Arachne: The Mother of All Spiders
The story of Arachne is a familiar one for most people. A talented human woman challenged a goddess and as a punishment was transformed into one of the world’s most hated animals.
But, like spiders themselves, the story of Arachne is often misunderstood. For one thing, it wasn’t a traditional Greek myth at all.
Although it was added much later in the development of Greco-Roman mythology, the tale of Arachne and her contest against Athena captured people’s imaginations.
The story of Arachne is much more than a tale that explains where spiders came from. It’s a warning against arrogance, a spotlight on the bad deeds of the gods and, perhaps, a commentary on the fight between an artist and an emperor.
Keep reading to find out the truth behind Arachne, the human weaver who gave spiders their name.
While the story of Arachne is known to many people today as one out of Greek mythology, it was a later invention than many of the stories usually associated with the gods and goddesses of Greece.
The Roman poet Virgil may have briefly mentioned the story in 29 BC when he wrote that the goddess Athena hated spiders, but it would not be until the 1st century AD that the story would be told in its entirety.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses, first published roughly 37 years after Virgil’s mention of Athena, collected over two hundred and fifty myths in poetic form. Many of the stories Ovid told were ancient, but others were complete re-imaginings of old stories or entirely new ones that were written with the familiar conventions of existing mythology.
The poetry of Ovid was so popular that the newer stories in Metamorphoses and his other works quickly came to be regarded as part of the mainstream mythology. New myths were very soon considered just as valid as the ancient ones, even if the reader understood that they were recent inventions.
One of these stories was that of Arachne. While it was first told in Ovid’s works, it soon gained popularity as one of the most famous stories involving the goddess Athena, or Minerva as she was known to the people of Rome.
The goddess Athena held sway over the domains of wisdom and war. What is remembered less today, however, is that she was also the patron goddess of the crafts and artisans.
The character Athena arose out of an earlier Mycenean goddess of crafts and weaving. While her connection to warfare and heroism expanded in Greece, she retained some of her original association with more feminine pursuits.
The epithet Ergane, meaning “industrious” was used for Athena in her role as patroness of crafts. While metalworkers and forgers prayed to her to strengthen weapons and armor as both Ergane and the goddess of warcraft, she was particularly renowned as the goddess of weaving.
Athena was known to grant her favor in the form of skill in the arts. She often granted special skill in weaving to women who showed great devotion or had extreme need, including orphans.
In all her areas of interest, Athena also rewarded those who displayed exceptional skill. An already competent warrior, for example, who showed a willingness to improve his skills might be blessed with greater abilities than his work alone could achieve.
Sometimes, however, Athena encountered a human who was not appreciative of the gifts she bestowed upon them. Like all of the gods, she could not bear to have a mortal claim greater skill than her own and demanded proper credit for the favor she granted.
According to Ovid, Arachne was one of the humans who displayed insolence against the gods in this way.
The young woman was born in Lydia, a region in what is now Turkey. Her father, Idmon, had gained a good reputation as a skilled dyer who created rich purple cloth.
He collected the raw sheep’s wool that most clothing was made from and dyed it a rich violet color. The purple dye of Lydia was unlike any other coloring in the world, and Idmon was one of the most skilled creators of the hue.
While he made dyes, his daughter Arachne spun the wool into fleece cords. She learned to create beautiful tapestries from the threads she made and her father dyed.
Unlike the many princesses that often featured in ancient mythology, Arachne was of humble birth. That did not stop her, however, from earning great fame.Growing up around the finest textiles, Arachne herself soon displayed great skill at working with cloth and thread. Click To Tweet
She made a name for herself as one of the greatest weavers in the world.
She wove not only skillfully, but beautifully. She was so graceful in her work that nymphs would travel to watch her as she wove.
The creation of her works was as beautiful as the finished tapestries themselves. Her fingers were especially nimble and her whole body moved to the rhythm of her work.
The nymphs would marvel that Athena had surely graced the young woman with a remarkable gift. Arachne, however, denied the involvement of any god or goddess in her work.
She had not gotten her skill, she claimed, from Athena’s favor or any other divine source. She had worked hard to perfect her craft without any assistance from anyone else.
When Athena heard this, she was greatly offended. Denying her mastery over the art of weaving was a serious slight against the goddess.
Athena agreed that the girl had a great talent for her craft, but she was determined that Arachne should give her proper credit. Athena decided to pay the Lydian girl a visit to see for herself whether the human weaver’s arrogance was as great as it was rumored to be.
Athena disguised herself as an old peasant woman with long gray hair. She carried a walking stick and made herself appear weak and feeble with age.
In this disguise, she told Arachne to listen to the wisdom of an older woman and be sure to give proper respect to Athena for granting her such exceptional skill. Earning praise for her work was fine, but it would be unwise to forget the goddess who had granted her the skills that brought that fame.
Arachne, scowling with an evil face. Looked at the goddess, as she dropped her thread. She hardly could restrain her threatening hand, and, trembling in her anger, she replied to you, disguised Pallas: ‘Silly fool,–worn out and witless in your palsied age, a great age is your great misfortune!–Let your daughter and your son’s wife–if the gods have blessed you–let them profit by your words; within myself, my knowledge is contained sufficient; you need not believe that your advice does any good; for I am quite unchanged in my opinion. Get you gone,–advise your goddess to come here herself, and not avoid the contest!’
-Ovid, Metamorphoses 6. 1 – 148 (trans. Brookes More)
Athena instantly dropped her disguise when Arachne challenged her, revealing herself to be a radiant goddess in fine white robes.
The nymphs and other women present fell to their knees, but Arachne stood defiantly. Although she was visibly shaken by the appearance of the goddess before her, she refused to stand down or apologize.
Both the human woman and the goddess sat down at their respective looms without another word. They each worked quickly, each determined to outdo the other and prove their mastery at the art of weaving.
Athena’s tapestry began to take shape, showing a scene of the Olympian gods enthroned in glory. At their center sat her father, Zeus, in his role as king.
The story the tapestry told was that of another contest in which Athena had been victorious – her selection over Poseidon to be the patron of the city of Athens. Zeus, the god of law and judgement, was declaring her the winner.
In the each of the corners she wove scenes that were meant to instil fear in her rival. The four corners of the tapestry showed other tales in which humans had been punished for excessive hubris.
Upon seeing scenes of divine power and punishment, Arachne could have given up and apologized to Athena to save herself from a similar fate. Instead, she decided to further goad the angry Olympian goddess.
Arachne’s tapestry took shape as Athena worked on her own depiction of the gods’ glory. It was a decidedly less positive view of divine power, however.
She, too, chose stories of the gods as her subject. She showed them in a much different light, though.
The scenes Athena depicted in her weaving included famous exploits of Zeus:
- Europa – Zeus had stolen the princess away in the form of a bull. Arachne’s skilled weaving showed the young woman looking back and crying out in distress.
- Asteria – The Titaness was pursued by Zeus in the form of an eagle. As a result, she was the mother of Hecate.
- Leda – Seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan, she became the mother of Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor, and Pollux.
- Antiope – Zeus disguised himself among the satyrs to get close to her.
- Alcmene – The mother of Heracles was deceived into thinking Zeus was actually her human husband.
- Danae – The maiden princess was locked away by her father to prevent her from giving birth to a child, but Zeus appeared in a shower of gold and fathered Perseus.
- Aegina – While earlier myths said Zeus abducted her in the form of a giant goat, Ovid changed this shape to a great flame.
- Mnemosyne – The goddess of memory was tricked into thinking Zeus was a harmless human shepherd. She gave birth to the nine Muses after they spent nine nights together.
Zeus was not the only god targeted by Arachne.
She showed Apollo and Dionysus as well, each at times that they had used disguises and trickery to seduce the woman they had set their sights on.When Athena surveyed Arachne’s finished work she could find no flaws. The work was perfectly done and the figures seemed to almost come alive on the tapestry. Click To Tweet
What she could find flaw with, however, was the subject matter. Arachne had seemingly gone out of her way to depict the gods at their worst.
Athena’s tapestry had shown the divine glory of the gods, especially her father. Arachne had shown Zeus, his brother, and his sons as lustful brutes who terrorized both goddesses and mortal women.
The scenes made Athena furious. Equally galling was the fact that she could find no technical flaws in the mortal girl’s work. In skill, Arachne had truly matched her.
Athena tore her competitor’s work to shreds. She hit Arachne in the head with her shuttle three times, overcome by her anger.
Arachne was overcome as well. Her defiant spirit was finally broken, so she took the tattered thread of her ruined tapestry and hung herself on the spot.
The goddess, although angry, was moved to pity by the girl’s suicide. She quickly saved Arachne moments before death.
She did not let her go completely free, however. She doomed Arachne to dangle by a cord forever.
She sprinkled herbs of Hecate on the girl, then walked away. Instantly, Arachne began to undergo a horrific transformation.
Her hair fell out, her nose and ears disappeared. Her body shrunk as her nimble fingers moved to her sides in the form of long legs.
Arachne was changed into a spider, doomed to spend her entire life weaving and hanging by a cord just as she had done in her final moments as a human.
The story of Arachne was not entirely unique in Greek and Roman mythology. It served to not only explain the existence of something seen in the natural world, in this case spiders, but also warned its readers against hubris.
Other figures in mythology had been punished in similar ways. The satyr Marsyas, for example, was brutally killed for his arrogance in challenging Apollo to a music contest.But some interpretations of Arachne’s story advance the idea that Ovid had more contemporary matters in mind when he wrote it. Click To Tweet
Ovid wrote in the time of Emperor Augustus. The emperor’s laws concerning marriage and morality had put the poet at odds with imperial power.
Many of Ovid’s poems offended the more socially conservative values of the emperor. He was often censored, and as the dispute between the poet and Augustus became increasingly personal.
In 8 AD, the same year Metamorphoses was written, Augustus had Ovid exiled to the Black Sea city of Tomis. The writer was banished far from Rome without any input from the Senate or the courts of Rome.
With this in mind, some scholars have interpreted the story of Arachne not as a cautionary tale against insulting the gods, but as a commentary on the political situation Ovid found himself in.
The writer went to pains to explain that Arachne’s father produced purple dye. That same color was used in the tapestries she and the goddess wove during their contest.
Purple dye was extremely rare and expensive in the ancient world. In Rome, sumptuary laws strictly regulated the use of Tyrian purple – senators could have a single stripe on their togas, but only the emperor could wear pure purple robes.
The contents of the story linked it to one of the symbols of imperial power, but Arachne’s actions linked her more closely to Ovid than the emperor.
Unlike Marsyas or others who challenged the gods, Arachne did not lose her competition based on inferior skill. She lost for more personal reasons.
Arachne chose to show those in power in a negative light. She offended Athena as much by pointing out the gods’ flaws as by challenging her authority.
She wasn’t wrong, though. While Athena was angered by the scenes Arachne chose to show, every one of the figures portrayed in the tapestry was an established story in the mythology.
Arachne had upset someone in power by portraying something that was true, but unflattering. Ovid may have been referencing his own writings, which offended the emperor even if nothing he said was seditious or treasonous.
Arachne, like Ovid, was not punished for lack of skill. Instead, they were both punished for arrogance in offending someone with more power than themselves.
At the time, weaving was often used as a metaphor for writing poetry. We still use this today when we say someone weaves or creates a tapestry with words.
It is a reasonable interpretation, then, to see Arachne the weaver as a stand-in for Ovid the poet. Both were punished for challenging authority despite their skills.
The name Arachne continues to be tied to Ovid’s story today.
Although he wrote in Latin, Ovid used a Greek root for his character’s name. The Greek arachne meant “spider.”
In part because of the popularity of Ovid’s origin story for spiders, arachne has endured as a more common root word in modern languages than the Latin aranea.
Arachnida is the taxonomical class for most spiders in modern science. Over 100,000 known species, including scorpions, mites, ticks, and horseshoe crabs in addition to spiders, are classed as arachnids.
Most English speakers are even more familiar with Arachne’s name in one of the world’s most common fears. Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is thought to affect 10% of men and up to 50% of women worldwide.
In conclusion, the legend of Arachne was a later Roman addition to mythology, possibly created entirely by the poet Ovid.
In a narrative that is common in older myths, Arachne boasted that her skill in weaving was equal to, and not thanks to, Athena. As the goddess of crafts, this was an insult that Athena could not let go unchecked.
Athena took Arachne’s challenge to a weaving contest. While Athena created a tapestry honoring the divinity of the gods and their punishments of those who slighted them, Arachne showed the gods’ trickery and wickedness in taking advantage of women.
Athena could find no flaws in Arachne’s work, but was angry at being shown up and seeing the flaws of her fellow gods depicted. She tore Arachne’s tapestry to shreds in anger.
Arachne attempted to hang herself, but Athena spared her life. As punishment for her arrogance, though, the girl was transformed into a spider who would eternally hang from a cord.
Ovid’s story fit into a long tradition of narratives that showed the gods punishing humans for their hubris. It may also have served as a metaphor, however, for the poet’s own struggles against censorship at the hands of Emperor Augustus.
Arachne’s name lives on in science as the taxonomic class of spiders and related animals. Arachnophobia, which also bears her name, is one of the world’s most common fears.