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:
- 19th century French artist, Gustav Dore etched an illustration of Arachne that has since been incorporated into album artwork by Grammy award winning rock band, The Mars Volta.
- When Julia Carpenter takes over for Jessica Drew as Marvel's Spider Woman, she renames herself Arachne to better distinguish herself.
- A brown spider is bewitched into believing that she is Arachne in Peter Beagle's classic fantasy story, The Last Unicorn.
- Arachne appears as a central character in Tara Moss's 2011 mystery novel, Spider Goddess.