This artwork, by the Italian artist Antonio Tempesta (c. 1555–1630), was inspired by the Greco-Roman myth of Arachne. She 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 capabilities of the gods. The Greek goddess, Athena (also known as Minerva to the Romans and the artist), decided to put Arachne to the test in order to finally see if the weaver’s talents truly lived up to her reputation. Athena tracked down the renowned weaver and challenged her to a weaving competition. Arachne accepted the challenge, but, unfortunately for her, life rarely turned out well for anyone who competed against the gods.
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. Particularly focusing on the countless rapes that were committed by the main male deities of the Greek pantheon, Arachne masterfully used the medium of her weaving to cast an unpleasant spotlight on the tyrannical misdeeds of the gods. 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 Pallas Athena (or Minerva) to spiral into a rage, and nothing good comes to humans when gods lose their tempers. As was narrated by the Roman poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE):
“Not Pallas, 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)
Such is the myth that Antonio Tempesta re-created in his artwork. It shows Athena (called here by the Roman name, Minerva) just beginning to cast her punitive spell that would transform Arachne into a spider. Thus, Arachne became an arachnid, the first of her kind.
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.