The myth of Arachne was first mentioned by Virgil in 29 B.C. and related in full by Ovid in 8 A.D. However, her story has persisted as a theme for art, literature, and drama throughout history and well into the twentieth century.
Arachne was a poor young Lydian woman known for her skillfull weaving. Even the nymphs from the surrounding region came to see her magnificent work. Of course her skill was a gift from the goddess Minerva, but Arachne would not acknowledge any divine assistance. Minerva appeared to Arachne disguised as an old woman to warn her to ask the goddess's forgiveness for being boastful. Instead of heeding the advice, the young woman challenged Minerva (not realizing that the goddess was present) to a competition. Minerva accepted the challenge, and the contest ensued. Minerva weaved a tapestry depicting all twelve Olympians as well as the competition she had with Neptune by which she had won the title as patron of Athens. She finished it off with an image of Victory and her own tree, the olive tree. Arachne depicted the gods as well, but she weaved scenes showing the infamous rapes of mortal women by Jupiter, Neptune, and Apollo. When both women had finished, neither the nymphs who were judging nor Minerva were able to find fault with Arachne's work. Outraged, Minerva tore the piece to shreds and struck the girl on the head with a wooden stick. Arachne could not stand her fate, and she tried to hang herself from the rafters. At this point, Minerva took pity on her and transformed Arachne into a spider so that she may both hang from the ceiling and weave forever.
Arachne, Then and Now
Despite being a small myth (only 146 lines in Metamorphoses), Arachne's story has served as a literary and artistic theme all the way into the twentieth century. It was ignored throughout the Middle Ages, but Renaissance artists revived the myth, and it has held a place in western culture ever since.
029 B.C. The Georgics (IV lines 246-7) by Virgil.
A brief reference to a spider despised by Pallas Athena.
A.D. Metamorphoses (VI lines 1-146) by Ovid.
The first full version known of the myth itself.
A.D. The frieze of the Forum Transitorium in Rome (section 4).
A stone sculpture of the myth depicted on the wall of the Forum Transitorium..
A.D. Arachne by Friederich Sustris.
Pen and brown ink drawing of the myth drawn for Munich Grottennalle and displayed in Albertina, Venice.
A.D. Euphues (i 236) by John Lyly.
One of the characters makes reference to the same list of divine rapists that Arachne depicted in her tapestry.
A.D. The Winter’s Tale (IV.iv.25-31) by William Shakespeare.
Another list of the rapes of the gods depicted by Arachne’s tapestry.
A.D. Las Hilanderas or Fabula de Aragne by Diego de Velasquez
Possibly the most famous of the Arachne depictions, this one vividly and colorfully displays the scene in which Minerva and Arachne
are working away at their looms. It hangs in El Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. See Las Hilanderas
A.D. Minerva and Arachne by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini.
Another painted version of the myth in action, displayed at Narford Hall in Norfolk.
A.D. Arachne by Eden Phillpots.
The Arachne myth adapted into a full length novel that even includes a happy ending.
A.D. Arachne’s Busy Shopping Day by Steven Sametz.
An orchestral portrayal of the myth composed by the Lehigh University Choral Director and music professor, Steven Sametz.
A.D. Beauty and the Beast by Walt Disney Pictures.
While being an adaptation of an old fairy tale, the animated version contains the same element of punishment of hubris by an immortal
in disguise that is key in Arachne’s myth. An old woman appears to the prince and warns him not to have so much pride, just as Minerva
appeared to Arachne. When the prince did not heed the advice, the old woman (who was really a sorceress) transformed him into a
hideous beast. Arachne had a similar experience, only she was changed into a spider.
Sculpture Theater Music
So you don't believe me, huh? Well, here's a list of the sources I consulted for this project. Special thanks to Karen O'Connell of the Smithsonian Institute and Dr. Steven Sametz of Leigh University for their very helpful correspondence.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel
Mythology in Greek Literature