The story of Arachne tells the origin of spiders, and is a story that only gets more tragic the more I read it. It also shows a disturbing side of Athena, who, up until now, has been an admirable goddess. Full of wisdom, the inspiration and protector of heroes, on the surface she seems ideal in every way. Her ability to get the best of Poseidon is not a trick, but a reflection of who she is. With the story of Arachne, though, we begin to see another side to her.
This myth, like many of the Greek myths, has multiple versions. The older, original myth is very sparse, while the more popular version by the Roman poet Ovid in his book The Metamorphoses is more detailed, but also embellishes quite a bit. I’ll stick with the original and point out important differences along the way.
In the original, Arachne is a princess, and the best weaver around. Athena arrives to determine if this is so, and inspects what Arachne has woven. Arachne made a tapestry detailing all of the Olympian love affairs, and Athena cannot find a single flaw.
The Ovid version of this story says that Athena and Arachne actually had a contest. Athena’s tapestry detailed sacred places of the gods (complete with gods), while the corners showed episodes where the gods had meted out their own brand of justice against crimes done by mortals. Athena’s implied message to Arachne is that she can expect the same. What’s interesting is that Athena judges both, finding in favor of Arachne as the superior weaver.
Here’s where the bad side kicks in. In anger, Athena tears Arachne’s tapestry apart. Terrified, Arachne hangs herself. But Athena didn’t allow Arachne to simply die in peace. Instead, she transformed the woman into a spider (incidentally, Athena hates spiders). We have definitely moved on from the goddess of wisdom and patron of warriors, here.
All right, so it’s easy to say, don’t tick off the gods by boasting you are better than them. This should be an obvious point, what Peter Venkman would call an “important safety tip.” However, Arachne was better than Athena. Most of the time these boasts (and we will look at more of them) end up that the mortal couldn’t live up to the brag. Here we have one that clearly did. Athena, the goddess of crafts, couldn’t find any fault in Arachne’s weaving. This may have infuriated her more than anything, which means Athena is truly petty and jealous.
She might, however, have some mitigation. Arachne was more skilled, certainly, but the tapestry she wove detailed all of those illicit love affairs of the gods. This is not a respectful subject matter, and paints the gods in a bad light. Don’t get me wrong, they totally deserve it because they couldn’t keep it in their pants. Nevertheless, it is not wise to expose the shortcomings of the gods, especially not in so disrespectful a manner. The destruction of the tapestry would have been inevitable. None of the gods would have permitted it to survive. Athena had cause more than most to destroy it since it not only represented blasphemy (but not one in which she had participated in [more on this later]) and of skill that she could not surpass.
Ovid’s myth attempts to mitigate the events that happen, trying to portray Athena in a better light. In the original, Athena is clearly jealous and vengeful. The transformation of Arachne into a spider is seen as a punishment. However, Ovid attempts to spin this (spider pun) into a different idea. Athena is now moved by pity to spare Arachne’s life, yet still exact a punishment. Instead of dying, can still “as a spider, [weave] her ancient web.”
I call BS.
Seriously, Athena is cold and heartless in her punishment. In fact, this punishment is far worse than death. The weaving of a spider’s web doesn’t even count as a booby prize in this case. It’s a mockery.
The myth looks at tapestries as the pinnacle of the weaving craft, not clothing, blankets, rugs, or any other textiles. Tapestries, that’s the ball game. This makes sense as the amount of skill required to weave in all of the characters is monumental, but it also firmly takes this from a craft of practicality to one that is an art form. Certainly, clothing, blankets, rugs, and the like can all have an art to them. Such items can have beautiful colors, patterns, and even characters and stories woven on them as much as a tapestry (space permitting); however, those items are ultimately meant to be used. They serve a practical function in everyday. Tapestries are exclusively an art form. They are to be hung on the wall and admired for their craftsmanship.
The type of art is also significant. Tapestries, especially what Arachne wove, tell a story. The depiction of places and characters form scenes; together, these scenes form a story as well as an overall message. These give tapestries meaning and weight. They have significance not just because of their craftsmanship but because of the story’s meaning. They seek to provoke thought and feeling about a subject. These tapestries have a voice.
Athena stole Arachne’s voice. We have moved into a symbolic rape. Not only does Athena violently destroy what Arachne created, she transforms the creator into a new form, robbing her of her literal voice (as this is not Charlotte’s Web). Moreover, Arachne can no longer weave tapestries. She is eternally a weaver, yes, but the spider web, while it’s possible to have aesthetic geometry, is a mechanism of practicality and survival first and foremost. It can never be art; it can never reach the level of a story like the tapestries she wove of old. She is still a weaver, but it is only technical skill. A jealous and vengeful goddess has taken Arachne’s artistry and voice from her in a show of power.
Athena reveals a new side to her nature, one that is particularly dark. It’s interesting that this darkness was not tempered by her wisdom. Or perhaps it was. Perhaps she used it for dark purpose to ensure that none could surpass her again. The price of doing so is just too high.