Updated: May 11
As the first post in my "Gather 'Round the Fable" series, I decided to wade into murky waters with the sad story of Arachne from Greco-Roman mythology. It certainly isn't one of the better known stories, but I find the lesson it teaches intriguing (and frankly, more than a little depressing).
The story goes that Arachne, who was known for her excellent weaving skills, was a bit too proud of her skills, by declaring herself equal in skill to the gods. This didn't go well with Minerva, goddess of handicrafts and wisdom (or Athena, the Greek equivalent goddess), and the goddess challenged Arachne to a contest to see who really had the better skills. When Minerva inspected Arachne's work and found it to indeed be flawless (and of a subject matter that showed how the gods had treated mortals badly), she beat the girl mercilessly. Arachne, in her shame, decided to hang herself. Here is where the story gets weird - out of pity, Arachne is transformed into a spider, allowed to weave (along with her descendants) ever after.
So the morals of this little tale, at least for me, are as follows: First and foremost - don't put yourself above your betters (the Gods). If you do, be prepared to be called out. If you have the temerity to win that battle, there will be consequences. And finally, when they have taken it all away from you, they will give you something back as a gesture of mercy - perhaps something even worse.
Well, that's a touch dark, wouldn't you say? Where's the inspiration then - to strive to be one's best, to attempt to better even masterpieces? Arachne's tale would have you think such goals are a Very Bad Idea. I think this is an example of a myth that was created to reinforce societal goals and to keep creative people in line. Those in power often fear those who wield a voice for change.
What better way to keep control over those who would attempt to rise, than to remind them what happens when they actually succeed.
Arachne as a character has appeared in various art media; the painter, Velazquez, found inspiration in the tale, as have other painters. She's made appearances in pop culture too - the TV show Supernatural, the Hercules series, in Marvel comics and the Percy Jackson series. She's popped up in poems as well, since her first appearance in the work of the Roman poet, Ovid. What I haven't found (and correct me please, if I have missed it), is a story where she takes centerstage and the author explores her bragging, her skill, her fall and ultimate
transformation. I'd say Arachne is due a little literary love right now because in a time where speaking truth to power is as important as it has ever been, this is a myth that could really resonate and be expanded into more about Arachne's second act.