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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In Greco-Roman mythology, Arachne was a great mortal weaver who boasted that her skill was greater than that of Minerva, the Latin parallel of Pallas Athena, goddess of crafts. The offended goddess set a contest between the two weavers but, according to Ovid, the mortal weaver's subjects, the loves of the gods, was so offensive that Minerva destroyed Arachne's tapestry and loom. Ultimately, the goddess turned Arachne into a spider.

Arachne simply means "spider" in Greek.



The fable of Arachne (also Arachné) is a late addition to Greco-Roman mythology. The myth does not appear in the repertory of the Attic vase-painters. It is narrated in Ovid's Metamorphoses (vi.5-54 and 129-145) and mentioned in Virgil's Georgics (iv. 246). As these sources are all Roman, they identified the goddess as Minerva.

According to Pliny's Natural History she discovered the use of linen as well as nets. Pliny reports that she had a son named Closter who discovered the spindle for spinning wool.


Arachne was the daughter of Idmon of Colophon, who was a famous wool dyer in Tyrian purple. She was a fine weaver in Hypaepa of Lydia. She was as skillful as the finest artist of the day and much praise was given to her in Hypaepa, where she had her workshop.

This all went to her head and eventually Arachne became so conceited of her skill as a weaver that she began claiming that her skill was greater than that of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war as well as the weaving arts. Athena was angered, but gave Arachne a chance to redeem herself. Assuming the form of an old woman, she warned Arachne not to offend the gods. Arachne scoffed and wished for a weaving contest, so she could prove her skill. Athena dropped her disguise and the contest began.

Athena wove the scene of her victory over Poseidon that had inspired the people of Athens to name their city for her. According to Ovid's Latin narrative, Arachne's tapestry featured twenty-one episodes of the infidelity of the gods, disguised as animals: Zeus being unfaithful with Leda, with Europa, with Danaë.

Even Athena admitted that Arachne's work was flawless, but was outraged at Arachne's disrespectful choice of subjects that displayed the failings and transgressions of the gods. This takes for granted a late, moralizing view of Greek myth. Finally losing her temper, she destroyed Arachne's tapestry and loom, striking it with her shuttle, and struck Arachne on the head as well. Arachne realized her folly and was crushed with shame. She ran off and hanged herself.

In Ovid's telling, Athena took pity on Arachne. Sprinkling her with the juices of aconite, Athena loosened the rope, which became a spider web, while Arachne herself was changed into a spider. The story suggests that the origin of weaving lay in imitation of spiders and that it was considered to have been perfected first in Asia Minor.


From arachne are derived the taxonomical class name Arachnida, and the name for spiders in many romance languages.

The metamorphosis of Arachne in Ovid's telling furnished material for an episode in Edmund Spenser's mock-heroic Muiopotmos, 257-352. Spenser's adaptation, which "rereads an Ovidian story in terms of the Elizabethan world" is designed to provide a rationale for the hatred of Arachne's descendent Aragnoll for the butterfly-hero Clarion.

The tale of Arachne inspired one of Velázquez' most interesting paintings: Las Hilanderas ("The Spinners, or The fable of Arachne", in the Prado), in which the painter represents the two important moments of the myth. In the front, the contest of Arachne and the goddess (the young and the old weaver), in the back, an Abduction of Europa that is a copy of Titian's version (or maybe of Rubens' copy of Titian). In front of it appears Athene in the moment she is punishing Arachne. It transforms the myth into a reflection about creation and imitation, god and man, master and pupil (and therefore about the nature of art).

In popular culture

  • In Class of the Titans, Arachne had been transformed into a spider by Athena before death, and actually didn't even die. She made a deal with the show's villain, Cronus: if she captured the only people who stood in his way of world domination, (7 teenagers) he would turn her back into a human. She hypnotised one (Atlanta) into capturing the others, but another (Archie) managed to break the spell. The two pretended that Atlanta was still in Arachne's control, and helped her convince Cronus to honor his end of the bargain before the heroes were destroyed. Then they took action and freed the others. Unfortunately, Cronus escaped, transforming Arachne into a normal-sized spider. In the end, Atlanta convinced Athena to give Arachne her original form.
  • Gustave Doré's rendition of Arachne is one of the many recurring images used by the progressive rock band, The Mars Volta. It has been used as a record cover for them, a backdrop for their live shows, and a favorite accessory for guitarist and composer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez in the form of a belt buckle.
  • She appears on the manga Soul Eater as a resurrected witch, older sister to the also resurrected witch Medusa.
  • In the modern classic fantasy The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, a plain brown spider is bewitched into believing that she is Arachne until the witch who enchanted her is killed.


Primary sources

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Arachne" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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