Arachne

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Minerva and Arachne, René-Antoine Houasse, 1706

In Greco-Roman mythology, Arachne (/əˈrækn/; from Greek: ἀράχνη "spider", cognate with Latin araneus)[1] was a talented mortal weaver who challenged Athena, goddess of wisdom and crafts, into a weaving contest; this hubris resulted in her being transformed into a spider. There are many versions of the story's weaving contest, with each saying that one or the other won.

Biography[edit]

Arachne was a Lydian maiden who was the daughter of Idmon of Colophon, who was a famous dyer in purple.[2] She was credited to have invented linen cloth and nets while his son Closter introduced the use of spindle in the manufacture of wool. She was said to have been a native of Hypæpæ, near Colophon in Asia Minor.[3]

Mythology[edit]

Ovid's version[edit]

Athena and Arachne (Antonio Tempesta)

One version appears in the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid.

In this version, Arachne was a shepherd's daughter who began weaving at an early age. She became a great weaver, boasted that her skill was greater than that of Athena, and refused to acknowledge that her skill came, in part at least, from the goddess. Athena took offense and set up a contest between them. Presenting herself as an old lady, she approached the boasting girl and warned: "You can never compare to any of the gods. Plead for forgiveness and Athena might spare your soul."

"Ha! I only speak the truth and if Athena thinks otherwise then let her come down and challenge me herself," Arachne replied. Athena removed her disguise and appeared in shimmering glory, clad in a sparkling white chiton. The two began weaving straight away. Athena's weaving represented four separate contests between mortals and the gods in which the gods punished mortals for setting themselves as equals of the gods. Arachne's weaving depicted ways that the gods had misled and abused mortals, particularly Zeus, tricking and seducing many women. When Athena saw that Arachne had not only insulted the gods, but done so with a work far more beautiful than Athena's own, she was enraged. She ripped Arachne's work into shreds, and hit her on the head three times. In rage, Arachne hanged herself. Then Athena said "'Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!' After saying this she sprinkled her with the juice of Hecate's herb, and immediately at the touch of this dark poison, Arachne's hair fell out. With it went her nose and ears, her head shrank to the smallest size, and her whole body became tiny. Her slender fingers stuck to her sides as legs, the rest is belly, from which she still spins a thread, and, as a spider, weaves her ancient web."[4] This showed how goddesses punished those who were mortal.

Athena wins[edit]

Arachne in Gustave Doré's illustration for Dante's Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

In this version, someone asks Arachne how she learned to weave so well and suggested that Athena taught her and she didn't know it. Arachne dismissed this and boasted that she could teach Athena a thing or two in weaving. Athena then appeared in the doorway, wrapped in a long cloak, and asked if she really didn't believe that Athena had taught her to weave. Arachne repeated her boast and Athena challenged her to a contest in which Zeus (Jupiter) was to be the judge. Whoever lost must promise never to touch spindle or loom again. Arachne wove a web thin yet strong with many colours. This was no match for Athena's weaving, made up of the gods and their glory, shining with their beauty.

Arachne acknowledged Athena's triumph, but despaired at the loss of her craft. Athena saw that Arachne could not live if she could not weave, so she touched Arachne with the tip of her spear, turning her into a spider so she could weave without spindle or loom.[5][better source needed]

Arachne wins but hangs herself[edit]

In this version of the myth, Arachne was a blessed weaver of Greece. People asked her if she had been taught weaving by Athena herself, the goddess of wisdom. Although this was meant as a compliment, Arachne became angry. She thought that her skill was greater than the goddess's. Hearing of her attitude, Athena appeared on her doorway disguised as an old woman in a dark cloak. She asked her to respect the gods and goddesses, but Arachne just laughed, and said that even if Athena herself challenged her, it would be an easy win. Athena then revealed herself and challenged Arachne to a competition. The loser would promise never to weave again.

Athena wove a tapestry of the people of Greece, with Poseidon and Athena over them, deciding whose name should be given to the city of Athens. Arachne wove a tapestry about Zeus, and his seduction of Europa and others. Athena saw that although Arachne had insulted the gods, her work was so beautiful that Athena herself was awed. She realized that Arachne couldn't live without weaving. To make Arachne realize her mistake and also to teach her to respect the gods and their works, she touched Arachne's forehead with the tip of her hand. The magic worked only partially, filling Arachne with guilt for her insolence, and she hanged herself. Out of pity, Athena brought Arachne back to life as a spider, so that she and her descendants could weave all their lives.[citation needed]

Influence[edit]

  • The metamorphosis of Arachne in Ovid's telling furnished material for an episode in Edmund Spenser's mock-heroic Muiopotmos, 257–352.[6] Spenser's adaptation, which "rereads an Ovidian story in terms of the Elizabethan world" is designed to provide a rationale for the hatred of Arachne's descendent Aragnoll for the butterfly-hero Clarion.[7]
  • The tale of Arachne inspired one of Velázquez' most factual paintings: Las Hilanderas ("The Spinners, or The fable of Arachne", in the Prado), in which the painter represents the two important moments of the myth. In the front, the contest of Arachne and the goddess (the young and the old weaver), in the back, an Abduction of Europa that is a copy of Titian's version (or maybe of Rubens' copy of Titian). In front of it appears Minerva (Athena) at the moment she punishes Arachne. It transforms the myth into a reflection about creation and imitation, god and man, master and pupil (and therefore about the nature of art).[8]
  • It has also been suggested that Jeremias Gotthelf's nineteenth century novella, The Black Spider, was heavily influenced by the Arachne story from Ovid's Metamorphoses.[9] In the novella, a woman is turned into a venomous spider having reneged on a deal with the devil.

In popular culture[edit]

Pendule with Arachne and Athena in Meissen porcelain, attributed to Johann Gottlieb Kirchner and George Fritzsche (1727)
  • Arachne has had a considerable degree of influence on modern popular culture. She frequently appears in modern fantasy books, movies, and television series in the form of a monstrous spider. In Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, she is pictured as a grotesque, half-woman, half-spider monster who nests on people to produce killer spiders. She is the central character in the 2011 novel The Spider Goddess by Tara Moss. In Class of the Titans, Arachne is changed into a giant spider and makes a deal with Cronus to become human again. Cronus does not hold up the end of his bargain though and betrays her after getting her to trap the heroes for him. After being berated by Atlanta, Athena turns Arachne back into a human, and she is allowed to live at the Olympus High School, weaving for the gods.
  • In the 13th episode from season 6 of Supernatural, "Unforgiven," the monster of the week is an Arachne, depicted as a humanoid monster with spider-like attributes and abilities, including the ability to weave strong webs and a poisonous bite that can turn other humans into Arachnes. They can only be killed by decapitation and before one appeared in Bristol, Rhode Island hadn't been seen in 2,000 years. While soulless, Sam Winchester hunted one, but was unaware that it had turned its victims into Arachnes as well. One of the turned victims comes back for revenge and Sam is forced to kill him. Arachne is also featured in the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series. All of Athena's children, including Annabeth Chase, are arachnophobic because of Arachne's dispute with Athena. Arachne appears towards the end of The Mark of Athena as a large spider while still maintaining human features. She is defeated by Annabeth because of her pride and eventually they are both sent falling into Tartarus, where Percy Jackson kills Arachne.
  • In the novel The Last Unicorn written by Peter S. Beagle, a plain brown spider is bewitched into believing that she is Arachne until the witch who enchanted her is killed. She is mentioned to be one of the creatures in Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival. The book describes Arachne as "'...the greatest weaver in the world—her fate's the proof of it. She had the bad luck to defeat the goddess Athena in a weaving contest. Athena was a sore loser, and Arachne is now a spider, creating only for Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival, by special arrangement. Warp of snow and woof of flame, and never any two the same. Arachne.'"[10]
  • In Marvel Comics, Arachne is the name used by the second Spider-Woman (Julia Carpenter, currently the new Madame Web) to distinguish herself from Jessica Drew, the original Spider-Woman. In Volume 3 of Monster Musume, an Arachne (a human female from the hips upward and the body/legs of a spider) named Rachnera Arachnera is introduced; she goes on to become a member of the "Monster Girl" household in Volume 4. Arachne Gorgon is a powerful witch and one of the main antagonists of Soul Eater. She was responsible for crafting the first demon weapons, an act that Death fiercely opposed, forcing her to bide her time and remain in hiding for 800 years. She returns to lead the risen Arachnaphobia, her personal army against Death.
  • The story of Arachne has also been adapted for many plays. She is the inspiration for a character featured in the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Arachne: Spider Girl! is a play for children based on the myth by Ursula Dubosarsky, first published in the NSW School Magazine.[11]
  • Gustave Doré's illustration of Arachne's punishment in Purgatory for Dante's Inferno has had a surprising number of pop culture appearances. It is one of the many recurring images used by the rock band, The Mars Volta; it has been used in the cover of their Live EP, as a backdrop for their live shows, and a favorite accessory for guitarist and composer Omar Rodríguez-López in the form of a belt buckle. Eminem's 2013 music video for the song "Rap God" features imagery from Dante's Inferno, including the illustration of Arachne. (This is most likely a metaphor for the rappers who try to compete with the self-proclaimed "Rap God").
  • On Episode 245 of the Comedy Bang! Bang! Podcast, Comedian Neil Campbell references Arachne and Athena's rivalry during a freestyle rap battle.[12][13]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 124.
  2. ^ OvidMetamorphoses, 6. 8
  3. ^ Pliny the ElderNaturalis HistoriaBook 7.56.3; According to Justin, B. ii. c. 6, the Athenians introduced the use of wool among their countrymen; but it has been supposed that they learned it from the Egyptians. As we have sufficient evidence that linen was manufactured by the Egyptians at a very early period, we may presume that this account of Arachne is either fabulous, or that, in some way or other, she was instrumental in the introduction of linen into Greece.
  4. ^ Kline, A.S,. "Ovid - the Metamophoses" (PDF). Tikaboo. A.S. kline. Retrieved 12 December 2016. 
  5. ^ "The Wonderful Weaver". Authorama. Retrieved 6 June 2014. 
  6. ^ Written c. 1590 and published in Complaints, 1591. Spenser's allusion to Arachne in The Faerie Queene, ii, xii.77, is also noted in Reed Smith, "The Metamorphoses in Muiopotmos" Modern Language Notes 28.3 (March 1913), pp. 82-85.
  7. ^ Robert A. Brinkley, "Spenser's Muiopotmos and the Politics of Metamorphosis" ELH 48.4 (Winter 1981, pp. 668-676) p 670. Brinkley makes a case for Spenser's episode as political allegory of Elizabeth's court.
  8. ^ "La légende d'Arachné" (in French). Retrieved 20 February 2013. 
  9. ^ David Gallagher, "The Transmission of Ovid's Arachne Metamorphosis in Jeremias Gotthelf's Die Schwarze Spinne", Neophilologus (2008) 92: 699-711
  10. ^ Beagle, Peter Soyer. The Last Unicorn. 1968. New York, Penguin Group, 1991. [Page 21.]
  11. ^ "Arachne: Spider Girl! (Plays for Children based on Ovid's Metamorphoses Book 8)". 
  12. ^ "Clip: Scott Aukerman, Amy Poehler, Paul F. Tompkins, Neil Campbell - Freestyle Rap Battle". 
  13. ^ "Poehler Ice Caps, episode #245 of Comedy Bang Bang: The Podcast on Earwolf". 

References[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

External links[edit]