How and for what the goddess Athena punished the mythical weaver Arachne
How and for what the goddess Athena punished the mythical weaver Arachne

- this is exactly what Virgil wrote in Georgik. And it is not at all surprising that one of the most fascinating stories in Roman mythology is the myth of Arachne. First mentioned by Ovid, the myth follows the fate of Arachne, a weaver so skillful that she was able to challenge Athena / Minerva to a competition. Eventually, Arachne transforms into a spider to do what she knows best - weaving.

Terracotta lequitos with women making woolen cloth, attributed to the artist Amasis, c. 550-530 BC NS. \ Photo:

Spinning and weaving were the main social activities for women in both ancient Greece and Rome. In a world where the vast majority of women were excluded from public life, weaving was a creative activity that allowed them to gather and communicate.

It is noteworthy that textile production was an exclusively female and important activity. Good weaving skills were considered an advantage for women in both the lower and upper classes. As for the slaves, they had to weave and spin. In many cases, male slaves also took part in this work.

The Spinners, or the Fable of Arachne, by Diego Velazquez, 1657. \ Photo:

The ideal of a good weaver wife has existed for centuries. In Homer's Odyssey, many will surely remember Penelope, Odysseus's wife, who was praised for her weaving skills. For Penelope, this artistic experience was not only proof of her noble birth, but also a trait closely related to her femininity and loyalty. Through weaving, she managed to remain loyal to Odysseus for ten years and protect herself from a group of fans.

In addition, in the Iliad, Homer praised Helen of Troy for her weaving talents. Other famous mythical weavers included the Moira, three women who weaved the fates of both mortals and gods. However, the most famous weaver in Greek mythology and the patron deity of this activity was Athena.

Arachne, Phillips Halle, 1574. \ Photo:

The first literary mention of the myth of Arachne occurs in the epic "Metamorphoses" of the Roman poet Ovid. This story was written sometime between the first century BC and the first century AD. It is unclear if this story was a fictional tale created by Ovid or a popular myth written down by a Roman author.

The name Arachne in Greek literally translates as "spider". The taxonomic name Arachnida describes all spiders, scorpions, and other eight-legged insects.

According to Ovid, Arachne was first a girl from Gipaepa in the ancient kingdom of Lydia. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (7.196) credits Arachne with the invention of linen and nets, and her son Kloster with the invention of the spindle.

Minerva, Gustav Klimt, 1898. \ Photo:

Arachne's lineage was not royal. Ovid notes that she was of humble origin. Her father was Idmon of Colophon, a purple dyer. Her mother came from a simple family in which there was nothing special. Despite such a humble beginning, Arachne managed to become famous throughout Lydia for her weaving skills. She was so beautiful that the local nymphs often left their homes to see the work of the young weaver.

Obviously, Arachne was so good at weaving that the nymphs not only wanted to study her fabrics, but also watch her create them. The beauty of Arachne's art was so great that it was obvious to everyone that Athena (Minerva) herself taught her. However, Arachne denied that she had learned this art from someone else. In fact, she was offended and even provoked the goddess:. (Ovid, VI.1-25)

It certainly didn't take Athena long to notice Arachne's disrespectful behavior.But she did not punish the proud and impudent girl at once, but only took the form of a feeble old woman and went to meet Arachne to give her one last chance: “Not everything that old age has should be avoided: knowledge comes with age. Do not reject my advice: seek great glory among mortals for your ability to weave, but give in to the goddess and ask her forgiveness in a humble voice, rash girl. She will forgive if you ask. " (Ovid, VI, 26-69).

Arachne immediately rejected the idea of ​​asking for forgiveness from Athena. Instead, she stated that she had done nothing wrong. Her art belonged to her and only to her. No one else should have claimed this merit for themselves, even if it was Athena.

Angry Athena and Arachne. \ Photo:

And unable to restrain herself, Arachne challenged the goddess, looking at the old woman and wondering why Athena did not come to fight her. Confident that Arachne did not want to ask for forgiveness, Athena opened up. At the sight of her, the nymphs and Phrygian women in the workshop of Arachne began to worship the goddess.

Only Arachne remained motionless. Despite her fear, she was stubborn enough to stay true to her word. In a few moments she was ready for the competition of the weavers, although she realized that nothing good would come of it for her.

Arachne and Pallas, Peter Paul Rubens, 1636-1637 \ Photo:

Athena began to weave her tapestry. In the center, she has woven the story of her rivalry with Poseidon (Neptune) for Athens. A competition she won by naming the city after herself. On the tapestry, Athena presented a powerful image of herself in armor with a helmet, holding a spear and shield. She also depicted the twelve Olympian gods with Zeus (Jupiter) in the center, admiring her victory over Poseidon.

The tapestry's message to Arachne was clear:. Then Athena began to weave scenes from four myths: the Rhodope and Gemus, Pygmy, Antigone and Cinera.

Triumph of Minerva, Francesco del Cossa, 1467-70 \ Photo

Common to all of these myths was that they told the story of mortals who did not respect the gods and, in the end, were punished by being turned into something by the gods. The Rhodope and Gemus were turned into mountains, Pygma - into a crane and forced to fight with her people, Antigone - into a stork, and the daughters of Cinir were turned into temple steps after he declared that they were more beautiful than the gods. With these four myths, Athena clearly warned Arachne of what awaited her.

Arachne learned this and realized that her life depended on it. Her work was a completely opposite image of Athena. While on the tapestry of the goddess the gods appeared to be virtuous and omnipotent, on the tapestry of Arachne they were presented as childish, abusive, unjust, and unethical.

Statue of Emperor Augustus from Prima Port, 1st century AD. \ Photo:

Arachne has woven eighteen examples showing how gods transform to deceive mortals and take advantage of them. These were mainly stories of mortal women raped by gods, mainly Zeus and Poseidon. The most notable examples include the rape of Europa, Proserpine, Leda, Antiope, Danae, Medusa, and Mnemosyne.

Arachne's work was a direct challenge to Athena. She was a completely different reality than the one depicted on the tapestry of Athena, where the gods deceive and insult mortals for no reason.

Minerva and Arachne, Rene-Antoine Ouass, 1706. \ Photo:

After Arachne finished weaving, Athena carefully examined her work for flaws. However, the tapestry was so perfect that there was nothing to indicate. In fact, it seemed like Arachne had indeed surpassed Athena. The goddess could not accept it. In anger, she destroyed Arachne's tapestry, tearing it apart with her own hands. Then she hit Arachne on the forehead with the shuttle of the loom. Arachne could not bear it, so she ran and hanged herself. But for the angry goddess, this was not enough.

Before leaving, Athena sprinkled Hecate's poisonous herbs on Arachne, turning her into a spider. Athena saved the life of her enemy, but at the cost of her humanity. Ironically, Arachne was sentenced to life weaving.

Painting by Herman Postumius, depicting Athena revealing herself to Arachne and the crowd. \ Photo:

Athena was the patroness of arts and crafts, mainly spinning and weaving, and was often depicted holding a spinning wheel.Her cult was also closely associated with weaving, and according to Greek and Roman mythology, she was the source of the artistic skill associated with this art. In addition, in antiquity, the belief was widespread that artistic talents were gifts from the gods.

As a result, it becomes clear why Athena was upset after Arachne rejected the goddess as the source of her weaving skills. At first glance, the myth of Arachne is a classic story about a mortal who crossed the boundaries of divine law and received punishment. However, towards the end, the same ambiguity remains.

Painting by Francesco del Cossa: A crowd gathers around Arachne's loom. \ Photo:

Yes, Arachne insulted Athena, but did she really insult the gods? Her tapestry was so perfect that even Athena could not find the slightest mistake on it. Athena, who destroyed him, and then punished Arachne in such a cruel way, eventually begins to doubt her deed.

What began as a common tale of a mortal insulting the gods ends as a story of the arrogance of the gods, unjustified rage, and lack of mercy. It seems that only Athena can overstep the boundaries of what is permitted. By the end, it still becomes clear that this story is about the irrationality of divine punishment.

Triumph of the Virtues, Andrea Mantegna, 1502 \ Photo:

The myth of Arachne can be interpreted as a history of censorship. In this case, Ovid draws a parallel between the censorship of art under the Emperor Augustus. In fact, it can be argued that Ovid draws a parallel between himself and Arachne. This idea is reinforced by the fact that weaving was a common metaphor for poetry in Rome. Ovid, expelled from Rome in 8 AD e., very similar to Arachne. He saw how his work was destroyed by his superiors and his talent suppressed. His fair criticism of the authorities is unjustly punished, and he is denied communication with the world.

In this case, Arachne is a symbol of a creator who creates beautiful art only to be seen censored by the authorities (Athena). Ovid describes Arachne's tapestry in detail because he wants readers to be shocked when Athena destroys it. Apparently, this is exactly how the poet himself feels when his work is not allowed to reach the audience.

The myth of Arachne and Athena. \ Photo:

While this was not Ovid's original intention, it is not hard to read Arachne's myth from a feminist perspective. One glance at Ovid's description of her tapestry is enough. Her work, centered around rape stories, is a fiery criticism of the established order and a powerful voice against the injustice of power. In addition, this is a real challenge to Athena, the patroness of virginity.

Tournament between Athena and Arachne. \ Photo:

In this reading, Arachne represents a talented, skillful woman who is ready to judge and finally overcome tradition in order to discover what lies beyond it. Athena is the complete opposite. She embodies an oppressive patriarchal tradition. She is a woman who embodies masculine traits (maiden warrior) and, at the same time, an ideal virtuous woman (patroness of weaving) and the triumph of public morality over nature (revered for being forever a virgin). Athena is a desexualized woman who worships the established hierarchy represented in her tapestry and does not tolerate any other opinions and contradictions in her address …

Read also about what really was the beloved daughter of Zeus and why Athena often behaved so cruelly towards others.

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