The story of Arachne, a woman turned into a spider by the goddess Athena, was a warning to ancient Greeks to respect their deities.
Arachne was the daughter of Idmon, who in some accounts was an aristocrat, in others a dyer. They lived in the ancient Greek city of Colophon in Lydia (part of modern Turkey). The region was famous for its textiles, and Arachne grew up to be a superb weaver of tapestries. She resented any suggestions that she owed her talents to Athena, the goddess of weavers.
Arachne's arrogance so displeased Athena that the goddess disguised herself as an old woman and warned the girl to recognize Athena's superiority. Arachne refused to do so, however, and told the crone that she would challenge Athena to a weaving contest. On hearing this, Athena revealed herself to Arachne, and the two immediately set to work on different tapestries.
Athena's embroidery pictured her own triumphant exploits and detailed the fates of other mortals who had dared to challenge the gods. Arachne's work satirized the gods, in particular the lust for mortal women displayed by Poseidon, Apollo, Dionysus, and most of all by Zeus, who often deceived his victims before seducing them.
Angered by Arachne's temerity as well as her skill, Athena touched the girl's forehead, causing her to feel such guilt that she hanged herself. Shocked by this turn of events, Athena sprinkled aconite (another name for the highly poisonous monkshood plant) on Arachne's body, transforming her into a spider.
The best-known source for the myth of Arachne was written by Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) in his Metamorphoses, a work that contains numerous different accounts of mythical characters whose lives were transformed by the gods. In Ovid's version it is clear that Arachne's problem was one of pride or hubris, an exaggerated belief in one's own abilities. Yet in other versions the theme is more one of Athena's envy of a mortal whose skills are at least comparable with—and possibly even greater than—her own. In one version of the legend, Athena became so jealous of Arachne's tapestry that she tore it in two, causing Arachne to hang herself in terror.
The Arachne myth can be interpreted on a variety of levels. It is a story of the dangers of pride or envy, but also of the consequences of failing to respect the gods. It also attempts to explain a natural phenomenon—spiders' ability to weave their webs. After her transformation, Arachne hid from Athena by weaving the rope on which she hanged herself into an intricate web. Finally, the story can be interpreted in the light of economic rivalry between the city of Athens and the region of Lydia. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that, in the second millennium BCE, Lydia was the largest exporter of dyed woolen cloth in the Mediterranean. In this reading of the story, Athena is Athens, while Arachne symbolizes her native Lydia.
See also: ANIMALS; APOLLO; ATHENA; DIONYSUS; GREECE; POSEIDON; ZEUS.
- The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Metamorphoses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. , and A. D. Melville, trans.