Greek Mythology: Arachne and Athena-A Punishment for Hubris
Hubris is a recurring theme in Greek Mythology. Hubris, or arrogance, is one of the sins not taken lightly in Greek Mythology. The Greek gods were based upon humanity. Where we now think of divine as having no imperfections, the Greeks believed that their divinities had all the same imperfections as humanity- they loved, became angry, and made mistakes. They also were extremely jealous beings. The gods and goddesses were jealous of one another, often leading to such conflicts as the Trojan War. Humans did not escape the gods’ envy, especially those who claimed to be equal to or better than the gods’ themselves. This was what was defined as hubris. Not just excessive arrogance. The gods did not care about arrogance so long as one did not compare one's self to the gods. That was an unforgivable sin. For example, Salmoneus demanded that his subjects worship him the same way they worshipped Zeus, so Zeus struck him down and Hades subjected him to eternal torment in Tartarus. Narcissus, punished by being forced to forever stare at his face in the waters of a still pool was another man who was punished for his arrogance. In his case, he was vain and extremely prideful of his beauty. The story of Arachne and Athena is one of the foremost examples of the gods’ punishing hubris and showcases the pettiness and jealousy of the Greek gods.
“I am not afraid of the goddess,” she proclaimed to those gathered near, “Let her try her skill, if she so dare venture.”— Thomas Bulfinch-Arachne speaking of Athena
Athena was the goddess of defensive war, of strategy and of wisdom. She was also the goddess of the womanly arts, that being of carding, spinning, weaving, and needlework. The goddess was the daughter of Zeus, having sprung fully grown from his head after he had swallowed her pregnant mother, Metis. As with the other Greek gods, she had little love of competition, especially competition from those of the mortal race. It was with no pleasure then, that she overheard the comments from Arachne boasting of her weaving ability.
Arachne was the daughter of Idmon of Colophon, who was either a great dyer of wool or a shepherd. She lived in Lydia, and began weaving at a very young age. By the time she was grown, her weaving was so beautiful as to be the envy of the nearby nymphs. They would gather around her workshop to see her at work. It was not just the finished product that was beautiful, but the simple mastery of Arachne at her work. From the carding of the wool to weaving the shuttle along the loom, watching Arachne at work inspired wonder. Unfortunately, Arachne knew that her weaving was extremely well done, and this made her prideful. One fateful day, a nymph seeking to compliment Arachne on her weaving, suggested that the goddess Athena herself had taught Arachne to spin and weave. Outraged at the suggestion, Arachne immediately scorned the suggestion, boasting “Let Athena try her skill with mine; if beaten I will pay the penalty.”
Misfortune was with Arachne that day, for the goddess was near enough to overhear. Unhappy, but not yet angry, the goddess changed her appearance to that of an old crone, wrinkled and hunchbacked. She approached Arachne and offered some advice. “ …I hope you shall not despise my counsel. Challenge your fellow-mortals as you will, but do not compete with the goddess. On the contrary, I advise you to ask her forgiveness for what you have said, and as she is merciful perhaps she may forgive you.” Arachne belittled the crone’s advice and told her to keep her counsel. “I am not afraid of the goddess,” she proclaimed to those gathered near, “Let her try her skill, if she so dare venture.”
Such a direct challenge could not go unanswered by Athena. How dare this mortal speak so of a goddess’s talents, what gall had she to challenge an Olympian? The old woman disguise was dropped and Athena in all her glory stood before the crowd. All but Arachne immediately bowed low or knelt on one knee. “She came.” Was all that Athena said to the weaver. No further conversation was needed. The challenge was issued and accepted. The looms were quickly set up for the contest.
Both masters of their craft, the goddess and the women worked with a furious speed, passing the shuttle through the threads with a hurried haste. Athena’s weaving took shape first. She wove images of the herself and Poseidon in the contest for Athens. The work was incredibly detailed. It seemed almost as though Poseidon had just struck the earth and the salt water was gushing from its depths. Athena’s olive tree seemed to be growing along the outside of the weave. In the center Athena wove terrible images of the mortals who had dared to challenge the gods- Icarus falling to the earth, Salmoneus’ eternal torment in Hades, and others still. The watchers shrank back from her tapestry.
The tapestry of Arachne was no less pointed in its subject. She wove the terrible mistakes and failings of the gods. Her tapestry was filled with the exploits of Zeus. Leda caressed the swan in which Zeus had concealed himself, and the feathers seemed to move in an imaginary breeze. Europa was clinging to the bull as Zeus propelled them to Crete. The waves tossed her to and fro, while the bull remained unconcerned. Other stories were woven into the thread storybook, from Midas clutching his golden daughter to Phaethon’s fatal flight in his Father’s, Apollo’s chariot. Athena saw what Arachne was weaving and ceased her own work in rage. The sheer impiety and arrogance of the woman struck deep at Athena, who took her shuttle and rent apart Arachne’s tapestry. She then thrust her hand to Arachne’s head and filled her with guilt and shame. Mortified, Arachne fled her workshop and the contest.
Later that day, Athena would come across Arachne’s body, hanging by a rope from a tree. Athena stopped, looking closely at the woman. Something akin to pity stirred in her heart. Her tapestry had been well woven. Almost impulsively, Athena struck the woman’s head once more. “Live!” she cried, “Guilty woman! And that you shall preserve the memory of this lesson, continue to hang, both you had your descendants, to all future times.” With that, Arachne’s from shrunk and changed to that of a spider. Was it redemption, or retribution, that changing of the woman to a spider? Pulled from the rest that befalls the dead to forever hang and weave? To weave and weave each day, and to know that it was not only yourself cursed but all your descendants for all time? Truly it depends on the perspective. Is it better to seek the peace of death, or forever be forced to continue in your skill with no relief?
The story of Arachne and Athena is one myth among many regarding the arrogance and the punishing of arrogance in Greek mythology. One important aspect of mythology is to show and reinforce cultural and societal norms. Humility and obedience, especially for women. Women had few rights in Ancient Greek society. As Elizabeth Wayland Barber notes in “Women’s Work: The First 50,000 Years, “No married woman ran the Classical Greek household or made its principal decisions.” Unmarried girls in Ancient Greece did not have any more rights than married women. Greek law and social convention regarding women were strict. In general, they were unable to hold property, vote, hold a public office or even attend a public assembly. Their marriages were organized by their father or a close male guardian, and all women were expected to marry. This and other myths, such as the myth of Medusa, Medea and of Niobe helps to show the general attitude toward women who were arrogant, independent or held power over men. They were often disparaged, and women discouraged from following in their footsteps. That being said, the core lesson in this myth is an important one. No matter how skillful you are, be wary of challenging others. A little bit of humility can go a long way.
It is important to note that in some versions of the myth, either Arachne or Athena is declared the winner of the contest. This version is based on the version found in Bulfinch’s Mythology, where no winner was actually declared, as Athena destroys Arachne’s tapestry before it is completed. There are also versions where Arachne’s own mortification changed her into a spider, with Athena having little to do with the transformation.
All quotes from the myth are from Bulfinch's Mythology, 2014 Canterbury Classics Leatherbound Edition, pages 88-91. It is also the main source of the myth for this article.
The quote from Elizabeth Barber is from her book "Women's Work: The first 50,000 Years" Page 121. This book is a fascinating examination of weaving, spinning, and the making of clothes throughout history.
© 2019 Jackie Standaert