In Greco-Roman mythology, Arachne (Template:Pron-en) was a great mortal weaver who boasted that her skill was greater than that of Minerva, the Latin parallel of Pallas Athena, goddess of crafts. Arachne refused to acknowledge that her knowledge came, in part at least, from the goddess. The offended goddess set a contest between the two weavers. According to Ovid,[1] the goddess was so envious of the magnificent tapestry and the mortal weaver's success, and perhaps offended by the girl's choice of subjects (the loves and transgressions of the gods), that she destroyed the tapestry and loom and slashed the girl's face. “Not even Pallas nor blue-fevered Envy \ Could damn Arachne's work. \ The brown haired goddess Raged at the girl's success, struck through her loom, Tore down the scenes of wayward joys in heaven.″[2] Ultimately, the goddess turned Arachne into a spider. Arachne simply means "spider" (Template:Polytonic) in Greek.


The fable of Arachne (also Arachné) is a late addition to Greco-Roman mythology. The myth does not appear in the repertory of the Attic vase-painters. It is narrated in Ovid's Metamorphoses (vi.5-54 and 129-145) and mentioned in Virgil's Georgics (iv. 246). As these sources are all Roman, they identified the goddess as Minerva.

According to Pliny's Natural History[3] she discovered the use of linen as well as nets. Pliny reports that she had a son named Closter who discovered the spindle for spinning wool.


Arachne was the daughter of Idmon of Colophon, who was a famous wool dyer in Tyrian purple. She was a fine weaver in Hypaepa of Lydia.[4] She was as skillful as the finest artist of the day and much praise was given to her in Hypaepa, where she had her workshop.

This all went to her head and eventually Arachne became so conceited of her skill as a weaver that she began claiming that her skill was greater than that of Athena,[5] the goddess of wisdom and war as well as the weaving arts. Athena was angered, but gave Arachne a chance to redeem herself. Assuming the form of an old woman, she warned Arachne not to offend the gods. Arachne scoffed and wished for a weaving contest, so she could prove her skill. Athena dropped her disguise and the contest began.

Athena wove the scene of her victory over Poseidon that had inspired the people of Athens to name their city for her. According to Ovid's Latin narrative, Arachne's tapestry featured twenty-one episodes of the infidelity of the gods, disguised as animals: Zeus being unfaithful with Leda, with Europa, with Danaë.

Even Athena admitted that Arachne's work was immaculate. Her envy at such human competition drove her into uncontrolled fury and violence. Perhaps she was as well outraged at Arachne's disrespectful choice of subjects that displayed the failings and transgressions of the gods (this takes for granted a late, moralizing view of Greek myth). Losing her temper, she destroyed Arachne's tapestry and loom, striking it with her shuttle, and struck Arachne on the head as well, slashing her face. Arachne, refusing to bow to Athena, hanged herself: “Nor could Arachne take such punishment: She'd rather hang herself than bow her head.” (The moralizing perspective suggests that she "realized her folly and was crushed with shame.").

In Ovid's telling, Athena took pity or spite on Arachne. Sprinkling her with the juices of aconite, Athena loosened the rope, which became a spider web, causing Arachne to lose her hair, her ears and nose, metamorphosing into a spider. "So you shall live to swing, to live now and forever, Even to the last hanging creature of your kind." The story suggests that the origin of weaving lay in imitation of spiders and that it was considered to have been perfected first in Asia Minor.


File:Diego Velázquez 014.jpg

From arachne are derived the taxonomical class name Arachnida, and the name for spiders in many romance languages.

The metamorphosis of Arachne in Ovid's telling furnished material for an episode in Edmund Spenser's mock-heroic Muiopotmos, 257-352.[6] Spenser's adaptation, which "rereads an Ovidian story in terms of the Elizabethan world"[7] is designed to provide a rationale for the hatred of Arachne's descendent Aragnoll for the butterfly-hero Clarion.

The tale of Arachne inspired one of Velázquez' most interesting 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 in the moment she is punishing 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).

In popular cultureEdit

  • Gustave Doré's rendition of Arachne is one of the many recurring images used by the rock band, The Mars Volta. It has been used as a record cover for them, a backdrop for their live shows, and a favorite accessory for guitarist and composer Omar Rodríguez-López in the form of a belt buckle.
  • In the modern classic fantasy The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, a plain brown spider is bewitched into believing that she is Arachne until the witch who enchanted her is killed.
  • Many fantasy-themed video games, such as Castlevania and Devil Summoner, features Arachne along with other mythological creatures as either common enemies or as mighty "boss" monsters.
  • In Class of the Titans, Arachne is a spider who 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, for her to live at the Olympus High School, weaving for the gods.
  • Arachne is the name used by the second Spider Woman (Julia Carpenter) to distinguish herself from Jessica Drew, the original Spider Woman.
  • Arachne, is one of the main villains in Soul Eater, in which she is a powerful witch imprisoned for 800 years.


  1. Ovid, Metamorphoses vi.5-54 and 129-145.
  2. Translation by Horace Gregory
  3. Historia Naturalis vii. 196.
  4. ""...woven fabrics were invented by the Egyptians, the dyeing of woollens by the Lydians at Sardis..." (Pliny's Natural History, 9.24); needless to say the practice of dyeing textiles was far older than Pliny imagined (John William Humphrey, John Peter Oleson, Andrew Neil Sherwood, Greek and Roman Technology 9.c. "Textiles and leather", [London: Routledge] 1998:346).
  5. Ovid is the source for the myth of Arachne, and the goddess he depicts is Athena
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

References Edit

Primary sourcesEdit

Secondary sourcesEdit

External linksEdit

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