The Myth of Arachne: Tragic Tale of the First Spider in Greek Mythology

The Myth of Arachne- Tragic Tale of the First Spider in Greek Mythology

Who was Arachne in Greek Mythology?

ARACHNE, in Greek mythology, the daughter of Idmon of Colophon in Lydia, a dyer in purple. She is the protagonist of a tale in Greek mythology known primarily from the version told by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE), which is the earliest surviving source for the story. In the story, Arachne challenged Athena, goddess of strategic warfare and craft, to a weaving contest. This contest, unfortunately, brought about the downfall of Arachne.

The theme of mortals been transformed into animals and other hideous monsters as a form of punishment are one that we can see all through Greek mythology. Therefore, we will take a look at the story of Arachne, the woman cursed by the gods to spend eternity as a spider because she was brave enough to challenge them and emerge victoriously.

Over the years, there have been many versions of Arachne story, and even to this stage, she can be found in modern-day pop culture, ranging from TV shows to marvel comics to a host of other modern fantasy books. But my favourite rendition of the tale is by the Roman poet Ovid.

In Ovid’s version, Arachne was the daughter of a shepherd, who began weaving at a very early age—but there are versions where she was a daughter of Idmon of Colophon, a man who made a living from dying clothing the colour of purple. Hence, Arachne skills and interest in weaving.

The Offence to the Gods

She possessed such a talent when it came to weaving that her work became highly famous, and people would travel thousands of miles just to get a glimpse at her tapestries. As her reputation grew, so did her ego. Many would often tell her that her work could even rival the creation of a god, and eventually, she began to believe this was true.

The goddess Athena took great offence that Arachne refused to acknowledge that her skill came from the goddess as a gift. So, Athena disguised herself as an elderly woman and appeared to Arachne to say, “you can never compare yourself to the gods. Plead forgiveness, and Athena may spare your soul.”

Arachne, refusing to heed the elderly woman’s advice, replied, “ha, I only speak the truth and if Athena thinks otherwise and let her come down and challenge me herself.”

Arachne, scowling with an evil face. Looked at the goddess, as she dropped her thread. She hardly could restrain her threatening hand, and, trembling in her anger, she replied to you, disguised Pallas: ‘Silly fool,–worn out and witless in your palsied age, a great age is your great misfortune!–Let your daughter and your son’s wife–if the gods have blessed you–let them profit by your words; within myself, my knowledge is contained sufficient; you need not believe that your advice does any good; for I am quite unchanged in my opinion. Get you gone,–advise your goddess to come here herself, and not avoid the contest!’

Ovid, Metamorphoses 6. 1 – 148 (trans. Brookes More)

And so, Athena removed her disguise and appeared to Arachne in all her glory, accepting the challenge.

The Weaving Content Begins

The Weaving Contest between Arachne and Athena

The contest began, and both women weaved away furiously. Athena’s weaving represented a contest between gods and mortals. It ultimately ended in the immortals being punished for comparing themselves—quite an ironic piece of foreshadowing.

Arachne’s work differed significantly, showing how gods misled and abused mortals, depicting Zeus as seducing countless women.

When Athena saw Arachne’s work, she insulted the gods and her father and was far more beautiful in her work. She was furious, ripping Arachne’s tapestry into pieces and beating the girl in the process.

Athena beating Arachne After Losing to her in the weaving contest
Minerva (Athena) and Arachne, René-Antoine Houasse, 1706

Arachne was now a disgrace, no one would ever want to buy her work again, and no man would ever marry her. So, she chose to hang herself.

Transformation into Spider

Arachne's Transformation into Spider by Athena

Not wishing for the girl to die, Athena said, “Live on, and yet hang, condemned one. The same condition is declared as punishment against your descendants to the last generation.”

The goddess took some of Hecate’s herb and sprinkled it over Arachne. This herb would act as a poison, instantly causing Arachne’s hair to fall out, along with her ears and her nose. She grew thick black hair all over her body, and she had eight legs, and from her belly, she had a single piece of thread.

Athena had shrunk Arachne into what the ancient Greeks believed to be the first spider.

Arachne in Today’s English

The name Arachne is where many of the English words referring to spiders came from, include Arachnid (an arthropod of the class Arachnida, such as a spider or scorpion) and Arachnophobia (extreme or irrational fear of spiders).

In Conclusion

Modern Depiction of Arachne

The details of the transformation do vary, depending on the tale. Some believe that Arachne was turned into a spider, which would continue to weave but in the form of a web. Others believe that Arachne’s lower body became that of a spider, and her upper body remained that of a human, creating a monster in a similar vein to Medusa.

The story of Arachne is another warning of the fate that awaits those who dare to challenge the gods in ancient Greece. Many others believed that the lesson behind this story was that ‘no matter how skilled you are, you should always know your place in society.’

This meaning may be slightly outdated, but we can still look at the story today as a warning of what happens when we allow the influence of others and our ego to detect our thoughts and behaviour.

The story of Arachne is undoubtedly a tragic tale, but yet, still a typical Greek mythology tale. I hope you have enjoyed this version of the story.

Arachne Q&A

Why did Arachne turn into a spider?

Arachne turned into a spider because she had challenged the Greek goddess Athena into a weaving contest. This became fatal to Arachne after exposing the gods, especially Zeus, and beat Athena in the competition. This then made Athena turned her into a spider after Arachne chose to hang herself following the shame from the contest.


What is Arachne the goddess of?

Arachne, in Greek mythology, was not a goddess. But according to Greek mythology, she was the first spider in history, after being cursed or transformed into a spider by Athena, goddess of craft and strategic warfare.


What does Arachne symbolise?

Arachne, her name meaning spider in Greek, was a beautiful woman with a great talent for weaving. Arachne symbolizes spider; hence, the English words Arachnid (an arthropod of the class Arachnida, such as a spider or scorpion) and Arachnophobia (extreme or irrational fear of spiders).


What is the moral lesson of Arachne?

The story of Arachne is another warning of the fate that awaits those who dare to challenge the gods in ancient Greece. Many others believed that the lesson behind this story was that ‘no matter how skilled you are, you should always know your place in society.’


What is the cause and effect of Arachne?

Cause: Arachne’s pride caused her downfall. She failed to acknowledge the source of her talents, the Goddess of crafts and wisdom – Athena that she even challenged her. She boasted about her greatness with no one teaching her to be that great.

Effect: Embarrassed and furious, Athena cursed Arachne. This curse transformed her into a spider. This is how the Greeks explained why spiders are constantly spinning webs both to live in and trap their prey.


What are the characteristics of Arachne?

Arachne’s main characteristic is that she is exceptionally boastful. She is far from modest, especially if she talks about her tapestries. She does enjoy weaving, and weaving is far by her favourite thing to do. Therefore, Arachne’s story is told to people or children who are becoming too boastful of their achievements and success.


What does Arachne value more than anything else?

Arachne values praise more than anything else. She thinks her weaving skill is so good that no one can give her advice. Therefore, such an egotistic view led to her downfall.

Image Sources: Elderscroller, Andantonius


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