Who Was Arachne The Mythical Weaver?

Arachne's myth of transformation into a spider is a shocking tale with multiple readings.

Dec 19, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
houasse-galle-cleve-arachne-myth-weaving-athena
Minerva and Arachne, René-Antoine Houasse, 1706, Versailles (left); Arachne, by: Philips Galle after: Marten van Cleve I, 1574, British Museum (right).

 

One of the most captivating stories in Roman Mythology is the myth of Arachne. First mentioned by Ovid, the myth follows the fate of Arachne, a weaver so skillful that she was able to challenge Athena/Minerva into a competition. In the end, Arachne is transformed into a spider to do what she knows best, to weave.

“The spider, hateful to Minerva, hangs in the doorway her loose-woven nets.” (Virgil, Georgics 4. 246 ff )

 

Weaving In Antiquity

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Terracotta lekythos with women making woolen cloth, attributed to the Amasis Painter,

 

Spinning and weaving were major social activities reserved for women in both ancient Greece and Rome. In a world, where the vast majority of women were excluded from public life, weaving was a creative activity that allowed women to gather and socialize.

 

It is noteworthy that textile production was an exclusively female activity and an important one. Good weaving skills were considered an asset for women of both the low and upper classes. As for slave women, they were expected to weave and spin. In many cases, also male slaves would partake in this task.

 

The ideal of the good wife-weaver was in place for centuries. In Homer’s Odyssey, we find Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, being praised for her weaving skills. For Penelope, this artistic expertise was not only proof of her noble origins but also a trait closely affiliated with her womanness and faithfulness. Through weaving, she managed to remain faithful to Odysseus for 10 years and protect herself from a group of suitors.

 

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Also, in the Iliad, Homer complimented Helen of Troy for her weaving talents. Other famous mythical weavers included the Moirai, the three women that weaved the fate of mortals and gods alike. However, the most famous weaver in Greek mythology and the patron deity of the activity was Athena.

 

The Myth of Arachne

 

The first literary mention of Arachne’s myth is found in the epic Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid. The story was written sometime between the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE. It is uncertain whether the story was a fictional tale constructed by Ovid or a popular myth that the Roman author wrote down.

 

Who Was Arachne?

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The Spinners or the Fable of Arachne, Diego Velázquez, c. 1657, Prado.

 

The name Arachne in Greek literally translates to “Spider.” The taxonomical name Arachnida describes all spiders, scorpions and other eight-legged insects.

 

According to Ovid, Arachne was at first a maiden from the Hypaepa of the ancient Kingdom of Lydia. Pliny the Elder in Natural History (7.196) credits Arachne with the invention of linen cloth and nets and her son Closter with the use of spindle.

 

Arachne’s bloodline was not royal. Ovid notes that she was of “humble birth”. Her father was Idmon of Colophon who was a purple dyer. Her mother came from a common family with nothing special about her.

 

Despite this humble beginning, Arachne managed to become famous in the whole of Lydia for her weaving skills. She was so good, that often the local nymphs would abandon their homes to witness Arachne’s talents.

 

Arachne Denies Athena

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Arachne, by: Philips Galle after: Marten van Cleve I, 1574, British Museum.

Apparently, Arachne was so good at weaving that the nymphs did not simply want to examine her textiles, but also watch her making them. The beauty of Arachne’s artistry was so great that it was evident to everyone that she was taught by Athena (Minerva) herself:

“You could see she was taught by Pallas.” (Ovid, VI.1-25)

 

Yet Arachne denied that she had learned her art from someone else. In fact, she was offended and even provoked the goddess:

“Contend with me I will not disagree at all if I am beaten.” (Ovid, VI.1-25)

 

Athena’s Reaction

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Minerva, Gustav Klimt, 1898, Vienna Museum.

 

Athena of course did not take long to notice Arachne’s disrespectful behavior. However, she did not punish the hubris right away. She took the form of a feeble old woman and went to meet Arachne in order to give her a last chance:

“Not everything old age has is to be shunned: knowledge comes with advancing years. Do not reject my advice: seek great fame amongst mortals for your skill in weaving, but give way to the goddess, and ask her forgiveness, rash girl, with a humble voice: she will forgive if you will ask.” (Ovid, VI.26-69)

Arachne immediately rejected the idea of asking Athena for forgiveness. Instead, she claimed that she had done nothing wrong. Her art was hers and hers only. No one else had to get credit for it, even if that was Athena.

 

Then Arachne went a step further and challenged the goddess. Without realizing who was the old woman in front of her, she wondered why Athena does not come to contend with her. Certain that Arachne was not willing to ask for forgiveness, Athena revealed herself. At her sight, the nymphs and Phrygian women in Arachne’s workshop began worshipping the goddess.

 

Only Arachne stayed still. Though she was scared, she was stubborn enough to stay true to her word. Within moments, she was ready for the weaving competition, even though she understood that no good could come out of it for her.

 

Athena’s Tapestry

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The Amazement of the Gods, Hans Von Aachen, 1590s, National Gallery.

 

Athena began weaving her tapestry. In the center, she weaved the story of her competition with Poseidon (Neptune) over Athens. A competition that she won naming the city after herself.

 

In the tapestry Athena presented a mighty image of herself in armor with a helmet, holding a spear and a shield. She also depicted the 12 Olympian gods with Zeus (Jupiter) in the center admiring her victory over Poseidon.

 

The tapestry’s message for Arachne was clear: “How dare you, a mere mortal, defy me, the mighty goddess whom even the gods respect and admire?” Then Athena proceeded to weave scenes showing four myths; Rhodope and Haemus, Pigmy, Antigone, and Cinyras.

 

The common thing with all these myths was that they told the story of mortals who disrespected the gods and, in the end, were punished by being transformed into something by the gods.

 

Rhodope and Haemus were transformed into mountains, Pigmy into a crane and forced to wage war on her people, Antigone was turned into a stork, and Cinyras’ daughters were transformed into the steps of a temple after he had claimed that they were more beautiful than the gods. With these four myths, Athena clearly warned Arachne of what was awaiting her.

 

Arachne’s Tapestry

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The rape of Europa, Titian, 1562, Isabella Steward Gardner Museum.

 

Arachne gave her best self understanding that her life depended on it. Her work presented the exact opposite image of Athena’s. While in the goddess’s tapestry the gods appeared virtuous and all-powerful, in Arachne’s they were presented as childish, abusive, unjust, and unethical.

 

Arachne weaved 18 examples showing gods transforming themselves in order to trick mortals and take advantage of them. Most of these were stories of mortal women getting raped by gods, mostly Zeus and Poseidon. The most notable examples included the rape of Europa, Proserpine, Leda, Antiope, Danae, Medusa, and Mnemosyne.

 

Arachne’s work was a direct challenge against Athena. It presented a completely different reality than the one in Athena’s tapestry, where the gods trick and abuse mortals, without provocation.

 

The Horrible Fate Of Arachne

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Arachne and Pallas, Peter Paul Rubens, 1636/1637, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

 

After Arachne finished weaving, Athena examined her work thoroughly looking for faults. However, the tapestry was so perfect that there was nothing to point out. In fact, it seemed that Arachne had truly surpassed Athena.

 

The goddess could not accept this. In anger, she destroyed Arachne’s tapestry tearing it with her own hands. Then she hit Arachne on the forehead with the shuttle of the loom. Arachne could not bear this, so she ran and hanged herself. Suddenly Athena felt affection for the woman and lifted her saying:

“Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!” (Ovid, VI.129-145)

Before leaving, Athena sprinkled Arachne with the poisonous herbs of Hecate transforming her into a spider. Athena spared the life of her adversary but at the expense of her humanity. Ironically, Arachne was condemned in a life of weaving.

 

Why Is It Important That Arachne Did Not Thank Athena For Her Weaving Skills?

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The Triumph of Minerva, Francesco del Cossa, 1467-70, Palazzo Schifanoia, Wikimedia Commons.

 

Athena was the protector of arts and crafts, mainly spinning and weaving, and was often depicted with a distaff in her hand. Her cult was also closely related to weaving and, according to the Greek and Roman mythology, she was the source of artistic skill related to this art. Furthermore, in antiquity, it was a common belief that artistic talents were gifts by the gods. As a result, we can understand why Athena was distressed after Arachne rejected the goddess as the origins of her weaving skills.

 

At a first glance, Arachne’s myth is a classic tale of a mortal overstepping the boundaries of divine law and receiving punishment. However, towards the end, we realize that things are not so clear.

 

Yes, Arachne did offend Athena, but did she really offend the gods? Her tapestry was so perfect that even Athena could not locate a single tiny error on it. Athena destroying it and then punishing Arachne in such a cruel way does not feel right. It rather seems like Ovid wants us to sympathize with Arachne and, truly, it is almost impossible not to.

 

What started as a conventional tale of a mortal offending the gods, ends as a story of the gods’ arrogance, unjustified rage, and lack of mercy. It feels like the one overstepping the boundaries is Athena. By the end, we understand that this is a story on the irrationality of divine punishment.

 

Arachne’s Myth And Censorship In Ancient Rome 

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Statue of Emperor Augustus from Prima Porta, 1st century AD, Vatican Museums.

 

It is possible to interpret the myth of Arachne as a story of censorship. In this case, Ovid is drawing a parallel between the censorship of art under emperor Augustus.

 

In fact, it can be argued, that Ovid is drawing a parallel between himself and Arachne. This idea is strengthened by the fact that weaving was a common metaphor for poetry in Rome.

 

Ovid who got exiled from Rome in 8 CE, is very much like Arachne. He has seen his work destroyed by his superiors and his talent suppressed. His just critique of power is unjustly punished and he has been denied communication with the world.

 

In this case, Arachne is a symbol for the creator who makes beautiful art only to see it censored by the authorities (Athena). Ovid goes into great detail describing Arachne’s tapestry because he wants us to feel shocked when Athena destroys it. This is how the poet himself also feels when his work is not allowed to reach his audience.

 

A Feminist Reading Of Arachne’s Tapestry

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Minerva and Arachne, René-Antoine Houasse, 1706, Versailles.

 

Even though this was not Ovid’s original intention, it is not very difficult to read Arachne’s myth from a feminist point of view. One look at Ovid’s description of her tapestry is enough. Her work, centered around stories of rape, is a fiery critique of the established order and a powerful voice against the injustice of power. Also, it is a true challenge to Athena, the protectress of virginity.

 

In this reading, Arachne represents the talented, skillful woman who is willing to judge and finally overcome tradition to discover what lies beyond. Athena is the exact opposite. She represents an oppressive patriarchal tradition. She is a woman embodying male characteristics (warrior maiden) and, at the same time, the ideal virtuous woman (protectress of weaving) and the triumph of social morality over nature (worshipped for remaining perpetually a virgin). Athena is a desexualized female who idolizes the established hierarchy as presented in her tapestry.

 

Similarly to her cruel treatment of Medusa, Athena cannot allow Arachne to walk free. Even if her work was perfect, she has defied the established order.



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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.