|Greek and Roman Mythology > Minerva and Arachne
Minerva and Arachne
She, they say, sprang forth from his brain full grown and clad in
complete armor. She presided over the useful and ornamental
arts, both those of men, such as agriculture and navigation,
and those of women, spinning, weaving, and needle-work. She
was also a warlike divinity; but a lover of defensive war only.
She had no sympathy with Mars's savage love of violence and
bloodshed. Athens was her chosen seat, her own city, awarded to
her as the prize of a contest with Neptune, who also aspired to
it. The tale ran that in the reign of Cecrops, the first king of
Athens, the two deities contended for the possession of the city.
The gods decreed that it should be awarded to that one who
produced the gift most useful to mortals. Neptune gave the
horse; Minerva produced the olive. The gods gave judgment that
the olive was the more useful of the two, and awarded the city to
the goddess; and it was named after her, Athens, her name in
Greek being Athene.
In another contest, a mortal dared to come in competition with
Minerva. That mortal was Arachne, a maiden who had attained such
skill in the arts of weaving and embroidery that the nymphs
themselves would leave their groves and fountains to come and
gaze upon her work. It was not only beautiful when it was done,
but beautiful also in the doing. To watch her, as she took the
wool in its rude state and formed it into rolls, or separated it
with her fingers and carded it till it looked as light and soft
as a cloud, or twirled the spindle with skilful touch, or wove
the web, or, when woven, adorned it with her needle, one would
have said that Minerva herself had taught her. But this she
denied, and could not bear to be thought a pupil even of a
goddess. "Let Minerva try her skill with mine," said she; "if
beaten, I will pay the penalty." Minerva heard this and was
displeased. Assuming the form of an old woman, she went and gave
Arachne some friendly advice. "I have had much experience,: said
she, "and I hope you will not despise my counsel. Challenge your
fellow-mortals as you will, but do not compete with a goddess.
On the contrary, I advise you to ask her forgiveness for what you
have said, and, as she is merciful, perhaps she will pardon you."
Arachne stopped her spinning, and looked at the old dame with
anger in her countenance. "Keep your counsel," said she, "for
your daughters or handmaids; for my part, I know what I say, and
I stand to it. I am not afraid of the goddess; let her try her
skill, if she dare venture." "She comes," said Minerva; and
dropping her disguise, stood confessed. The nymphs bent low in
homage, and all the bystanders paid reverence. Arachne alone was
unterrified. She blushed, indeed; a sudden color dyed her cheek,
and then she grew pale. But she stood to her resolve, and with a
foolish conceit of her own skill rushed on her fate. Minerva
forbore no longer, nor interposed any further advice. They
proceed to the contest. Each takes her station and attaches the
web to the beam. Then the slender shuttle is passed in and out
among the threads. The reed with its fine teeth strikes up the
woof into its place and compacts the web. Both work with speed;
their skilful hands move rapidly, and the excitement of the
contest makes the labor light. Wool of Tyrian dye is contrasted
with that of other colors, shaded off into one another so
adroitly that the joining deceives the eye. Like the bow, whose
long arch tinges the heavens, formed by sunbeams reflected from
the shower (this description of the rainbow is literally
translated rom Ovid), in which, where the colors meet they seem
as one, but at a little distance from the point of contact are
Minerva wrought on her web the scene of her contest with Neptune.
Twelve of the heavenly powers are represented, Jupiter, with
August gravity, sitting in the midst. Neptune, the ruler of the
sea, holds his trident, and appears to have just smitten the
earth, from which a horse has leaped forth. Minerva depicted
herself with helmed head, her AEgis covering her breast. Such
was the central circle; and in the four corners were represented
incidents illustrating the displeasure of the gods at such
presumptuous mortals as had dared to contend with them. These
were meant as warnings to her rival to give up the contest before
it was too late.
Arachne filled her web with subjects designedly chosen to exhibit
the failings and errors of the gods. One scene represented Leda
caressing the swan, under which form Jupiter had disguised
himself; and another, Danae, in the brazen tower in which her
father had imprisoned her, but where the god effected his
entrance in the form of a shower of gold. Still another depicted
Europa deceived by Jupiter under the disguise of a bull.
Encouraged by the tameness of the animal, Europa ventured to
mount his back, whereupon Jupiter advanced into the sea, and swam
with her to Crete. You would have thought it was a real bull so
naturally was it wrought, and so natural was the water in which
it swam. She seemed to look with longing eyes back upon the
shore she was leaving, and to call to her companions for help.
She appeared to shudder with terror at the sight of the heaving
waves, and to draw back her feet from the water.
Arachne filled her canvas with these and like subjects,
wonderfully well done, but strongly marking her presumption and
impiety. Minerva could not forbear to admire, yet felt indignant
at the insult. She struck the web with her shuttle, and rent it
in pieces; she then touched the forehead of Arachne, and made her
feel her guilt and shame. She could not endure it, and went and
hanged herself. Minerva pitied her as she saw her hanging by a
rope. "Live, guilty woman," said she; " and that you may
preserve the memory of this lesson, continue to hang, you and
your descendants, to all future times." She sprinkled her with
the juices of aconite, and immediately her hair came off, and her
nose and ears likewise. Her form shrank up, and her head grew
smaller yet; her fingers grew to her side, and served for legs.
All the rest of her is body, out of which she spins her thread,
often hanging suspended by it, in the same attitude as when
Minerva touched her and transformed her into a spider.
Spenser tells the story of Arachne in his Muiopotmos, adhering
very closely to his master Ovid, but improving upon him in the
conclusion of the story. The two stanzas which follow tell what
was done after the goddess had depicted her creation of the olive
"Amongst these leaves she made a Butterfly,
With excellent device and wondrous slight,
Fluttering among the olives wantonly,
That seemed to live, so like it was in sight;
The velvet nap which on his wings doth lie,
The silken down with which his back is dight,
His broad outstretched horns, his hairy thighs,
His glorious colors, and his glistening eyes."
"Which when Arachne saw, as overlaid
And mastered with workmanship so rare.
She stood astonished long, ne aught gainsaid;
And with fast-fixed eyes on her did stare,
And by her silence, sign of one dismayed,
The victory did yield her as her share;
Yet did she inly fret and felly burn,
And all her blood to poisonous rancor turn."
And so the metamorphosis is caused by Arachne's own mortification
and vexation, and not by any direct act of the goddess.
The following specimen of old-fashioned gallantry is by Garrick:
UPON A LADY'S EMBROIDERY
"Arachne once, as poets tell,
A goddess at her art defied,
And soon the daring mortal fell
The hapless victim of her pride.
"Oh, then, beware Arachne's fate;
Be prudent, Chloe, and submit,
For you'll most surely meet her hate,
Who rival both her art and wit."
Tennyson, in his Palace of Art, describing the works of art with
which the palace was adorned, thus alludes to Europa:
"------ sweet Europa's mantle blew unclasped
>From off her shoulder, backward borne,
>From one hand drooped a crocus, one hand grasped
The mild bull's golden horn."
In his Princess there is this allusion to Danae:
"Now lies the earth all Danae to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me."