Arachne, the goddess in Greek mythology who was the world’s first spider, was originally a young mortal, the daughter of a shepherd famous for the beautiful wools that he dyed purple.
Gifted in the art of weaving, Arachne studied for a while with Athena, the Greek goddess of war who was a masterful weaver and potter. When Greece was not at war, Athena spent much of her time teaching crafts to the Greek people.
The Fallout With Athena
Arachne returned to her home in the countryside of Lydia and perfected her skill in weaving beautiful fabrics that had complicated designs. Word of her talents spread, and nymphs from the forests and rivers came from afar to watch her weave her excellent tapestries.
One of the nymphs asked Arachne if her incredible talent was a gift from the Greek goddess Athena. Arachne, who now felt her work was every bit as fine as Athena’s, was too proud to admit she had ever needed a teacher.
Instead, she replied, “There is none in heaven or earth whose weaving could compete with mine. Just let Athena come if she will, and we’ll see whose work is best!”
Word soon reached Athena’s ears, and Athena, disguised as an old woman, appeared at Arachne’s door, ready to give the young woman a chance to redeem herself.
”Age and experience bring wisdom; you must be careful not to offend the gods,” she advised. “You should recognize the goddess’s power, for she helps those who honor her. No human work is so perfect that it cannot be improved.”
But Arachne told the crone to save her breath, saying, “What do you know? You’re so old you’re probably senile. I don’t need your advice or Athena’s. Why she even shrinks from taking me up on my challenge to see who is really best!”
The Weaving Battle
”Arachne, you’ve gone too far!” a voice rang out. The old woman had disappeared, and the goddess Athena stood in her place in all her golden glory. “I accept your challenge and, to reassure you that it’s a fair contest, the goddess Envy will be the judge.”
Two looms were set up, and they both worked furiously, their fingers flying back and forth as they wove the tapestries.
For her design, Athena chose to present all the gods and goddesses in their glory in the center of her masterpiece. She showed the gods seated in majesty in the Acropolis, Poseidon striking the rock with his trident to create a stream, and other fine devices.
Surrounding the center figures, she wove various scenes of mortals behaving foolishly, including one scene, a warning to her irreverent rival, that featured girls being changed into chickens. A wreath of olive branches, representing the olive tree that was Athena’s fine gift to the city of Athens, framed the gorgeous design.
Arachne, refusing to be humbled, decided to depict stories that showed the deities in the poorest light. Zeus engaged in his many marital infidelities, a drunken Dionysius, and even the revered Apollo as a lowly shepherd. She surrounded the work with a beautiful border of ivy and various flowers. Envy reported that she could not declare a winner and that both works were beautiful and flawless.
Seeing Arachne’s work, Athena was so enraged with her insolence and disrespect that she slapped her face and tore her tapestry into shreds. Realizing what she had done, Arachne grew so depressed that she hung herself.
Athena was a superbly rational goddess but often out of touch with her own feelings and often unmoved by the emotional states of others. Consequently, she was surprised by Arachne’s suicide. It upset her greatly because she had not meant things to go that far.
A New Life
Athena took pity on poor Arachne and decided to let her live, but not as a human.
Athena sprinkled her limp body with the juice of the herb called Monkshead. Then watched as Arachne transformed into a spider. Her head began to shrink, her hair fell out, and her nimble fingers grew into long, thin legs.
”I’ve let you live, but for being so vain,” Athena said, “you will hang and spin forever.”
The Lesson To Take Away From Arachne’s Story
Arachne and her story teach us to be mindful of the risks women, even extraordinarily talented women, take when they speak out against the established order, the patriarchy in particular.
We are reminded to speak the truth. Not out of pride or in an effort to “get ahead” but in the spirit of concern and love.
Arachne’s symbols reflect her creative talents and insight. So gifted that she could outdo Athena, Goddess of Craft herself.
Arachne is acutely responsible for both truth and beauty, which can be a fine and perilous tightrope balancing act. Her symbols reflect her creativity, clear vision, and appreciation of beauty and veracity.
Since Arachne was such a great weaver, it makes no wonder that webs,
silk, and other fine fabrics are her main symbols. Of course, spinning wheels, spindles, shuttles, and looms, as objects used for weaving, can also be Arachne’s symbols.
Sheep and silkworms are animals that we use to get precious fibers and fabrics. That’s why these animals are associated with Arachne, a weaver that was better than Athena!
Also, after Arachne managed to anger Athena with her lack of respect, she was transformed into a first spider, so that explains why spiders are often used as symbols of Arachne.
Since spiders are common animal symbols of Arachne, spider plants are her common plant symbols. Other plants that symbolize Arachne are Boxwood, Cleome Hassleriana, and Grevillea.
Perfumes and scents that can capture Arachne’s confidence and cheeky behavior are Cedarwood, Vetiver, Frankincense, Tangerine, and Orange.
Gems and Metals
Lapis Lazuli symbolizes power, knowledge, skill, intuition, confidence, and courage. All these are characteristics of Arachne. However, Lapis Lazuli also symbolizes wisdom, something that Arachne lacked in a way when she dared to anger Athena.
Arachne’s other gem and precious metal symbols are gold, Black Onyx, silver, and Chrysocolla.
Gold, blue, green, black, purple, white, and silver are colors that perfectly represent Arachne. Silver and white are especially good symbols of Arachne, as those are the colors of spiderwebs, and we already know that Arachne is closely associated with spiders.
We hope you enjoyed this post. Be sure to check out some of the other goddesses we also write about. You can find the complete list of goddesses sorted across regions and religions here.
Featured Image Credit: René-Antoine Houasse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons