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Shelob was a huge creature in spider form, apparently the spawn of Ungoliant and some lesser spider of Arda. She dwelled high in the mountains of Mordor, having established her lair there before Sauron claimed Mordor as his own. Shelob spent her early days feeding off elves and men, but as elves and men became scarce in the area, she fed upon orcs. Sauron would sometimes send her captured prisoners for whom he had no further use and amuse himself watching how she played with her prey. Even though they did not communicate, Sauron and Shelob understood each other. Shelob was like a pet to Sauron, and she served as a secure guardian of the pass of Cirith Ungol to prevent any intruders from entering the dark land.
Her lair was along the path that Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins took while seeking Mount Doom. Their guide, Gollum (whom the orcs of the Tower of Cirith Ungol call "Her Shelob's Sneak"), had reached some sort of understanding with her, and he led the hobbits directly into her trap.
While put off by the Phial of Galadriel in the tunnels, she intercepted them again outside and attacked Frodo, stinging him into a death-like coma. Sam managed to defeat her by letting her impale herself upon Sting when she tried to crush him under her massive body. Wounded, she fled to her lair and was never seen again.
Thinking Frodo dead, Sam took the One Ring from him and left his body behind, but discovered by listening to a party of Orcs that Shelob's venom was not intended to kill its victims but only to render them unconscious and keep their meat fresh.
The name Shelob is derived from "lob", an archaic English word for spider. A variation, "cob" is the derivation of the word "cobweb". The first element, "she", simply mentions the spider's gender.
Portrayal in Adaptations
In the movie, Shelob can be seen to have a retractable venomous sting at the rear end between the spinnerets, resembling a wasp's sting. This is very much unlike real spiders which inject venom with their fangs but accurate relative to the novel. Shelob also appears to have a gaping mouth, whereas real spiders can ingest only liquid. In the book, on the other hand, "clusters" of eyes are mentioned, which may suggest compound eyes like those of insects; the Shelob in the movie does not have compound eyes, which is appropriate. A hunting spider of the family Lycosidae,[source?] which Shelob most closely resembles, would have two large eyes facing forward, and a few smaller ones almost hidden below. The only spiders that can reasonably be said to have "clustered" eyes (though not true compound eyes) are the daddy long-legs spiders of the family Pholcidae, but Shelob does not resemble these rather spindly and fragile spiders in other aspects of her physique.