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Arachne (//; from Ancient Greek: ᾰ̓ρᾰ́χνη, romanized: arákhnē, lit. 'spider', cognate with Latin araneus) is the protagonist of a tale in Greco-Roman mythology known primarily from the version told by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE), which is the earliest extant source for the story. In Book Six of his epic poem Metamorphoses, Ovid recounts how the talented mortal Arachne, daughter of Idmon, challenged Minerva, goddess of wisdom and crafts, to a weaving contest. When Minerva could find no flaws in the tapestry Arachne had woven for the contest, the goddess became enraged and beat the girl with her shuttle. After Arachne hanged herself out of shame, she was transformed into a spider. The myth both provides an aetiology of spiders' web-spinning abilities and is a cautionary tale warning mortals not to place themselves on an equal level with the gods.
According to the myth as recounted by Ovid, Arachne was a Lydian maiden who was the daughter of Idmon of Colophon, who was a famous dyer in purple. She was credited to have invented linen cloth and nets while her 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.
In Metamorphoses the Roman poet Ovid writes that 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 Athena's, and refused to acknowledge that her skill came, at least in part, 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, particularly Zeus, had misled and abused mortals, 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 to shreds and hit her on the head three times. Terrified and ashamed, Arachne hanged herself. Then Athena said, "Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in the 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."
The myth of Arachne can also be seen as an attempt to show relation between art and tyrannical power in Ovid's time. He wrote under the emperor Augustus and was exiled by him. At the time weaving was a common metaphor for poetry, therefore Arachne's artistry and Athena's censorship to it may offer a provocative allegory of the writer's role under an autocratic regime.
The metamorphosis of Arachne in Ovid's telling furnished material for an episode in Edmund Spenser's mock-heroic Muiopotmos, 257–352. 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 descendant Aragnoll for the butterfly-hero Clarion.
Dante Alighieri uses Arachne in Canto XVII of Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy, to describe the horrible monster Geryon. "His back and all his belly and both flanks were painted arabesques and curlicues: the Turks and Tartars never made a fabric with richer colors intricately woven, nor were such complex webs spun by Arachne."
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).
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. In the novella, a woman is turned into a venomous spider having reneged on a deal with the devil.
In popular culture
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 venomous bite that can turn other humans into Arachnes. They can be killed only by decapitation and, before one appeared in Bristol, Rhode Island, hadn't been seen in two thousand 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 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."
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.
Gustave Doré's illustration of Arachne's punishment in Purgatory for Dante's Purgatorio 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 Purgatorio, 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. In the popular MOBA game, Smite, Arachne is listed as a playable deity in the Greek pantheon.
In a short story "More Spinned Against" John Wyndham tells of how Arachne finds herself in the clutches of a spider-obsessed collector and of the deal she makes with the collector's wife Lydia.
The story of Arachne has been revisited in contemporary art by figurative artist, Judy Takács. Takács views the story and reimagines the characters through a feminist lens, with her triptych, Arachne, Predator and Prey.
- Cultural depictions of spiders
- Marsyas, a satyr who engaged in a musical contest with Apollo and also suffered for his presumption
- Medusa, who was also transformed as a result of Athena's wrath
- 407 Arachne, an asteroid named after Arachne
- R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 124.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses, 6. 8
- Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia, Book 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 either is fabulous, or that in some way or other she was instrumental in the introduction of linen into Greece.
- Kline, A.S. "Ovid—the Metamophoses" (PDF). Tikaboo. A.S. kline. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 April 2016. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
- Roman, L., & Roman, M. (2010). Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology., p. 78, at Google Books
- 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.
- 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.
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Volume 1: Inferno. Canto XVII, lines 15-18 (pp. 223-224). Translated by Mark Musa.
- "La légende d'Arachné" (in French). Retrieved 20 February 2013.
- David Gallagher, "The Transmission of Ovid's Arachne Metamorphosis in Jeremias Gotthelf's Die Schwarze Spinne", Neophilologus (2008) 92: 699-711
- Beagle, Peter Soyer. The Last Unicorn. 1968. New York, Penguin Group, 1991. [Page 21.]
- "Arachne: Spider Girl! (Plays for Children based on Ovid's Metamorphoses Book 8)".
- "Clip: Scott Aukerman, Amy Poehler, Paul F. Tompkins, Neil Campbell—Freestyle Rap Battle".
- "Poehler Ice Caps, episode #245 of Comedy Bang Bang: The Podcast on Earwolf".
- "Arachne". SMITE. Retrieved 2017-06-05.
- Takács, Judy (April 29, 2019). "Arachne: The Spider and the Queen Bee". chickswithballsjudytakacs.blogspot.com. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses vi.1–145
- Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia vii.56.196
- Virgil, Georgics iv.246-247
- Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898) (13.23)
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. .