Spiders are known for the complex and intricate webs that they weave. It is not surprising, then, that the ancient Greeks cultivated a myth claiming that the originator of spiders was a master weaver of legendary skill. This talented figure, named Arachne, was said to have been the greatest weaver of her time, and the masterpieces of cloth that she produced convinced many that her abilities in weaving surpassed the cloth-working abilities of the gods, themselves. As was told by the ancient poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), the wise Greek goddess, Athena (or the Roman equivalent Minerva), decided to put Arachne to the test in order to finally see if the weaver’s talents truly lived up to her reputation. Athena, taking on the appearance of an old woman, tracked down Arachne and challenged her to a weaving competition. Unfortunately for Arachne, life rarely turned out well for anyone who competed against the gods, and even if the gods were met with an unlikely defeat in a contest, the bested deities usually turned out to be sore losers.
During the weaving competition, both Athena and Arachne chose the gods as the subject of the woven art. Athena’s art displayed the gods and goddesses in all their splendor, overseeing a slew of cautionary scenes that depicted mortals who were punished by the gods. The foreshadowing of divine retribution did not perturb Arachne, and she instead doubled down on challenging the gods. Whereas Athena had depicted the gods as posing triumphantly above punished humans, Arachne took a different route that chastised the gods for their many abuses of power. She particularly focused on the countless rapes that were committed by the main male deities of the Greek pantheon; their tyrannical misdeeds were powerfully depicted through the medium of Arachne’s masterful weaving. In the end, despite the odds against her, everyone—even the gods—agreed that Arachne’s woven artwork was likely the better of the two. Nevertheless, Arachne’s victory and especially its subject matter caused Athena (or Minerva) to spiral into a rage, and nothing good comes to humans when gods lose their tempers. As was narrated by Ovid:
“Not Pallas [Athena], not even the goddess of Envy could criticize weaving
like that. The fair-haired warrior goddess resented Arachne’s
success and ripped up the picture betraying the gods’ misdemeanours.
She was still holding her shuttle of hard Cytórian boxwood
and used it to strike Arachne a number of times on the forehead.
‘You may live, you presumptuous creature,’ she [Athena] said,
‘but you’ll hang suspended forever. Don’t count on a happier future:
my sentence applies to the whole of your kind, and to all your descendants!’
With that she departed, sprinkling the girl with the magical juice
of a baleful herb. As soon as the poison had touched Arachne.
her hair fell away, and so did the ears and the nose. The head
now changed to a tiny ball and her whole frame shrunk in proportion.
Instead of her legs there are spindly fingers attached to her sides.
The rest is merely abdomen, from which she continues to spin
her thread and practice her former art in the web of a spider.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 6, approximately lines 129-145)
So ends the tale of Arachne and Athena, as told by Ovid. Despite her weaving being equal or greater than the work of the goddess, Athena, victorious Arachne’s only prize was a beating and a punitive transformation into the shape of a spider. Thus, Arachne became an arachnid, the first of her kind.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Minerva Visits Women Spinning and Weaving, by Bernard Picart (c. 18th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.