By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of Arachne is one of the most famous of the Greek myths dealing with young women. Or at least, it is perhaps the most famous one not to involve the young woman either being carried off by Zeus (who had something of a reputation for doing that) or falling in love with someone and then dying tragically. Instead, the story of Arachne focuses on (traditional) woman’s work: weaving and embroidery.
But what does the story of Arachne mean? We have a clue as to the outcome of the story in the modern words arachnid and arachnophobia, and there is a spidery detail here. But let’s delve into the myth of Arachne in more detail to discover what it’s all about.
Summary of the myth of Arachne
In the kingdom of Lydia (an ancient area of Anatolia, which is in modern-day Turkey) there lived a girl, named Arachne. She was very good at weaving, and her reputation for embroidery soon spread. Athena, the goddess of (among many other things) spinners and embroiderers, was considered by many to have been Arachne’s tutor, but Arachne refused to give the goddess any credit for having taught her how to weave so beautifully.
Indeed, so sure of her own weaving abilities was she, that Arachne even boldly challenged Athena to a weaving contest. Athena turned up in disguise as an old woman, advising the young weaver to be more modest about her achievements. Arachne was scornful, so Athena – angered by the girl’s arrogance – revealed her true identity and accepted the challenge Arachne had proposed.
The two competitors chose the subject of their tapestries with care: while Athena showed the twelve Olympian gods in hers, she wove in a little detail in each of the four corners, showing what happens to uppity mortals who think they can defy the gods. Conversely, Arachne depicted the most outrageous things the gods had got up to – in particular, Zeus’ track record in ‘seducing’ or abducting young maidens to satisfy his own lust.
Arachne’s work was perfect, and Athena had to admit it. But, being a goddess, she didn’t have to like it. What’s the use of being a deity if you can’t throw your weight about from time to time? So Athena tore up Arachne’s beautiful work and struck her down. Arachne was so downcast by this, that she hanged herself.
Athena was vindictive, and refused to give Arachne peace in death. So she turned the dead girl into a spider, so that she would be doomed to weave and spin for all time.
Analysis of the myth of Arachne
What does the story of Arachne and her tragic ending mean? We know that mortals who defy the gods often come to a sticky end. Indeed, as the story of Prometheus shows, even Titans going up against the gods often end up in a bad way. The story is, above all else, a lesson in humility.
Arachne is, in terms of her birth, nothing special: she is not a princess famed for her nobility – indeed, Ovid has her born in a humble home, when he tells the story in his Metamorphoses – or a beautiful woman admired far and wide for her looks. Indeed, in the various versions of the myth of Arachne, there isn’t any mention of a love interest. One thing, and one thing only, is responsible for her reputation: her skill at the shuttle.
But with her great skill comes great pride: not just pride in doing a good job, but what the ancient Greeks called hubris, or arrogance, and an attendant belief that somehow one is untouchable.
This point matters because Athena (or Minerva in the Roman retelling of the Arachne myth, such as that we find in Ovid) is perfectly happy to allow a mortal rival to exist.
The Greek gods were often jealous, but Athena shows no sign of being angry that she has a rival whose skill at the loom or shuttle can equal her own. All she asks is a bit of recognition that Arachne’s talents are god- (or goddess-)given. It is Arachne’s haughty refusal to attribute her skill to anyone or anything else that angers Athena.
And, of course, in depicting the less noble side to the gods in the tapestry she weaves – gods deceiving and abducting, disguising themselves, and generally behaving appallingly – she is trying to goad Athena, even if it appears to be the skill of her handiwork, as much as what she depicts, that angers Athena.
Athena, of course, condemns Arachne to eternity as a spider, spinning her thread forever. That said, Ovid interprets Athena’s (or Minerva’s in his version) actions as more merciful than vengeful: she sees that Arachne has hanged herself and takes pity on her, letting her live, but in some altered form where she will be able to continue practising her art, but won’t be able to upstage the warrior goddess.
When we read Ovid’s version, we come away with a sense that Arachne’s fate is not a cruel ironic trick the goddess has played, the last act of vengeance and putting the girl in her place. Rather, it is a hat-tip to the girl’s skill, rather than a bitter example of cutting someone down to size.
After all, if Athena hated Arachne’s weaving so much, she could have contrived a fate for her which involved her never being able to weave in any form ever again.
In the late 1920s, while he was a young student at the University of Cambridge, William Empson wrote a metaphysical poem, titled ‘Arachne’, which sees man as ‘King Spider’ and which ends with the (male) speaker entreating his female lover not to slay him too soon, in reference to the habit of the female of some species of spider, most notably black widows, of eating their male partners.
In his note to the poem, Empson – who later commented that his early poems were all about ‘boy being afraid of girl’ – mentioned that Arachne was ‘disastrously proud’. You can read Empson’s poem here.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech.
So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.