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The Weaving Contest Between Athena and Arachne

The story from Greek mythology about Athena's contest with Arachne

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The Spinners (Athena and Arachne), by Diego Velázquez 1644-1648.

The Spinners (Athena and Arachne), by Diego Velázquez 1644-1648.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While Athena was a friend to Greek heroes, she wasn't so helpful to women. The story of the weaving contest between Arachne and Athena is one of the most familiar myths about Athena, and its central theme is also popular. Greek mythology repeatedly hammers home the danger of comparing oneself with a goddess. The theme appears in the story of Cupid and Psyche, where Aphrodite is offended. While ultimately there is a happy ending, to avert Aphrodite's wrath, Psyche's family abandons her to death. In the mythological story of Niobe, Artemis punishes the mortal mother for boasting that she is a more fortunate mother than Artemis' mother, Leto: Artemis destroys all Niobe's children. The punishment Athena inflicts on her capable, but merely mortal victim is more direct. If Arachne wants to claim to be a better weaver than Athena, so be it. That's all she'll ever be good for.

The Roman poet Ovid writes about the metamorphosis Arachne suffers in his work on transformations (Metamorphoses):

One at the loom so excellently skill'd,
That to the Goddess she refus'd to yield,

(Ovid, Metamorphoses VI)

In the myth, Athena challenges Arachne to a weaving contest in order to prove herself. The expert crafts goddess Athena is favorably impressed with Arachne's weaving of divine debaucheries:

This the bright Goddess passionately mov'd,
With envy saw, yet inwardly approv'd.
The scene of heav'nly guilt with haste she tore,
Nor longer the affront with patience bore;
A boxen shuttle in her hand she took,
And more than once Arachne's forehead struck.

Athena can't tolerate the affront to her pride, though, so she turns Arachne into a spider doomed to weave forever. From the unfortunate spider-woman comes the name for the 8-legged creatures -- arachnids.

Bulfinch on Athena (and Arachne)

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