Arachne’s Lesson: The Beauty of the Savage Web
In myth, spider-women and weavers often have similar functions.
We have the fates, who work with thread and weave people’s destinies:
“THE MOIRAI (Moirae) were the three goddesses of fate who personified the inescapable destiny of man . . . The Moirai were independent, at the helm of necessity, directed fate, and watched that the fate assigned to every being by eternal laws might take its course without obstruction.”
There is also the Spider Woman, a hugely important figure in Native American mythology, sitting at the center of creation and weaving everything in existence out of herself—her mere thoughts are enough to create the physical world. And she does it with a perfect order and beauty. How does the spider know how to create such perfect geometric designs? It’s a mystery, but it’s cohesive. And it’s all contained within the Spider Woman herself.
I also want to note that while the Spider Woman weaves a beautiful, interconnected universe where all things exist in a coherent grand design . . . she is still a spider. Living things get stuck in her web and she consumes them, sometimes violently. That doesn’t mean anything has gone wrong.
In the universal design, all things are perfectly in place. Even if the eyes of mortals on the ground cannot understand.
Does weaving play the same role in Greek myth? Well, let’s look at that.
Athena is not a spider goddess. She is not one of the fates, or the Spider Grandmother.
Athena is the goddess of craftsmanship and weaving. That’s ostensibly different than the kind of weaving of fate we’ve been talking about . . . but is it really that different?
I don’t think the Greeks and Romans could untangle their association of the craft of weaving with this concept of fate, destiny, and inescapable order. This metaphor was so strong in the ancient psyche that the Romans had a superstition that a woman with a spindle must not be seen in the streets, for it could bring bad luck and the downfall of Rome.
So Athena is not one of the Moirai, and she is not like the Native American Spider Grandmother weaving the universe out of herself . . . but as a master weaver, she’s not completely unrelated to that concept.
Athena is also the goddess of wisdom and battle. She is logical, orderly, and strategic.
Athena’s wisdom is the wisdom of the owl. She sees in the dark. When others see nothing or get lost, Athena can find her way, and her resources are abundant. (There’s an echo of this “finding your way in the dark” idea with Ariadne’s thread, which helped Theseus find his way through the labyrinth of the Minotaur.) She has the kind of wisdom and overarching clarity that can see order on a battlefield. In Athena’s eyes, the chaos of battle is not chaotic at all. Everything is in place, and all is as it should be.
This is relevant to Arachne’s myth. I’ll touch on why in a bit.
It’s also relevant that Athena is not known to be an especially feminist goddess. Artemis, by contrast, is very feminist. She can’t stand the patriarchy, and she often chooses to isolate herself to just avoid dealing with men and their bullshit.
Athena, on the other hand, excels in the patriarchy. She sees nothing wrong with men being in power more often than women. To her, this is the way the fabric of the universe is woven, and it’s perfect. Women who have a lot of the Athena archetype in their personalities excel in business settings, especially working with men. Athena the goddess was very supportive of her father Zeus.
Now we come to the myth of Arachne.
In the myth, Arachne is the beautiful and talented daughter of a fabric dyer. She is incredibly skilled in the art and craft of weaving, so much so that even Athena takes note.
But Arachne is proud and a little stupid. She proclaims that she could even beat Athena herself in a weaving competition. Athena appears to her in the form of an old woman and warns her, “Young girl, your skill is truly amazing, and it is good to seek fame among mortals. But to challenge the gods is impiety.” Arachne doesn’t care about this, though, and challenges Athena all the same.
Of course, Athena accepts the challenge. The two of them weave tapestries.
Athena’s tapestry is of course perfect. She weaves images of the gods in their glory, achieving wondrous deeds. She also weaves images of mortals who dared to challenge the gods and suffered for their impiety—just as kind of a warning to Arachne.
Arachne also weaves images of the gods . . . but she focuses more on their cruelty. She creates the scene of Medusa, being turned into a gorgon; of Antigone of Troy who was changed into a stork by the gods; of Zeus disguising himself as a swan to rape Leto; and as a shower of gold to rape Danae.
So the contest is over, and Athena cannot deny Arachne’s talent. Her work is unquestionably flawless. But the subject of her work is blasphemous, impious, disrespectful. Athena beats Arachne with a spindle, and Arachne tries to hang herself to death. As she does so, Athena transforms her into a spider, dangling from a thread of silk.
The way I see it, there are two approaches to Arachne herself. Either Arachne is arrogant, or she is sincere.
When she’s arrogant, she is not taking the universal forces or the weaving of creation, seriously. She does not see the beauty of the web. She only sees the insects that get caught in it, and struggle for their lives only to be eaten. It is as though she has been entrusted with these gifts, and all she can see is the pain of the world.
That is why she believes she can do it better than Athena—better than the gods themselves.
When Arachne is sincere, she is basically saying the same thing. She’s saying, “The universal forces have got it all wrong,” and trying to point out the cruelty inherent in the design. She has courage, standing up to Athena in this way. But instead of coming from an immature place of saying, “OMG, the gods are all like rapists and cruel to mortals, what the hell is this mess?” the wise version of Arachne comes from a more mature place, saying, “I get that this is the perfect order of the universe, but look at it! It’s a mess! Can’t we do better?”
In both cases, you could say that Arachne is challenging the establishment. In both cases, you could also say she’s short-sighted.
Athena comes out looking kind of bad in this myth.
She punishes Arachne pretty harshly, simply for pointing out that the gods can be cruel. Athena seems bitchy, like she won’t stand for criticism and can’t take being disrespected.
Even like she supports the gods when they rape mortals and inflict cruel punishments on them.
That’s definitely one interpretation of the myth. But I see it a little differently.
It’s not that Athena supports rape and cruelty.
On the contrary—she comes down hard on the Greeks after the Trojan war, because Ajax the Lesser raped Cassandra outside of Athena’s temple, and none of his fellow Greeks punished him for it. War is one thing—Athena knows this—but the Greeks let themselves get out of control. The war had already been won, and now they were acting like animals. They wanted to leave Troy and sail back to Greece, back to their homes and families, but they were no longer men. They no longer had any sentiment, and could not behave as fathers, brothers, or lovers—only killers and rapists. Athena did not let them sail without paying a steep price.
Another example is Medusa—and this is another myth where Athena looks pretty harsh through the eyes of our modern culture.
Medusa was so beautiful that the god Poseidon fell in love with her . . . or at least wanted to screw her.
She didn’t want him, and sought protection in Athena’s temple. It didn’t save her. Poseidon raped Medusa anyway.
Athena was furious and transformed Medusa into a gorgon, with snakes for hair and a gaze so fearsome that it turned men to stone. Some myths say Athena was angry at Medusa, and punished her for being raped. I think that Athena was furious at the rape itself, more so because it happened in (or just outside of) her temple. She created Medusa as a plague to men. She wasn’t punishing Medusa; she was giving her a tool to get back at men, and to stop any man who might try to hurt her again. What happened to Medusa was so horrifying that any man who tried to face it turned to stone. Medusa even lived in a place where no women could go, so she would never harm a woman.
It’s Medusa’s head that’s on Athena and Zeus’s aegis—a shield with the gorgon’s head on the front of it. That’s one of the most effective and horrifying symbols to show your enemy. He can’t even look at you or he’ll turn to stone. And women wouldn’t see it. They didn’t go into battle.
Arachne would probably misinterpret Athena’s motivations here, and say she was cruel to Medusa.
Athena would not appreciate such a fundamental misinterpretation by someone who was supposed to be so skilled in the art of weaving—someone who was supposed to understand.
Athena didn’t punish Arachne because Athena supports the rapacity and cruelty of the gods. Athena punished her because if all Arachne could see was pain and abuse, then Arachne did not appreciate the beauty of her own gift—the weaving of creation. She did not see the perfection of the design.
The universal forces create a beautiful, interconnected web wherein all things affect all others. Pluck one string of the web, and all the others move. But by its very design, insects get caught in it and die. This is the battlefield. It may seem like chaos, but a goddess can see the perfect order in it.
Arachne’s lesson to us is to see the beauty of the web we live in, the perfection of the universe falling into a complex, interconnected design all around us, despite the pain that comes with it.
Arachne’s lesson is a little like the emotion I might feel when looking at a spiderweb itself. I’m struck with wonder at the intricacy and beauty of the web itself . . . and with horror at the spider and the meal it’s about to have.
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