In his absorbing book The spiders of Allah, James Hider brings to light a little known story of the Iraq war. As the U.S army rained the wrath of God on Fallujah and other rebelling Iraqi cities, a strange story spread like wildfire throughout the Iraqi population.
The story was that giant man-eating spiders were wrecking the US effort by attacking and killing American soldiers. I’m talking about actual spiders here- the eight-legged critters probably crawling under your bed right now.
The story became so deeply entrenched that it was widely believed by the population, despite the fact that the spiders in question had not been spotted by anyone.
The Iraqis saw the giant spiders as proof that Allah had not deserted them and was fighting their enemy (possibly marking the first time spiders have been called upon in the service of divine retribution).
The myth is still alive today, even though the US bombed and shot those cities to kingdom come and eventually pounded them into submission. Out of the madness of war comes the madness of myth.
In this parallel universe, giant spiders stalked the battlefield eating American soldiers alive. The Americans, needless to say, remained decidedly uneaten, a fact that would prove to be extremely inconvenient for the Iraqis fighting them.
The giant spiders of Iraq came to me when I saw a bizarre picture in a recent Sunday Vision edition. The picture was of a man covered in mud and being carried by two men while a group of people watched anxiously.
The paper had not seen fit to give the full story, but there was a caption stating in a dry matter-of-fact way that the man was a ‘night dancer’ who had been discovered by residents passed out in the mud.
Of all the fanciful tales I heard when I was growing up, none was more bizarre than the ‘night dancer.’ It was part of a strange wave in the nineties which tied the most trivial everyday concepts to satanic influences and other similar phenomena. At one point not one, but two Ace of Base songs (‘All that she wants’ and ‘The sign’) were dubbed devil songs for reasons that remained distinctly unclear. It was enough to confuse a boy of my tender years.
Why was Satan resorting to using Swedish pop bands to establish a stranglehold in Uganda? Why had ‘The Macarena’ dance been deemed Satanic? Myths and pop culture had met religion, and the result wasn’t pretty at all.
‘Night dancers’ were the apex of this- the big kahuna of oversized myths. Supposedly this was a phenomenon where possessed men danced in the dark- not in the Bruce Springsteen way mind you- and terrified anybody who happened to be in the vicinity.
It constantly puzzled me: where did the story start? Had a few cases of mentally ill men somehow inspired a tale that got more and more elaborate until the devil himself was at the center of it? Or was it merely a little-known tribal ritual that had been terribly misunderstood? And why did everybody believe these stories without any skepticism whatsoever?
The story was told so often and with increasing embellishment until the truth didn’t matter anymore. ‘Night dancers’ had comprehensively lost the public relations war. Perhaps- as with Iraq- war had stretched reality to breaking point.
It is fascinating to me how various societies mix myth and ‘bent realities’ to create something which often flirts with both comedy and tragedy.
In many ways, people are not particularly concerned with reality. What is real is often dull or inconvenient so it becomes susceptible to being ‘shaped’ into something completely different. As so often in life, culture, myth and religion can be strange bedfellows.