In the evocative myth of Arachne, a gifted mortal challenges a deity to a weaving contest and suffers tragically. The Roman poet Ovid, narrated the most complete version of this tale in book VI of his opus, Metaphorphoses (circa 8 CE). Lyrically rendered with humor, horror, beauty, and complexity, Arachne’s demise unfolds—from audacious lass to spineless spider.
The story plays out in a small village in the Lydian kingdom, east of ancient Ionia. There a young woman of lowly birth and marriage, raised her status through her skill in working wool. So stunning was the beauty of her work that nymphs were drawn from their vineyards and mermaids from their rivers to come witness her magic flair. From rough wool to “fleecy cloud”, thread by thread with “her agile thumb around the graceful spindle,” she spun and then “embroidered with a slender needle….” It was commonly believed she must be a pupil of the divine Minerva [Greek Athena]―the sponsor of arts among the deities.
Yet Arachne delighted in her own prowess and refused to credit any other for it. When word reached Minerva that the peasant girl claimed her “mastery in working wool…” “surpassed the goddess’ skill,” Minerva set forth immediately, intending to humiliate her. Yet believing the lass surely would recant if given a chance, Minerva appeared at Arachne’s hut in the guise of an old woman and cautioned her:
[G]o, beseech Minerva’s pardon for the words you spoke; ask humbly and she will forgive your boast.
Arachne could not believe the strange hag’s intrusion and impertinence. She dropped her threads, and only with great self-restraint managed to keep herself from striking out. Arachne accused the old lady of having lost her mind. Then adopting a brazen tone she made her position clear.
As for advice, I can advise myself. And lest you think your warning changed anything, be sure of this: I am still sure of what I said before. Your goddess―why doesn’t she come here? Why not accept my challenge?
Whereupon Minerva threw off her disguise and appeared in her godhead—all the gathered nymphs and women bowed in obeisance. But Arachne remained erect, a little flushed but confident. The daring lass insisted on no more delay—even though she knew, just as all the gathered women knew, of the grave risks she faced. With an assured swiftness, both set up their looms and stretched the warp upon them. Each intent upon her skeins—without yielding to weakness or fatigue—the two competitors spun. Each richly weaving her own biased tale.
Into the web they’ve woven purple threads. . .,
and hues so delicate that they shade off
each from the other imperceptibly―
as, when a storm is done, the rays of sun
strike through the raindrops and a rainbow stains
with its great curve a broad expanse of sky;
and there a thousand different colors glow,
and yet the eye cannot detect the point
of passage from one color to the next,
for each adjacent color is too like
its neighbor, although at the outer ends,
the colors shown are clearly different.
Minerva’s golden threads unfurled her account of the ancient battle among the gods—the question of who would win the right to name the city on the hill of Mars. She portrayed twelve deities: Jove [Zeus] on his throne in regal features, the sea god Neptune standing tall with his trident, and the others in equally commandeering poses. Her climatic marvel was herself triumphant upon a hill wielding lance and shield; atop her head sat her helmet and on her breast her aegis. She smote the earth with her shaft and from there sprang forth an olive tree, laden with fruit. The four corners of her cloth relayed yet another warning―detailing miniature scenes of presumptuous mortals transformed into lesser beasts at the hands of affronted gods. Confident of her victory, Minerva finished her borders with wreaths of olive branches, “as a sign of peace.”
In a contrasting study, Arachne displayed the underbelly of the gods’ trickery and abuse. Letting her art and anger intertwine, she detailed Jove’s seductive guises. First as a white bull enticing the virgin Europa to ride him into the sea, only to bear her away to Crete where he ravished her. Then as a swan to seduce, rape, and impregnate the princess Leda with the child who would become the tragic Helen of Troy. Arachne kept weaving stories of shapeshifting immortals who posed as eagles, snakes, and dolphins, to capture and violate innocent girls. She showed the god Saturn [Cronis] transfiguring into a stallion to pursue and mount the lovely nymph Philyra, burdening her with birthing a half-human/half-horse creature, they called Chiron. Unveiling in detail so many truths, wherein each, “. . .is rendered to perfection by Arachne.” For her borders, she wove flowers interlaced with ivy—signaling her faithfulness and fidelity to the conviction of her calling.
No flaw could be found “in that girl’s artistry,” and for that she would be punished—the warrior-goddess was enraged beyond all control at being bested by a mere mortal.
Minerva tore to pieces that bright cloth
whose colors showed the crimes the gods had wrought;…
Grabbing a boxwood shuttle, she beat the poor dear about the head. Certain the deadly blows would kill her, Arachne tied a noose about her neck and prepared to hang herself. In a strange twist of pity, Minerva grabbed Arachne and propped her up—forewarning her she would still hang. In her victorious departure, Minerva sprinkled Arachne with the herbal fluids of Hecate (goddess of magic and liminal spaces). Helpless as her body absorbed the venomous spell—Arachne began to metaphorphose. She lost her hair, her eyes and ears. Her body collapsed in on itself, forming into two globes, a belly and a head, with her graceful fingers attaching as legs. Now transformed into a creature, feared and despised throughout posterity.
Was it arrogance or just good self-esteem that drove Arachne to pit herself against the less artful Minerva? And what drove her to choose to unflinchingly spin all the suffering inflicted on women by gods wielding power over them?
Arachne-remains-undaunted. She drops and spins silently with supreme artistry—her spindles issue forth the threads that her eight legs take and weave into stunning designs. And when these webs, misted with morning dew, glisten in rainbow hues—their beauty remains unrivaled.
Ovid, The Metamorphoses, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Everyman’s Library (1993).
Hamilton, Edith, Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, Grand Central Publishing (1942).
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