Study Guide

Minerva and Arachne The Tapestries

The Tapestries

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:

  • The birth of the Muses
  • The birth of Heracles
  • Leda and the swan
  • The story of Medusa
  • The story of Amphissa (Isse)
  • The birth of Arion
  • And many, many others

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