Weaving and Writing: Censorship in Arachne

“Arachne” by Herman Posthumus (1542)

The tale of Arachne is one of the most famous stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Ovid describes Arachne as a young girl from Lydia who despite her humble beginnings has risen to fame due to her remarkable weaving talent.  As beautiful as her works are, the girl firmly maintains that she was not taught by Minerva, the goddess of weaving, and is superior to her.  Aware of these boasts, Minerva comes to Arachne disguised as an old woman.  She advises Arachne to beg the goddess for pardon.  Arachne refuses, and after Minerva reveals her true identity, the two commence a weaving contest.  Minerva portrays her contest with Neptune over the city of Athens, as well as the fates of several blasphemous mortals.  In contrast, Arachne depicts many immoral actions of the gods and their mistreatment of mortals.  Although Arachne’s weaving is without fault, Minerva is unable to handle her defeat, and destroys Arachne’s weaving and begins to hit the girl with a .  Minerva’s rage drives Arachne to hang herself.  However the goddess takes pity on her, and instead of letting her die, transforms her into a spider, ironically cursing Arachne and her descendants to weave for all eternity (Metamorphoses 6.1-96).


Content & Message of the Conflicting Tapestries

Peter Paul Rubens, The Rape of Europa

Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Rape of Europa” (1629), which was also one of the scandalizing topics represented by Arachne in her tapestry.

The two tapestries in the weaving contest convey sharply contradicting attitudes about the immortals.  In her weaving, the goddess depicts herself as powerful and benevolent.  She portrays herself in all her glorious armor defeating Neptune in the contest over Athens with a  of a fruiting olive tree to the city.  Also, in order to warn Arachne of the fate that awaits her for challenging the gods, she illustrates four examples of arrogant mortals transformed for the same mistake.  These are the stories of , the , , and (Metamorphoses 6.1-96).  Minerva’s tapestry depicts the immortals with absolute power and justifies their actions by showing the mortals whom they punish as arrogant.  Conversely, Arachne’s tapestry shows   examples of the gods transforming themselves to approach mortals and then take sexual advantage of them.  The most famous of the stories she depicts include Europa and Prosperpina, who were both raped by (Metamorphoses 6.1-96).  She directly contrasts Minerva’s work by showing the gods transforming themselves to trick mortals rather than transforming mortals to punish them.  This and the fact that Minerva destroys Arachne’s weaving has powerful connotations for the meaning of the story.




Arachne’s Crime and Ovid’s Sympathy

Black-figured lekythos; Attic, c. 540 BCE. The Amasis Painter?

A warp-weighted loom, similar to the one described in Ovid’s story of Arachne.

Today, most people see the story of Arachne as a classic, one-dimensional example of a character being punished for hubris.  There are many lines of Ovid’s version of the tale that support this attitude.

quod tamen ipsa negat tantaque offensa magistra

“certet” ait “mecum! nihil est, quod victa recusem.”

(Metamorphoses 6.24-25)

(the belief that she was taught by Minerva) (Arachne) herself was denying

she said “let (Minerva) compete with me! If I were defeated, there is nothing

which I would decline.

Arachne even maintains this attitude after Minerva gives her the chance to concede (Metamorphoses 6.1-96).  For the girl clearly comes across as vain and overly disrespectful.  Minerva was seen as the protector of virginity, so for Arachne to deliberately depict the sexual wantonness of the immortals is a direct slap in the face to the goddess.


Pallas and Arachne, Peter Paul Rubens, 1636-37.

Pallas and Arachne, Peter Paul Rubens, 1636-37.

Nevertheless in the poem as a whole, the poet’s choices in words, syntax, and subject matter put a different spin on this classic tale.  The story as it appears in the Metamorphoses is the most famous version of Arachne’s fate, and we are not entirely sure of the legend’s origins.  However, it is likely that Ovid made minor changes from an existing story to better fit his own complex message.  Specifically, he probably changed the tale to make Arachne attempt to hang herself after Minerva destroyed her weaving, making her metamorphosis the thing that saves her life, rather than the punishment itself.  It is also likely that Ovid changed the story so that Arachne actually wins the contest against Minerva, so the goddess punishes her only because she cannot handle losing to the girl’s disrespectful tapestry.

These changes cause Minerva’s actions against Arachne to appear more as unjustified rage rather than a fair punishment.  As a result it is easier for readers to see Arachne as a victim, even though she is overconfident and sacrilegious.  Also, because Arachne does not back down to Minerva even though she cannot combat her punishment, Ovid portrays her challenge of the goddess as standing up against an oppressive system.  Ovid makes us sympathize with Arachne because of her unfair punishment, her courageous defiance against impossible odds.



Weaving and Writing: the Similarities Between Arachne and Ovid

Pallas Athena (Minerva), by Gustav Klimt 1898

Pallas Athena (Minerva), by Gustav Klimt 1898

Previous stories in the Metamorphoses allow Ovid’s readers to form an impression about Minerva’s character before beginning the story of Arachne in Book VI.  The previous book outlines Minerva’s obviously unjust transformation of the rape victim, Medusa, and the appalling action of placing the Gorgon’s severed head on her shield.  Thus, Minerva has already been cast as a harsh deity with little pity for mortal women. In contrast, Ovid presents the character of Arachne only in this story, so the reader must form an opinion of her within the parameters of this account.  She is a stubborn, independent, talented artist, who is passionate about her work.  These traits attributed to the young weaver could just as easily be used to describe Ovid as a poet: gifted and steadfastedly committed to his poetic project despite the moral authority claimed by Augustus.  If the poet is using Arachne as a foil for himself, the fact that he has established sympathy for the character makes him more appealing in the eyes of his audience.

Penelope and the Suitors, John William Waterhouse 1912.

Penelope and the Suitors, John William Waterhouse 1912.

The similarity of their devotion to the arts strengthens the connection between Ovid and Arachne.  For the concepts of weaving and writing have long been considered linked.  There are many parallels between composing a story and weaving a tapestry (click here for weaving in another Ovidian myth).  Also, in the ancient world, weaving was primarily an activity reserved for women, making it relatively unfamiliar to most of Ovid’s educated male audience.  However, most of his readership was probably aware of the longstanding tradition in literature and society of weaving being one of the few activities and outlets of self-expression for women, and that women especially skilled in this craft were deemed particularly special.  They would have known about the famed weaving talents of mythological women, such as .  This mythological heritage strengthens its correlation with literature, which in Rome, was the counterpart of weaving to Ovid and his peers.  Such an association makes it clearer that Ovid is using the character of Arachne to represent himself.  The two even include some of the same subjects, as, for example, Ovid writes about Europa in Book II of the Metamorphoses.  More importantly, because Arachne’s weaving in the story depicts transformations, it is a direct counterpart to the Metamorphoses.  Therefore, destroyed and censored work in his stories represents censored literature in Ovid’s world.

Gustave Dore’s depiction of the punishment of Arachne for Dante’s Divine Comedy (1861).

The figure of Arachne resonated with later artists, too, as we see here Gustave Dore’s depiction of the punishment of Arachne for an illustrated version of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1861).

Ovid’s experience with the Roman government is similar to the story of Arachne.  Like Arachne was ultimately transformed into a spider due to her offensive textile, Ovid was exiled from Rome by the emperor Augustus at least in part due to the seemingly corrupt vulgarity of his Ars Amatoria.  The Roman government disapproved of some of his earlier publications such as the Amores due to their carefree nature and subject matter, but it was the Ars Amatoria the regime saw as unacceptable.  It is possible that Augustus credited the Ars Amatoria for corrupting his granddaughter  to the point that he felt it necessary to banish her.  Like Arachne, Ovid’s work was found offensive by the powerful, leading them to remove him from Rome, as Arachne was prevented from communicating with people ever again.  Her weaving and confidence are comparable to Ovid’s “carmen et error” (a poem and a mistake), which he credits in his Tristia as the causes for his banishment (Tristia 2.207).  To read more about the reasons for Ovid’s exile click here.

Arachne is like Ovid in that they both have great artistic skill, and their superiors suppress them.  For Ovid could be using the story of Arachne to offer his own perspective on events in his life.  Afterwards, despite the actions taken against them to halt their skilled work, they both persist in their talents, as Arachne continues to weave as a spider and Ovid composed poetry while in exile.


Ovid’s Political Message about Censorship in the Story of Arachne


marble bust of Augustus

Because Ovid puts in such a great effort to describe the creation of Arachne’s weaving, the tale suggests the importance of art as a metamorphosis itself from raw materials to a beautiful work.  This, along with the fact that Minerva’s and Arachne’s tapestries display mythological transformations reinforces the idea that Ovid’s Metamorphoses are a form of beautiful art.  He goes into great detail to describe  Arachne’s beautiful tapestries to heighten the tragedy of Minerva destroying these works.  Therefore, the story shows how upsetting it is for the poet that the Roman government has censored literary works, preventing people from reading them.  Overall, with the story of Arachne in his Metamorphoses, Ovid uses the challenge of a mortal against a powerful goddess and the destruction of a weaving to represent censorship of literature by the Roman government.



Works Cited

Ovid describes the parts of the loom and how they are used in great detail in the story of Arachne.  Scroll over the picture of the loom further down to learn more.
Minerva portrays how Neptune gave the city a salt spring, which was much less useful than her gift.
Mortals who called themselves “Jupiter and Juno.” They were transformed into icy mountains.
Vied with Juno, who defeated her, turned her into a crane, and forced her to declare war on her own people.
A Trojan princess who competed with Juno.  Juno turned her into a stork.
A man whose daughters claimed they were more beautiful than the gods, and were therefore transformed into steps of a temple.
William S. Anderson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Barbara Weiden Boyd, Brill’s Companion to Ovid
Europa, Acterie, Antiope, Alcmena, Danae, Aegina, Prosperpina, Aeolia, Theophane, Demeter, Medusa, Melantho, King Admetus, two unknown people, Issa, Erigone, and Philyra.
She also displays the victims of Neptune, Apollo, Liber/Bacchus, and Saturn.
William S. Anderson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Kathryn Sullivan Kruger, Weaving the Word: the Metaphorics of Weaving and Female Textual Production
Patricia Johnson, Ovid Before Exile: Art and Punishment in the Metamorphoses
William S. Anderson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses
William S. Anderson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Patricia Johnson, Ovid Before Exile: Art and Punishment in the Metamorphoses
William S. Anderson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Ovid’s audience would have been well familiar with the Homeric epics.
Kathryn Sullivan Kruger, Weaving the Word: the Metaphorics of Weaving and Female Textual Production
Arthur Golding and Madeleine Forey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Patricia Johnson, Ovid Before Exile: Art and Punishment in the Metamorphoses
Jo-Marie Claassen, Ovid Revisited: the Poet in Exile
Augustus was aware of this relative’s habits of adultery
Jo-Marie Claassen, Ovid Revisited: the Poet in Exile
P.J. Davis, Ovid & Augustus: a Political Reading of Ovid’s Erotic Poems
Jo-Marie Claassen, Ovid Revisited: the Poet in Exile
Patricia Johnson, Ovid Before Exile: Art and Punishment in the Metamorphoses