If the name Arachne makes you think of spiders, then you may already be familiar with the myth about this tragic figure. Arachne’s story is one of competition, hubris, punishment, and the will of the gods, as we’ll find out in this lesson.
Arachne in Greek Mythology
The fable of Arachne is a late Roman edition of classical Greek mythology. There are several versions of the myth, but each one follows a similar pattern – the hubris of Arachne, the challenge of Athena, the victory of one or the other in a weaving contest, and the consequences. Each version has a slightly different outcome, which we’ll explore in this lesson; but first, let’s look at the characters in this story.
Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom, crafts, and war, known for her calm temperament and for fighting only when she has just reason. Arachne is the daughter of a famous dyer from a town called Lydia and a weaving student of Athena. In all three versions of the myth, Arachne is presented as a talented and proud weaver who boasts of her skills and dismisses Athena as the source of her talent.
Let’s see how she makes out when challenged to a weaving contest by Athena.
In one version of the myth, an admirer of Arachne’s work asks her where she acquired her skill and suggests that she might have learned it from Athena. Arachne responds by laughing and claiming that she could teach Athena a thing or two. Athena then appears in the doorway in a long cloak and asks Arachne if she truly believes her talent does not come from the goddess. When Arachne repeats her boast, Athena challenges her to a contest. Zeus will be the judge, and the loser must promise to never touch a loom or spindle again.
During the contest, Arachne weaves a thin but strong web; however, it’s no match for the beautiful tapestry depicting the gods and their glory woven by Athena. Arachne admits defeat to Athena and falls into despair at the loss of her craft. Seeing that Arachne cannot live without weaving, Athena touches her head with the tip of her spear and transforms her into a spider so she can continue to weave without breaking the terms of their contest.
In another version of the myth, Arachne responds to a question about her weaving gifts by becoming angry and declaring that she is more talented than Athena. When Athena hears her boasting, she appears in the doorway disguised as an old lady in a dark cloak. She asks Arachne to respect the gods and goddesses and their gifts, but Arachne only laughs and claims that even if Athena challenged her to a contest, she would win. Athena then reveals herself and sets forth the challenge, the terms being that the losing side would never weave again.
Athena weaves a tapestry of the people of Greece with Poseidon and Athena deciding on the name to be given to Athens. Arachne’s tapestry depicts Zeus’ seduction of Europa and other women. When Athena sees Arachne’s tapestry, she’s both in awe of the beauty of her work and enraged at how it disrespects the gods. To teach Arachne a lesson about respect for the gods and their works, Athena touches Arachne on the forehead. The magic fills Arachne with intense guilt and remorse, leading her to hang herself. Out of pity, Athena brings Arachne back as a spider so she can continue to weave.
Athena Punishes Arachne
The third version of the myth appears in the narrative poem Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. In it, Arachne is the daughter of a shepherd and a talented weaver. She boasts that her skill is greater than Athena’s and refuses to acknowledge that it’s even partially the result of a gift from the goddess. Again, Athena appears as an old lady and warns Arachne to ask for forgiveness from the gods. In reply, Arachne only laughs and invites Athena to challenge her.
When Athena reveals herself, the two begin weaving straight away. Athena’s tapestry portrays four contests between gods and mortals, where the mortals are punished for setting themselves up as equals to the gods. Arachne’s tapestry depicts the abuse of the gods and Zeus’ infidelity by tricking and seducing women. When Athena sees Arachne’s work, she realizes that not only is it more beautiful than her own, but also insulting to the gods. Enraged, Athena rips up the tapestry and strikes Arachne three times. Arachne hangs herself out of anger.
Instead of pitying Arachne, Athena punishes the weaver by transforming her into a spider after she brings her back to life. This way, Arachne and all her descendants can hang just as she does.
The myth of Arachne was a Roman addition to Greek mythology and served as a lesson about the consequences of hubris and refusing to acknowledge the gifts the gods bestow on mortals. In the three versions of the myth we discussed in this lesson, including the one found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, crafts, and war, and Arachne engage in a weaving contest where the god Zeus is the judge. The winner of the contest varies according to the version of the myth, as do the consequences. However, at the end of each version, Arachne is fated to live out her days as a spider weaving webs, depending on whether Athena pities or punishes her.