The vast majority of ancient Greek myths exist in at least two of three written versions. That's written versions that we've discovered. There are likely at least a few stories out there that we've yet to discover, and references in books that we do have tell us that there are hundreds of books that seem to have completely disappeared over time. That's why is so amazing to find that the story of Minerva and Arachne. It doesn't seem to have been written down (at least not the whole thing) before Ovid included it in his book, Metamorphoses. Ovid's is the first complete version of the story. At least as far as we know. Isn't that exciting? What do you mean you don't know who Ovid is? Oh. Well, let's fix that.
Pause for biographical info about Ovid:
Plubius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) was born on March 20th, 43 BC, about 90 miles outside of Rome. He had the good fortune to be born into money (his father was rich) and so received an excellent education. To his father's irritation, Ovid used his education to write poetry. Among his books of poetry are:
Ovid was exiled from Rome in the year 8 AD. We don't know for sure why he was exiled. It may or may not have had something to do with his poetry. Regardless, Ovid is considered one of the best poets of the Roman era.
That's Ovid. His book, Metamorphoses, is generally considered one of the most comprehensive collections of ancient Greek mythology ever written. You might say it's the first dictionary of Greek myth. You can learn much more about the work by checking out our coverage of the book itself.
In writing the Metamorphoses, Ovid drew tons of material from the myths and legends laid down by poets before him. What made his work so unique, other than his own poetic style, is that he stuffed ALL of the myths he could find into one place. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Metamorphoses have had a huge influence on literature for the last 2,000 years. Major authors throughout history, including people like Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, credit the Metamorphoses as a source of inspiration. Ovid is like a literary version of Elvis: everybody has heard of him... like it or not.
Minerva and Arachne is the beginning of Book VI of the Metamorphoses. As we said above, it seems to be one of a very few stories that never fully appeared anywhere else. Several earlier poets make vague references to the story, but Ovid seems to have been the first one to write the whole thing down. This theory lends a huge amount of weight to Ovid's skill as an author. If true, it shows that Ovid didn't just copy stories. He also wrote them on his own when he had to. A jack of all trades and a master of some!
Minerva and Arachne is one of those rare stories where the setting makes almost no difference to the story whatsoever. We know that the story takes place in the small village of Hypaepa, which was a part of the larger kingdom of Lydia. Lydia, in turn, was part of Anatolia. Anatolia is now called Turkey. So, the story takes place somewhere in Turkey. Big whoop. It could have taken place on the moon and it would have been the exact same story. Actually, it might have been better if it had taken place on the moon.
In fairness, it's possible that the story was set in Lydia to acknowledge some factual, Lydian skill at weaving. We're not sure if the Lydians were considered expert weavers, but given Ovid's tendency to set his stories in realistic locations, it's at least possible. This hypothesis is the closest we can get to a legit claim about the importance of the setting. Basically, feel free to ignore the setting unless you or one of your teachers comes up with more information.
The problem with analyzing much of Greek mythology using the 12 steps of the Hero's Journey is that many of the myths are sans hero. Sans is French for "without." Why didn't we just say, "without?" Because we like it when you learn things. Anyway, the point is that without a hero you can't really have a "hero's journey," can you?
Take Minerva and Arachne, for instance. If we begin with the idea that Arachne is the hero we're forced to realize that she doesn't
Arachne does face death and rebirth, which is a mark of the hero's story, but she does so in a totally unheroic way. She commits suicide and is then resurrected before becoming a spider. Add to this the fact her characters comes across as self-absorbed, angry, and annoying, and we're forced to conclude that Arachne can't be the hero of the story.
What about Minerva, then? Maybe she's the hero? Well, Minerva does:
From here it looks like Minerva actually could be the hero. Maybe we should back up and follow all 12 steps. But wait; let's look back at Minerva's motives. Jealousy, anger, frustration, fear, pride; are these motives of a hero? Minerva beats Arachne to death with a wooden shuttle because she can't face the idea that Arachne might be a better weaver. This clearly isn't the sort of thing a hero does. Sadly, we have to recognize that Minerva can't be the hero either.
So while many of the twelve steps are present in the story, we don't have a hero to follow them. What we have is a collection of events that halfway fit, if we wiggle them back and forth enough. Rather than trying to force everything into place it's more helpful to realize that not every myth is a hero myth. Then we can step back and ask "what parts of the hero's journey fit into other types of myths, and why?" Now that is a great question.
The Kalevala is a 19th century collection of epic poetry based on the legends and folklore of Finland. The work was compiled by Finnish author, Elias Lonnrot. It was first published in 1835, and is considered to be Finland's National Epic. The third rune (chapter) of The Kalevala relates the story of a singing contest between two wizards, Wainamoinen and Youkahainen.
According to the legend, Wainamoinen was both the most powerful wizard and the greatest singer ever born. (In Finnish mythology magic is accomplished by singing.) Having grown old and wise (like all wizards), Wainamoinen lives contentedly on the plains of Wainolia, in Kalevala. He practices his crafts amidst the peace of the grasslands, and his fame as wizard and singer is wide spread.
One day, word of Wainamoinen's talent reaches the ears of the young bard (singer and storyteller) Youkahainen. Youkahainen is instantly outraged that an old man living on the plains would claim to be the world's best singer. Youkahainen informs his parents that he intends to travel to Wainolia and confront Wainamoinen. Youkahainen's parents try to talk their son out of his foolish plan, explaining that they believe it will lead to disaster, but the rash youth ignores them.
Youkahainen saddles his horse and hitches it to a golden sleigh. (Apparently Finnish people travel by sleigh.) He then gathers his possessions and sets out across the (snowy) fields towards Wainolia. Youkahainen is in such hurry to confront Wainamoinen that he whips his horse to its fastest speed. He flies over the snow, and after traveling the distance to Wainolia actually collides head on with Wainamoinen, in a sleigh going the other direction. The crash destroys Wainamoinen's sleigh.
Irritated by the loss of his vehicle, Wainamoinen demands to know who the younger man is and where he's going in such a hurry. Youkahainen responds with scorn, giving his name reluctantly and then demanding to know the older man's name and why he dares to be in Youkahainen's way. When Wainamoinen reveals his identity Youkahainen immediately challenges him to a singing contest.
Wainamoinen denies any skill at singing, claiming to be a simple man, but accepts the young bard's challenge. Wainamoinen urges Youkahainen to go first, daring the bard to impress him with his knowledge and voice. Youkahainen sings about a wide variety of things, demonstrating all the knowledge he has gained during his life. Wainamoinen listens, but after each verse he demands more, claiming to be unimpressed. Finally, Youkahainen runs out of subjects to sing about. Having failed to impress the old man with his knowledge, he offers a duel of swords instead. Wainamoinen refuses the duel, saying that he would never waste a sword fight with someone like Youkahainen. Youkahainen responds by calling the older man a coward.
Just FYI, it's not a good idea to accuse a powerful wizard of cowardice. Wainamoinen takes offense at the bard's words. He begins to sing, and the power of his voice shakes the very landscape. With his magic he strips Youkahainen of all his possessions, turning his horse, sleigh, clothes, and everything else into miscellaneous other items. The young man's sword, for instance, he transforms into a lightning bolt and places in the sky above them.
Finally, Wainamoinen's magic changes the ground beneath Youkahainen into quicksand, and the young bard begins to sink. At this point Youkahainen realizes his mistake. He begs the old wizard for mercy, and offers a reward if Wainamoinen will save him. Wainamoinen asks what Youkahainen will give. The young bard rattles off a list of rewards, including a pair of magic horses, but to each answer Wainamoinen shakes his head and lets the bard sink further into the ground. In the end, Youkahainen promises to see Wainamoinen married to his sister, Aino. Wainamoinen accepts, and using his magic he rescues the bard and returns all of his belongings.
This particular myth doesn't include a goddess, although wizards are very similar to gods. Especially old, powerful wizards. What it does include is a contest between older and younger craftsmen. Most importantly, the story maintains the basic themes of pride and hubris. Youkahainen completely disrespects Wainamoinen as a result of overconfidence. (Notice that Wainamoinen is humble about his talent, in spite of the fact that he's clearly better than Youkahainen.) As with Minerva and Arachne the contest ends with the older, superior wizard coming out on top. Moral of the story: don't challenge your betters, especially not wizards and deities.
Ever seen that '90s film where deadly spiders take over a little town? It's got that creepy scene where the girl steps into the shower while the killer spider is crawling around on the curtain rod? Yeah, Arachnophobia, that's the one. Guess where they got the name? Arachne is Greek for spider. And they're coming to get you…
Within the context of the myth, Arachne symbolizes the Greek concept of hubris. She disrespects the gods and gets owned for it. Pretty straightforward. She even does a fair job of representing more modern conceptions of hubris, which generally focus on the word's connection to pride. To the ancient Greeks, hubris represented a whole collection of evils that included lack of humility and respect for the gods. In spite of the fact that the gods themselves were often giant dicks, they still expected average mortals to bow down to them. Today, however, we tend to think of hubris only as an excess of pride. When someone gets too full of themselves we accuse them of hubris. Simon Cowell, for instance, has hubris written all over his big-shot-recording-label face.
Arachne manages to combine disrespect for the gods and an overdose of pride into a character that effectively embodies both the ancient and the modern ideas of hubris. On the one hand, she basically spits in Minerva's face. Goddesses aren't used to being spit on, and they don't like it. True, Minerva is in disguise at the time, but Arachne straight up insults her, and insulting an old woman is almost as bad as insulting a goddess. (Insulting a goddess disguised as an old woman is twice as bad; just do the math.) Her actions here represent the Greek picture of hubris. Minerva doesn't mind Arachne's pride at all. It's only the fact that Arachne has disrespected her that sends Minerva into a tizzy.
On the other hand, the source of Arachne's disrespect is her confidence in her weaving. Her confidence (or overconfidence) makes her proud, and her pride makes her arrogant. She actually believes that she can beat Minerva in a contest. In this way she comes to resemble modern athletes or celebrities who truly believe that they're the best at their profession. This is the modern picture of hubris. We don't really care how celebrities feel about whichever deity they may or may not worship, but we hate it when they act all high and mighty for no reason.
By understanding both of these representations we begin to see how meaning has shifted in the 2,000 years since the story was first recorded. This is the kind of work that scholars do, struggling to understand how a story was interpreted both at the time it was written and in a modern context. Welcome to our world. So glad you could join us.
Outside of the myth, Arachne is forever linked to all things spider-y. Her myth effectively describes the origins of spiders, thus making her the mother of all spider-kind. No, we're serious. Spiders are scientifically called Arachnids. The name comes from the Greek word Arachne, and is an exception among scientific names, which usually come from Latin words.
Arachne's transformation and her role as the original spider have come to be viewed as both tragic and monstrous. Authors and artists have gone back and forth over the years between depicting her as a sad, mistreated heroine, and as a twisted, venomous monster. Here are just a few examples of the spider queen in modern culture:
If Arachne embodies the Greek concept of hubris, then Minerva embodies the Greek idea of punishment. She's the one who steps in and puts Arachne back in her place. Given that Minerva is the goddess of crafts (which includes weaving) it seems only fair that she be the one to deliver Arachne's punishment. Under most circumstances this would be the end of the discussion. Arachne = hubris, Minerva = punishment. Simple. Fortunately for us, Minerva's character complicates this reading. (Yes, this really is fortunate. We like complicated. Complicated is interesting. Simple is boring.)
Minerva's role as punisher is complicated by her questionable motives. Yes, Arachne definitely commits the sin of hubris, but is Minerva really any better? Minerva acts out of jealousy and anger, and not the righteous kind of anger, either. Petty, spiteful anger. When she examines Arachne's weaving and can't find a flaw she becomes outraged. Not only does Arachne claim to be the better weaver, but it might actually be true. Minerva can't accept this, and so she bludgeons Arachne into submission.
Because of the raw anger and human-like jealousy that Minerva displays we're forced to accept her also as a representation of the flawed morality of the Greek gods. Minerva proves that the Greek gods and goddesses are subject to human emotion; they can have emotional outbursts, and they can make mistakes.
In a more modern context, Minerva has effectively taken over as the patron deity of high learning and military strategy. Statues and other representations of Minerva are found at schools, libraries, and military institutions across the world. Here's a short list of the organizations that pay homage to Minerva:
Both Minerva and Arachne weave tapestries full of references to other Greek myths. These references are what English teachers call "allusions," because they "allude" (point) to information not contained directly in the story. Basically they're a form of advertising. They're an author's way of saying, "Hey. You should read this story too." Or, the author is just showing off how much he or she has read. Or both.
Regardless, tracking down the stories mentioned in allusions is a good way to expand your understanding of literature and its many, many connections. Authors "borrow" images and ideas from each other on a daily basis. The result is a complicated web that can be difficult to make sense of if you're not used to digging for more information. Fortunately, you have us to give you some examples. Aren't we awesome?
Let's start with Minerva. Minerva's tapestry begins with a central image, to which she adds different images in each corner. The end result is a total of five images that reference five different Greek myths. Here's a list of the stories being referenced.
The central image of Minerva's work depicts her in contest with Neptune (Poseidon) outside the city of Athens. This image refers to a myth about the naming of the city. Both Minerva and Neptune wanted to be patron deity to Athens. It was decided that each would give a gift to the city, and whoever gave the better gift would become patron. Neptune struck the ground with his trident and created a spring, offering the city water. Minerva struck the ground with her spear and the world's first olive tree came into existence, offering the city food. The citizens liked Minerva's gift better, and so Athens was named after Minerva (Athena).
One corner of Minerva's tapestry shows two mountains representing the fate of King Haemus, of Thrace. Haemus and his wife, Rhodope, were vain, conceited (full of themselves) monarchs. They made the mistake of comparing themselves to Zeus and Hera. The gods punished them by transforming them into mountains.
Another corner shows a stork in battle with pygmies. This image alludes to the pygmy queen, Gerana. Gerana boasted that she was more beautiful than Hera. Hera responded by transforming the queen into a stork, and then demanded that the queen's people, the pygmies, wage war on all storks for the rest of eternity.
A third corner of the tapestry shows a crane in flight. This image represents the story of Antigone of Troy, daughter of King Laomedon. Antigone claimed that her hair was more beautiful than Hera's. If you couldn't guess, this made Hera angry. Hera turned the girl into a crane, according to Ovid.
Finally, the last corner of Minerva's tapestry shows King Cinyras weeping on stone steps. This last image is a tricky one, as there are many myths about Cinyras and his daughters, and several of them contradict each other. In fact, Ovid's Metamorphoses contains a story in Book X about Cinyras and his daughter Myrrha. Many of the myths result in Cinyras losing his daughters, either to death or to transformation. While we can't pinpoint exactly which myth Ovid is referencing here, the result remains the same. Cinyras did something to upset the gods, and for punishment his daughters were taken from him.
Minerva weaves a border of olive branches around the edge of the tapestry. The olive is a personal symbol of Minerva, again referencing her creation of the olive tree at Athens.
You can see the theme. Minerva has painstakingly woven a tapestry of warnings. The images depict stories in which mortals challenge the gods and get destroyed for it. Ovid has carefully included information about a theme that covers not just this story, but many other myths as well. By learning to recognize these allusions we build a greater working knowledge of Greek mythology as a whole. Specifically, we realize that challenging the gods (and losing) is an idea that comes up a lot in Greek mythology. As a general rule, the more stories there are about one idea, the more important the idea was to the storytellers.
Arachne takes the whole "allusions" thing even further than Minerva. She weaves a tapestry packed full of images showing the gods deceiving or mistreating women. All told, Arachne weaves in twenty-one distinct references to other myths. Rather than giving away all of Arachne's secrets, as we did for Minerva, we'll settle for listing just a handful of the stories referenced. See if you can figure out which references go with which stories. Then, if you're up to it, see if you can figure out the titles of the other stories being referenced. Don't be afraid to use the internet to help you look for information. If you can find the title of a reference, you can then find the reference and read it for yourself. This is how English scholars do it.
Images in Arachne's tapestry depict: