used as charms for warding off certain illnesses. For example, it was believed that enclosing a spider within two nutshells and wearing it around your neck would help prevent ague. Additionally, some thought that getting spiders to breed and wander around your house as much as possible would prevent gout.
I'll end things on a pretty cute story I read at this website regarding a German tradition of hanging spider webs on the Christmas tree (I'm paraphrasing, the website tells the story better in my opinion). The story goes that traditionally families would let their animals inside the house to see the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, since Jesus himself had been born in a stable. Spiders, however, were not allowed in because wives did not want to clean the cobwebs off of everything. The spiders were always really sad about this, but one evening they were allowed in late at night by Santa Claus (or the Christ Child, according to some versions). They excitedly ran all over the tree looking at the decorations and left behind spider webs wherever they went. In the morning, the housewives found the spiderwebs on the tree but instead of being angry they thought it looked even prettier. Today tinsel is used to imitate the look of spiderwebs.
There is interesting history and symbolism behind even the oddest things.
Edit: (Hopefully to avoid any copyright issues) The spider picture at the top was from http://www.luckymojo.com/spider.html Additionally, I found another interesting symbolic meaning to the designs: the intricate webs that spiders make represent our own lives and remind us to be careful about the choices me make every day. Basically, we are constantly "spinning our own webs" in life. Kinda poetic.