Updated: Mar 22, 2021
The Weaver Who Challenged the Gods
“She wove you, Neptune, also, changed to a fierce bull for Canace, Aeolus’s daughter”, and “She added Jupiter who, hidden in the form of a satyr, filled Antiope, daughter of Nycteus with twin offspring”. (1)
Arachne, Illustration of Robinet Testard, 1488-1496, (6)
In Ancient Greece, denouncing men’s abuses over women could be risky. Especially if said men were gods. One could end up turned into a monster, or, as Arachne, into a spider.
Arachne, whose story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2), is a young woman of Lydia. She is so talented at weaving that she became famous and attracts a large public that comes to admire her work and her skills. Yet, she is proud, if not a bit full of herself. She pretends that she would even beat Athena, the goddess of war and practical reason, but also of handicraft. Zeus’s daughter hears of the challenge and meets Arachne dressed up as an old woman. She proposes to her to renounce the challenge and admits that while she may become the best among humans, she will never be able to compete against gods. But Arachne respects neither the elderly maturity, nor the god’s power. She sticks to her statement and after Athena reveals herself under her disguise, the competition begins.
Athena’s tapestry illustrates the greatness of the gods and the punishments of the mortals who dared braving them. Meanwhile, Arachne depicts the dozens of ways through which the gods have misled young women in order to fulfill their desires. She shows how Zeus took the shape of a bull to kidnap Europa and rape her, and how he chased Asteria diguised as an eagle. She portrays him pretending to be Amphitryon, king of Tirynthe, to seduce his wife Alcmène. Arachne’s tapestry hence represents the worst of the gods. They are untrustworthy, drawn by their concupiscence, and they trick virtuous women for their own pleasure, without their consent.
The Spinners, also known as The Fable of Arachne, Diego Velasquez, 1657 (7)
Not only is her tapestry offensive, it is also unquestionably more beautiful than Athena’s. The goddess, deeply offended, destroys the girl’s work. Arachne fleeds to her room and, in despair, hangs herself. When Athena found her, she took her in pity. She then decides to give her life back, but punishes her by turning her into a spider. This way, Arachne and her descent will forever weave.
Is Arachne punished for her pride, her “hybris”? At the beginning of the text, Ovid underlines her modest origin. “It was not lofty rank or family origins which had made Arachne so well known. It was her skill.” She is a simple and poor mortal, but her exceptional talent makes her a threat and calls into question the superiority of Athena. When defying the gods, she in fact challenges any figures of powers and the very order of society. The hierarchy between mortals (the people) and gods (rulers?) is overthrown, and the means of men’s sexual domination over women is mocked.
Arachne, also known as Dialects, Paolo Veronese, 1520 (8)
The myth of Arachne is one of the many stories that came to us and inform us about the origins of the textile practices. They are keys in our understanding of the different techniques, but also in teaching us about the woman in Antiquity, or its ideal representation. They also introduce us to a series of subversive figures – such as Penelope, Philomela, and of course Arachne – who used their weaving or spinning skills as a ruse – or a craft – to fight injustices. In “From Arachne to craftivism: Weaving Women's Stories” (3), Dr Emma Bridges even asks herself if “Some of these ancient women weavers – mythical and actual – could be seen as the foremothers of today’s makers and ‘craftivists’, who use textiles as a means of making their voices heard through storytelling and protest.”
Penelope and The Suitors, John Willam Waterhouse, 1912 (9)
"Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!" writes Ovid. In today’s Athens is SEN Heritage Loom, the oldest hand weaving community of Greece. (4) It was founded in 1872 as a women’s society, and aimed at training young girls. I personally wonder if these weavers see themselves as the spiritual heirs of Arachne and of her subversive stance.
Footnotes and links : 1.“Arachne”, Metamorphoses, Book VI, Ovid 2. Ibid. 3.“From Arachne to craftivism: Weaving Women's Stories”, Emma Bridges, University of London 4. “Arachne”, Metamorphoses, Book VI, Ovid 5. Sen Heritage Loom, Athens 6. Arachne, Illustration of Robinet Testard, from a manuscript of De mulieribus claris, Bocce (1488-1496), Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris 7. Las Hilanderas (The Spinners), also known as The Fable of Arachne, Diego Velasquez,
(around 1657), Museo del Prado, Madrid
8. Arachne, also known as Dialects, Paolo Veronese, 1520, Palazzo Ducale, Venise, wikicommons
9. Penelope and The Suitors, John Willam Waterhouse, 1912, Oil on canvas, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, wikicommons
Additional link : “Spinning and Weaving in Antiquity”, Women in Antiquity
Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.