In Ancient Greek mythology, gods and goddesses regularly interacted with mere mortals. In most cases, the greek gods did acts that were worthy of praise and worship. However, some interactions highlighted the vindictive nature of the deities. Those cautionary tales served as warnings to Ancient Greeks while continuing to teach valuable lessons today.
One notable story that puts the bone-chilling powers of the gods on full display is that of Arachne.
The Arachne is a creature from Greek mythology, whose name was later used for words like “arachnid” and “arachnophobia.” There’s very little to fear about the story of Arachne, however.
Arachne was a skilled weaver who was so boastful about her abilities that she caught the attention of the Greek goddess Athena, who was known as Minerva in Roman mythology. A challenge ensued, showing what happens when you dare the gods and become overly prideful.
According to the myth, Arachne was a very famous and talented weaver. She was so proud of her skills that she challenged the goddess Athena to a contest to see who was best.
Arachne is a mortal with no godlike powers or hero status. Not much is known about her early life. Some accounts say that she was a shepherd’s daughter who learned the art of weaving on her own accord. She had many talents–warfare, weaving, wisdom, crafts, and learning–and she did not take kindly to the challenge. She accepted, hoping to put Arachne in her place and teach her respect.
However, the most accepted history of Arachne was that she was a maiden from Lydia. A daughter of Idmon of Colophon, Arachne was naturally surrounded by linens most of her life. Idmon was a famous linen dyer who drenched garments in purple.
In her later life, Arachne reportedly invented linen cloths and nets thanks to her weaving prowess. Meanwhile, her son Closter introduced the spindle, which ultimately led to the manufacturing of wool.
A Lesson in Hubris
Regardless of her background, all tales of Arachne mention her talents. Arachne’s weaving was second to none, and she reportedly bragged about her skills. She even said that her weaving was better than that of Athena. Obviously, the boastful actions caught the attention of the goddess herself.
In Ancient Greece, skills were thought to be a gift from the gods and goddesses. Those who showed exceptional skill often thanked the appropriate god for granting those talents to their mortal being. This standard practice presented a unique issue for Arachne.
Athena was the goddess of many talents. In addition to being the goddess of warfare, she presided over wisdom, crafts, and even weaving! Arachne’s bragging that her skills were better than Athenas controversial, to say the least.
So, a challenge ensued! There are a few different versions of Arachne’s tale.
The first version of this story is the most retold. In it, Athena sees Arachne’s self-boasting as a direct challenge to the gods. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Athena disguises herself as an old woman to deliver a verbal warning to Arachne. When that doesn’t work, she unveils herself and challenges Arachne.
To teach her a lesson, Athena weaves four stories as a warning. These stories depicted what happened to humans who thought they were equal to gods. They were grisly displays of punishment, warning Arachne what would happen if she continued her prideful behavior.
Unfortunately, Arachne didn’t take the message to heart. Instead of heeding the warning, Arachne retaliated by weaving her own set of four stories. However, it showed instances when gods punished humans without a good reason. She called the gods out and highlighted their unjust punishments.
Arachne’s weave didn’t put the gods in a good light, which enraged Athena. To add insult to injury, Arachne’s work was better. Humiliated and angry at the unflattering depiction, Athena curses the young Lydian weaver. Some retellings say that Athena threw Hecate’s poison onto Arachne. Others say she used her godly powers.
Either way, Arachne transformed into a spider and was condemned to a life of weaving webs. Ancient Greeks used Arachne’s story as an allegory for pride and used it to explain why spiders are constantly spinning their webs!
Other versions of Arachne’s Greek myth highlight Athena’s grace rather than her rage. The beginning of the tale is similar to the previous one. Arachne’s boasting catches the attention of the goddess, resulting in an artistic duel. Like before, Arachne’s work is far better than Athena’s.
After scrutinizing Arachne’s tapestry and being unable to find a flaw, Athena relents the win. But, she beats her with her shuttle out of rage. Winning the weaving contest shames Arachne, so she hangs herself and dies.
Athena then brings her back to life as a spider so that she can continue to weave.
That’s one iteration of the myth. A different version involves yet another unflattering depiction of the gods. Both Athena and Arachne weave stories of other deities. Athena depicts the contest between her and Poseidon, showing how she became the patron saint of Athens.
Meanwhile, Arachne wove an artistic depiction of Zeus advancing mortal women. Like before, Arachne’s work did not go over well with Athena. But rather than going into a rage and punishing her, Athena set out to teach her humility and respect for the gods.
She touched Arachne’s forehead, filling the young weaver with shame. Those emotions caused Arachne to hang herself, resulting in Athena reviving her in the form of a spider.
The final version of Arachne’s myth has a much different ending. Athena presents a similar weaving challenge. However, there’s a stipulation for whoever loses. Athena states that the loser must promise to never weave on a loom or spindle ever again.
In the other tales, Athena loses. But in this one, the goddess is victorious. Arachne’s skills are not up to the standards of Athena’s. As a result, Arachne cannot use a loom or spindle for the rest of her life. She’s heartbroken over the fact that she can’t participate in the craft she loves most in the world.
Taking pity on the poor mortal, Athena turns her into a spider. The transformation is not out of anger or spite. It’s a workaround to the previous stipulation. Arachne can’t use a loom or spindle, but she can continue to weave webs as a spider. It’s a way to keep her promise while still weaving to her heart’s content.
Arachne’s story serves many purposes. It’s usually a cautionary tale about pride and the trouble it can cause. Arachne’s boasting resulted in her eventual demise. She’s forced to live eternity as one of the most feared insects around. It’s a form of poetic justice that Ancient Greeks used to remain humble. Many scholars compare the story to that of Apollo and Marsyas, which ends with the mortal suffering much like Arachne.
The tale also speaks about cruel power and kind power. Through the different iterations, Athena reacts strongly. Whether she pities Arachne or transforms her into a blind rage, her human-like feelings have massive ramifications. While the goddess was in her right to do as she pleased, the story highlighted how emotions could drive gods into being unjust towards mortals. It’s not the first time Athena has transformed another, as she created Medusa in a fit of rage as well. Arachne’s tale only cements the fickle nature of the goddess.
- Arachne’s name inspired the “arach” prefix, which starts words like “Arachnid” and “Arachnida.”
- She was the daughter of a shepherd or a linen dyer.
- Arachne’s story is told in the epic poem Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid.
- The story of Arachne served as a cautionary tale in Ancient Greece.
- The myth of Arachne appears in many works of art. Even newer stage plays, video games, and television shows continue to retell her story.
- The contest between Arachne and Athena appears on one side of Las Hilanderas by the Spanish Painter Velazquez. On the other side is “The Abduction of Europa.”
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Arachne: https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net - Greek Gods & Goddesses, November 16, 2021