The myth of Arachne and how she got turned into a spider

Arachne

Arachne: Origin story, symbol, and other major myths | Image: Minerva and Arachne by French painter René-Antoine Houasse, 1706

Ever wonder why spiders do such a great job spinning webs? Well, that answer can be found in the Greek myth of Arachne, a young, beautiful woman whose hubris against the Greek gods incurred the wrath of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and crafts.

In the article below World History Edu explore the origin story, symbols and other major myths about Arachne, a Lydian mortal woman who got turned into a spider for challenging Greek goddess Athena to a weaving contest.

Summary

Arachne, a Lydian mortal woman who got turned into a spider for challenging Greek goddess Athena to a weaving contest.  She saw her gift as the product of her own “personal genius” and refused to think of her weaving skills as a gift from the gods. Image: Arachne and Athena by Italian painter Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630)

In Greek myth, Arachne is the daughter of Idmon of Colophon in Lydia who incurred the wrath of Greek goddess Athena (also known as Minerva in Roman mythology). She was such an extremely gifted weaver that she challenged Athena to a weaving competition, which she ultimately won. Arahne’s tapestry was alive and filled with a kind of beauty that made it undeniably better than Athena’s work.

Out of jealousy, the Greek goddess then went ahead to punish Arachne by changing the mortal woman into a spider. Much of what we know about Arachne in Greek mythology comes from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Arachne, the beautiful Lydian spinner

Hailing from the city of Colophon in Lydia, Arachne was the daughter of a textile merchant who was known for dyeing his clothes purple. Arachne began weaving at her loom at a very young age. Steadily she would develop this talent of hers and begin weaving absolutely magnificent tapestry.

Her works were so good that people from all over the land would come to watch her just weave. Noblemen and even the famous Greek nymphs were spellbound by Arachne’s artistic genius and craftsmanship. Some say that Arachne weaved her tapestry as if the thread came directly out from her body onto the loom.

Arachne’s hubris and boasting

As more and more pair of eyes came to witness the exquisite tapestries weaved by Arachne, so did the Lydian maiden’s ego get inflated. Arachne would respond sharply to every compliment to her by stating that her gifts were not from the gods. She believed those magnificent tapestry of hers were the product of her own hard work and personal genius.

Arachne’s refusal to give credit to the gods for bestowing upon her those talents made Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and crafts, very furious. Athena descended to the mortal plane to warn Arachne. The goddess hoped to sway the Lydian woman from what was obviously hubris against the gods.

Disguised as an old woman, Athena approached Arachne and berated the mortal for not acknowledging that her talents in weaving came from gods. However, the warning of Athena fell on deaf ears, as Arachne continued to claim that her weaving skills surpassed anyone else’s – mortal or divine. In effect, Arachne dared to claim herself greater than the gods.

Arachne challenges Athena to a weaving contest

Upon hearing Arachne’s boastful words, a raging mad Athena quickly changed back to her glorious and godly form and then accepted Arachne’s challenge to a weaving contest.

Athena called on the nymphs to act as judges of the contest. Right away, Athena and Arachne began weaving.

Athena’s tapestry

Being a god, Athena made her tapestry using the most exquisite wisps of clouds from above. For threads, the goddess used the finest blades of grass from below. By the end of the contest, she had produced a very beautiful tapestry which depicted the gods in their full might and glory. Zeus was shown firing his trademark powerful thunder bolts from the tips of his fingers; Poseidon was majestically shown riding massive waves; and Apollo, the sun god, was depicted hurtling so brightly across the sky.

Arachne’s depiction of the gods

In Arachne’s tapestry, the Greek gods were shown abusing their power in ways not even the lowliest of mortals would do. Arachne depicted the gods as quarrelsome drunks who spent all their time meddling in the lives of mortals.

Her depiction showed Zeus for his true nature, i.e. an obstinate philanderer who shape shifted into many animals so as to fulfill his lustful desires. In one part of the tapestry, Zeus is shown as a bull so he could woe Europa. Then there was the Greek god of the Underworld, Hades, who Arachne depicted kidnapping Greek goddess Persephone from the mortal plane into the Underworld.

The unappealing depiction of the gods was Arachne’s way of exposing the gods for their wrongdoings. It was very obvious that Arachne’s tapestry won the contest for it being alive and filled with a kind of realism that was far better than Athena’s.

Athena’s wrath

Upon realizing that Arachne’s work was not only more beautiful than hers, but it also in many ways exposed the gods for their unruly behavior, Athena flew into a bitter rage. The goddess went over to Arachne’s loom and ripped to shreds her tapestry. She took out her weaving shuttle and struck Arachne’s head several times.

If anything, Athena not only proved just how a sore loser she was. She also confirmed to all those who had come to watch the contest the exact point Arachne brought up in the tapestry – the gods were a bunch of tyrannical beings who abused their powers and caused more harm than good to the mortal world.

How Arachne became a the first spider

Feeling completely scared and saddened by the way things had panned out, Arachne sunk down into tears. The mortal then took her life by hanging herself.

A vengeful Athena was still not done with tormenting the mortal woman. Athena brought Arachne back to life. Athena then proceeded to curse Arachne, transforming the human weaver into a very hideous creature never seen up until then.

Arachne’s body began to shrink in size as her hair fell out. In place of those hairs, black hair began growing out of her body while her arms stuck to her sides. Athena then went ahead to shrink Arachne’s head before placing a single spool of thread underneath her belly. This was Athena’s cruel way of reminding the cursed mortal of her talent. Arachne had been completely changed into the first spider. Athena thus doomed Arachne and her descendants to be that horrible and repulsive creature until the end of time.

Lessons

Athena was sending out her message to all mortals that messing with the gods could result in very dire consequences.

The tale of Arachne is in so many ways an aetiology that tries to explain how and why spiders got such impeccable weaving abilities in the natural world.

An allegory to the environment Roman poets lived in?

When the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE – 17 CE) wrote this tale in his epic poem Metamorphoses, Rome was by then under its first emperor Augustus Caesar. Some historians have argued that Ovid’s tale of Arachne was an allegory of artists and poets living under the oppressive and dictatorial rule of Roman emperors. At some point, Ovid was even exiled out of Rome for slightly criticizing Augustus.

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More on Arachne

The myth of Arachne, the origin myth of the spider. Painting: The Spinners, or, The Fable of Arachne (1644–48) by Spanish painter Diogo Velázquez (1559-1660)

A daughter of a weaver, Arachne learned the art of weaving and spinning thread on a loom at a very young age. She developed her skills and went on to become the greatest spinner in Greek mythology, producing the most beautiful of arts.

The tale of Arachne is found in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The book contains many Greek myths and tales, some of them from ancient Greek writers like Homer and Hesiod.  

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Ovid’s Metamorphoses – an epic poem that is generally considered the greatest work of the writer – was written in Latin in 8 AD.

The Metamorphoses has had a tremendous impact on Western literature since it was written. It’s influenced acclaimed writers like Florentine poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri, English playwright William Shakespeare, and English poet and author from the Middle Ages Geoffrey Chaucer, among others.

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