This beautiful, fascinating and layered story is about many things. At its heart it is about the pride humans have in their own capabilities, and how this can undermine their relationship with the Gods.
The story first appears in written form in the work of the Roman poets, Ovid and Virgil, both writing at the start of the Roman Empire.
The myth is never represented on Greek vases or in Greek statues. Nevertheless, it has all the hallmarks of a Greek myth, and, like many other stories which first appear in Latin literature, almost certainly dates back to Greek times.
The apparent purpose of the story is to tell us why spiders came to be. As such, it fits into other myths explaining natural phenomena, such as the story of Demeter and Persephone, which explains the seasons. Many cultures have similar myths. For example, there is a Hebrew account of why snakes slither on the ground.
The Greek and Latin word for spiders is “arachna”, and the modern scientific classification for the family of animals to which spiders belong is “arachnida”. In the myth the girl Arachne is the original spider.
What is its geographical and historical background?
This map of the Mediterranean world was taken from the TimeMaps Free Atlas of World History. Arachne lived in the country of Lydia, shown on the map.
Interestingly, Lydia was not part of Greece; it was not even a Greek-speaking country. It was in modern day Turkey (ancient Asia Minor), and its people were related to the Hittites. At one stage the Hittites ruled a powerful empire in the Middle East, but by Greek times this had long since passed into history. Nevertheless, modern scholars sometimes speak of Lydia as a “Neo-Hittite” kingdom.
In fact, many people of non-Greek origin appear in Greek myths. This reminds us that, although we speak of “Ancient Greek” civilization, it is more accurate to think of an ancient Mediterranean-wide civilization in which many different peoples shared: Greeks, Lydians, Phoenicians, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Romans, to name but a few.
The Greeks themselves were keenly aware of their debt to non-Greek peoples, an awareness which they expressed in their myths. For example, Europa – who was abducted from a beach by the god Zeus pretending to be a bull – was the daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre, the great Phoenician trading city on the coast of Syria. Agenor was himself the son of the king of Egypt.
Indeed many elements of civilisation including the alphabet, shipbuilding, and knowledge of astronomy, engineering and artistic techniques were brought to Greece from the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, via the Phoenicians and other peoples of the Mediterranean. Lydia was particuarly known for weaving.
Where did spinning and weaving come from?
Diego Velasquez, “The Spinners
In this picture, - known as "The Spinners" or "The Fable of Arachne". the foreground shows the contest between Athena and Arachne. The tapestry at the back depicts the moment when Athena punishes Arachne.
But how did spinning and weaving come to Lydia?
Lydia, Arachne’s native land, was a powerful kingdom in western Asia Minor. Not only powerful, it was very wealthy. It had a large metal mining industry and many important trade routes running through its territory. Given these two features, it is not surprising that Lydia was the first kingdom in history to mint metal coins. The last king of Lydia, Croesus, was fabled for his wealth, and his capital, Sardis, was known for its beauty.
Weaving and spinning were one of the many technologies which came to Lydia from the Ancient East, invented thousands of years before Greek civilization flourished.
The Greeks were clearly fascinated by the origins of different technologies, as is shown in their mythology. The titan Prometheus brought mankind fire; Daedelus, the father of human flight, was known as a famous inventor, as well as a sculptor whose statues were so lifelike they seemed to move.
This element too appears in the story of Arachne: like Daedelus’ sculptures, Arachne’s tapestries were so lifelike that they seemed real. This shows the link between technology and art in the Greek mind. They were both seen as reflections of human 'cleverness'; indeed the word 'art' used to mean skill, or craft, before it narrowed to its modern meaning.
Why are there dangers in being too clever?
Orb spider on web
In her tapestry Arachne was disrespectful. She showed the gods behaving badly and Athena, was furious.
The Greek gods did behave badly (although the outcome was often positive - a new royal line or city founded). However the Greeks believed that if mere humans choose to laugh at the gods, to demean their behaviour, or not to trust in them, then they invited their anger.
Arachne had great pride in her own ability; she trusted in this to the point where she denied the power of the gods and laughed at them, too late she realised the truth and was ashamed.
Arachne’s story also reveals the uncertain attitude which the Greeks had towards technology and skill. They strived for skill, for perfection – but they were also suspicious of it. Why was this so?
The answer is partly that 'cleverness' makes humans a little too much like the gods for comfort, and excites their jealousy. As in the Arachne story, our capabilities can also make us less respectful of the gods and less dependent upon them, trusting more upon our own skills and less on their favour.
It was felt human pride and independence from the gods would not be tolerated; there would come a day of reckoning. We can only go so long on this course before an act of divine judgement brings all our cleverness to nothing and we find ourselves shamed.
Exactly the same theme can be seen in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Even today, warnings of global warming reminded us that although our cleverness has enriched our lives, it may also be destroying our world.