Oh, Arachne . . .


from The Illustrated Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch, Giovanni Caselli (Illustrator)

. . . You should’ve known better. You shouldn’t’ve messed with the gods, Arachne.

Have you ever noticed how many of the myths and legends and fairy tales on which we were nurtured are cluttered with references to makers and making?

When I think back, so many of my favorite stories contain textiles and fibers and women making things of beauty and purpose. We have a princess tasked with spinning gold from straw, a mother-to-be pricking her finger while sewing and imagining her “snow white” baby, a girl making shirts from nettles, to transform her brothers from swans back to men.

Weaving, in particular, pervades old stories. Penelope weaves, and unweaves, her tapestry as she waits for Odysseus’s return. The three norns weave the fate of humans and Philomela, having been raped and her tongue cut out, uses her loom as her voice.

And then there’s foolish Arachne, a mere mortal but exemplary weaver.

Arachne, who lacks humility to a dangerous degree.

Arachne, who boasts of her skill and challenges Athena, the goddess of weaving, to a contest. Arachne, who uses her skill to weave a tapestry that mocks and belittles the gods.

Arachne, who is brought to humility by Athena, and who hangs herself.

Arachne, returned to life by Athena. Returned to life but such a different life, a life that stands as a lesson in humility to other weavers and humans:

Live,” [Athena] said, “guilty woman! And that you may preserve the memory of this lesson, continue to hang, both you and your descendants, to all future times.”

She sprinkled her with the juices of aconite, and immediately her hair came off, and her nose and ears likewise. Her form shrank up, and her head grew smaller yet; her fingers cleaved to her side and served for legs. All the rest of her is body, out of which she spins her thread, often hanging suspended by it, in the same attitude as when Athena touched her . . .

and transformed her into a spider.

Arachne, in my garden

Arachne, in my garden

30 thoughts on “Oh, Arachne . . .

  1. I seem to remember that you are not fond of spiders, Kerry. Maybe I am wrong, I hope so. I am fond of spiders…as long as do not jump or bite poisonous ;0)
    This beautiful darling is one of my favorites, known under many names but best described as the black and golden garden spider. It lives only in the garden, it is quite big (this is a girl of course, the male is a beige lanky thing, best by eaten after the honeymoon) It takes care of many nasty insects. I am fascinated by her web with the distinctive bigger zigzag thread in the middle. It is so strong, I have seen it survive torrential rainstorms!
    I always feel sorry for animals who got their bad images from folk tales: ravens, vultures, spiders, etc. Ravens are beautiful and incredible intelligent, vultures have very clean habits and are ever so sociable…and spiders are artists that any worshipper of yarn should be envious of. Even their babies are often capable of producing a thread that enables them fly and explore the big world: how cool is that??
    Great post, as always, xo Johanna

    • Beautifully expressed Johanna! I am grateful to spiders for the work they do, the beauty of their webs and I always remember that an old wise seer once said if we could see the aura of a spider we would be made speechless by the intricate beauty of it – isn’t that a fascinating thought!

    • I like spiders! It’s something else we have in common, Johanna! And I especially like them now that I’m weaver and feel we are kindred spirits–even though they do more delicate work than I do (and I don’t eat what gets caught in my web!)

  2. Thank goodness for vengeful/angry gods. Without their bad tempers we wouldn’t have half as many lovely flowers and stars and creatures as we do. 😉 As for weaving, yarn etc we also have the Fates: the Moirai or Fates,” three sister deities, incarnations of destiny and life. Their names were Clotho, the one who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, she who draws the lots and determines how long one lives, by measuring the thread of life; and Atropos, the inevitable, she who chose how someone dies by cutting the thread of life with her shears.” http://www.greekmythology.com/Other_Gods/The_Fates/the_fates.html

  3. It’s a wonderful hidden message in the mythologies isn’t it Kerry – the spinning and weaving and creating of useful things. It is an art connected to the beginning of time! I have grown to appreciate spiders very much over the years, though they can still make me squawk like a chicken if they arrive on my person suddenly and without warning 🙂 I’m working on overcoming that one! That’s a beautiful photograph of a beautiful spider!

  4. Interesting that the tales you refer to are from cultures where weaving tapestries and sculpting (Pygmalion was a maker too!) were ways to communicate stories and seen as an art. In Asian cultures the equivalent tales often involve a painting that comes to life.

  5. Gorgeous picture of the garden spider. I love Johanna’s explanation, as well. Weaving is always showing up in myths and fairy tales. It was so integral to life. Still is–we just aren’t doing it ourselves–most of us!

    • The more I explore, the more examples I find of spinning and weaving in myth and legend. You’re right–it’s such a fundamental human activity, so ancient, and there are such evident metaphoric connections to life and living!

  6. Oh my, I had never heard the last part of that story. Thank you and yes, nice ‘Spidey’. They are some of the most fascinating creatures!!

  7. Can’t say I love or like spiders…. They’re so ugly!😳 I do find it fascinating to watch them spin a web. The book Charlottes web was always a great read. Great post!

  8. I find spiders fascinating – and beautiful, all those tiny detailed patterns and colours. Always busy creating beautiful webs only to have them damaged and destroyed and then starting over again. And, yes we need more makers and all things made by hand.

  9. What a beautifully written post. It’s wonderful to be reminded of those tales and legends I used to love so much but have neglected in recent years. I should go and read some of them again. Thank you. Yes, I’m fond of spiders too.

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