Study Guide

Minerva and Arachne Arachne

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Recap: Arachne is a young woman from Hypaepa. Her father is a wool dyer named Idmon, and her mother is a common woman not given a name in Ovid's version of the story. Arachne has become famous throughout Lydia for her skill at weaving. She's so good that forest nymphs will stop their work to come and watch her weave. Eventually all the fame goes to Arachne's head. She starts telling people that she's better at weaving than Minerva, the goddess of crafts. In fact, Arachne believes herself to be so good that she challenges Minerva to a contest. Minerva gets wind of the challenge and heads to Lydia to try and talk Arachne into taking back her boast. Arachne rages at the old woman who advises her to show more respect to the gods. Arachne is shocked when the old woman turns out to be Minerva in disguise, but still insists on having a contest. After the contest Minerva beats Arachne with a wooden shuttle until the young girl hangs herself. Minerva then resurrects Arachne and transforms her into a spider.

Arachne is one of those characters that readers either love or hate.

On the one hand, she's a total braggart (someone who brags a lot). She goes around shouting about her awesome weaving skills and challenging goddesses to contests as if she were the most amazing thing since sliced bread. She's completely self-absorbed. She never mentions where she learned to weave (in some versions of the story it's suggested that it was actually Minerva who taught Arachne to weave). She refuses to give anyone else even a little credit for her skills. It's like she thinks she was born fully grown and already weaving.

From this angle Arachne embodies the Greek concept of hubris. In ancient Greece the term hubris referred to a series of crimes that demonstrated extreme arrogance and brought shame to both victim and criminal. These crimes included things like

  • Rape
  • Torture
  • Disfiguring a corpse
  • Humiliating a fallen enemy
  • Lack of respect for the gods and their laws

We're betting you can guess which crime Arachne committed. Hubris was generally considered the worst sin that a Greek citizen could commit.

In Greek literature and drama, hubris is always followed by disaster. Obviously, this story is no different. Arachne challenges the gods, and she is swiftly punished for overstepping herself. An ancient Greek (or Roman) audience would have seen Arachne's death as perfectly natural considering the crime she committed.

On the other hand, don't you feel just a little sorry for Arachne? Sure, she's kind of a brat, but does she really deserve to die? Think about it. She's a young woman. She comes from a tiny village. Her father is a wool dyer (in case you're wondering, dyers don't make a whole lot of cash) and her mother is so ordinary that she doesn't even get a name. Basically, Arachne is a nobody's nobody. If it weren't for her weaving, no one would even notice she was alive.

From this perspective Arachne actually embodies an idea near and dear to the heart of all Americans. She's a young girl from a small town, trying to make it big. She's like your average American Idol contestant. She's just trying to get noticed among the vast sea of other people in the world. When she discovers she has a talent for weaving, of course she tries to push her reputation as far as it can go. If you suddenly discovered you could sing you'd be on the next bus to American Idol central. Don't deny it, you totally would. And why not? Becoming famous is part of the American dream. Does Arachne deserve to die for wanting what everyone wants?

Arachne makes art, literature, and film appearances in some surprising places. Her connection to spiders has led to some interesting and monstrous modern interpretations. She shows up as a spider villain in:

  • Hercules, the Legendary Journeys (TV)
  • Supernatural (TV)
  • The Castlevania series (videogame)
  • The Shin Megami Tensei series (videogame)
  • Soul Eater (Japanese Manga)

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