Study Guide

Minerva and Arachne Themes

  • Pride (Hubris)

    Shmoop is the best educational website out there. Seriously, we are like THE BEST. Every other educational website wishes they could be us. Employees at other websites knock off work to come hang out on our website. In fact, we're so totally awesome that we challenge any other website out there to an educational death-match. Whoever writes the best study guide wins, and the loser has to commit virtual suicide. We can make that challenge because there's no way we can possibly lose. No one else stands a chance against us. Come to think of it, we'll take on all the websites COMBINED. We rock THAT MUCH. What? You don't like all the bragging? Well, suck it. WE RULE!

    Okay, okay. We were just making a point. We're not really that full of ourselves. But it's pretty annoying when someone acts like that, right? You probably know somebody like that at your school…

    The concept of hubris breaks down into two sections: the Greek definition and the modern definition.

    The Greek definition of hubris describes a legal term used to classify certain crimes among Greek society. Citizens who engage in "excessive humiliation or disrespect for others" are accused of the crime of hubris. This includes the following acts—and then some:

    • Non-consensual sex (rape)
    • Sex with underage partners
    • Humiliation of a fallen opponent
    • Mutilation of an enemy corpse
    • Ignoring or breaking rules set by the gods
    • Believing yourself to be equal to or better than the gods

    These are actions that, according to the Greeks, bring intense shame to the person who commits them. Think of it like cheating on a test. If you're caught cheating (not that you would ever cheat) all of your fellow students look down on you, and you feel super guilty. At least that's how we would feel. You're ashamed of your actions. Worse, your teacher is disappointed and ashamed of you. The acts listed above are way worse than cheating, and they come with way more shame. This is how the Greeks understood hubris.

    In classical Greek drama, hubris is often a central part of the plot and is the reason for the main character's eventual downfall. Some great examples of this include

    • Icarus, who was punished for flying too close to the sun, something only gods should do. 
    • Creon, who loses both his wife and his son after refusing to bury the warrior, Polynices. (You can learn more about this one by checking out Shmoop's coverage of Antigone, by Sophocles.)

    In partial contrast, the modern definition of hubris focuses on arrogance, pride, and self-adoration. Like all that bragging we did at the beginning of this section. The ancient crime that most closely matches modern definitions is that of "believing that you're equal to or greater than the gods." Modern society has latched onto this crime and expended it to just "believing that you're better than others." Anyone who brags about themselves or claims to the "the best" at something is potentially guilty of hubris. Granted, the person bragging has to really believe what they say. It doesn't count as hubris if you're just joking or if you're talking smack. Saying to a friend, "I'm gonna kick your butt at Call of Duty" is not hubris. Saying "I'm the greatest Call of Duty player that has ever lived," and actually believing it, is hubris. Looking down on other players and making fun of them because they're not as good as you is also hubris. Be careful, or the gods will smite you.

    By disrespecting Minerva's role as the goddess of crafts and boasting about her skill at weaving, Arachne actually displays both definitions of hubris.

    Questions About Pride (Hubris)

    1. Do you agree that Arachne is guilty of hubris? Why or why not? Does she deserve her punishment? Why or why not?
    2. Consider the ancient and modern definitions of hubris. How do these definitions differ? How are they similar? What do we learn from the similarities and differences?
    3. Is it possible that Minerva is also guilty of hubris? Why or why not?
    4. What do stories like this one teach us about the role of popularity in ancient culture?
  • Justice, Judgment, and Hypocrisy

    Imagine that you've been singing since you were just a little kid. (If you don't like singing you can substitute drawing, writing, crocheting, painting, dancing, basically anything artistic.) You've been singing since you were a little kid, and over time you've gotten pretty good at it. In fact, people around town have started to talk about your singing. Word spreads, and people start to come from farther and farther away to hear you sing. Everyone agrees that you're really good. They start to say things like, "he's could be the next Justin Bieber," or "she could be the next Miley Cyrus." They whisper so much that you start to believe the rumors. You start thinking, "Yeah, I really am that good. I'm better than Miley Cyrus." Eventually Miley hears the rumors. She shows up at your house, busts in, and is like, "What the hecky? How dare you say you're a better singer than I am?" The two of you get into a singing contest. You win the contest, but Miley gets angry and beats you up. Does this seem fair?

    One of the chief difficulties with reading Minerva and Arachne is deciding whether or not Arachne has actually committed a crime. There's no denying that Arachne acts like a brat, but does she actually commit a crime? How much of a brat is she? Does she really deserve to die for what she's done? Maybe Arachne is only doing what any American would reasonably do. She's trying to promote her talent. You can bet that when Miley Cyrus was a little girl she (or her parents) worked really hard to promote her talent. So why is Arachne being punished? Is it wrong to be proud of your skills?

    To complicate things even further, we're faced with evidence that Minerva isn't really any better than Arachne. Minerva definitely boasts about her many talents to anyone who will listen. She also gets super jealous when someone threatens her superiority, and she acts out in anger on a regular basis. Beating Arachne with a wooden shuttle until the girl commits suicide doesn't look good on a resume. Given all the evidence, we might reasonably call Minerva a hypocrite. A hypocrite is someone who accuses another of doing wrong, and then does the same thing they accused the other person of doing. If you call someone a cheater and then go cheat on your next test, you're being a hypocrite. Minerva clobbers Arachne for disrespecting her, but Minerva herself disrespects the other gods all the time. Minerva and Neptune have been fighting practically since they were born.

    Questions About Justice, Judgment, and Hypocrisy

    1. What kind of character is Arachne?
    2. What kind of character is Minerva?
    3. Whose side of the argument do you agree with: Arachne's or Minerva's? Why?
    4. What does Minerva's character teach us about the nature and role of the gods in ancient cultures?
  • Religion

    This theme is a little more abstract, but still something we're forced to consider when we read this story. This is the man (or woman) versus god (or goddess) theme. In part, this theme falls under the ancient definition of hubris, but we're separating it out to give it special emphasis. Arachne challenges Minerva to a throw-down. She straight up says, "I'm a better weaver than you are, and I can prove it." She says this to a goddess. What might have happened if she had won the contest and gotten away with it? It would have proven than humanity can exceed divinity. The implications here are staggering. No matter what religion (if any) you follow, one thing remains constant: God > human. If this idea turned out to be false it would completely destabilize religion as we know it. Why worship someone who is inferior (less capable) to you?

    The delicate balance between what divinity has achieved and what mankind might someday achieve is a heavily contested topic in modern society. The basic idea behind things like cloning, artificial intelligence, and the creation of matter (or energy) seem to directly contradict what we know about the divine. As far as we know, only a god can create life. If human beings learn to create life, do we become gods? If Arachne really is a better weaver, does she become the new goddess of crafts?

    Questions About Religion

    1. What defines a god or goddess? How do you know who is and who isn't a god?
    2. Are humans inferior to gods? How do you know? What if it were the other way around?
    3. What does Arachne's fate suggest about the possibility of humans challenging the gods? What does it teach us about the difference between humans and gods in ancient cultures?
    4. How has the idea of challenging the gods changed in the face of modern religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and other beliefs?