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Arachne in Gustave Doré's illustration for Dante's Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy series.

In Greco-Roman mythology, the mortal Arachne /əˈrækn/ was a weaver.


Arachne was a great weaver who boasted that her skill was greater than that of Athena, goddess of wisdom, weaving, and strategy. When Arachne refuses to acknowledge that her skill comes, in part at least, from the goddess, Athena takes offense and sets up a contest between the two. Presenting herself as an old lady, she approaches the boasting girl and warns: "You can never compare to any of the gods. Plead for forgiveness and Athena might spare your soul". "Ha, I only speak the truth and if Athena thinks otherwise then let her come down and challenge me herself," Arachne replies. Athena removes her disguise and appears in shimmering glory, clad in sparkling white chiton. The two begin weaving straight away. Both are very skilled with a loom, but clearly Athena is better and swifter. Athena's weaving represents four separate contests between mortals and the gods in which the gods punish mortals for setting themselves as equals of the gods. Arachne's weaving depicts ways that the gods have misled and abused mortals, particularly Zeus' tricking and sexually abusing of many women. Athena sees that Arachne has insulted the gods and rips Arachne's work into shreds. Arachne hangs herself. Moved to mercy, Athena bids Arachne life, but sprinkles her with Hecate's potion, turning her into a spider and cursing her and her descendents to weave for all time.


The taxonomical class name Arachnida and the name for spiders in many romance languages are both derived from arachne.

The metamorphosis of Arachne in Ovid's telling furnished material for an episode in Edmund Spenser's mock-heroic Muiopotmos, 257-352.[1] Spenser's adaptation, which "rereads an Ovidian story in terms of the Elizabethan world"[2] is designed to provide a rationale for the hatred of Arachne's descendent Aragnoll for the butterfly-hero Clarion.

The Spinners, or, The Fable of Arachne (1644–48) by Velázquez

The tale of Arachne inspired one of Velázquez' most factual 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).

It has also been suggested that Jeremias Gotthelf’s nineteenth century novella, The Black Spider, was heavily influenced by the Arachne story from Ovid's Metamorphoses.[3] In the novella, a woman is turned into a venomous spider having reneged on a deal with the devil.

In popular culture[edit]

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  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ David Gallagher, "The Transmission of Ovid’s Arachne Metamorphosis in Jeremias Gotthelf’s Die Schwarze Spinne", Neophilologus (2008) 92: 699-711
  4. ^


Primary sources[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

External links[edit]

 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Arachne". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press