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The goddess Athene, inventor of the art of weaving, hears rumours of a Lydian woman, Arachne, boasting that she is so skilled at the loom that her talent compares to that of the immortals. Angered by Arachne’s arrogance, Athene visits her in the guise of an old woman. When she suggests to Arachne that she should acknowledge her skill is a gift from the gods, Arachne is scornful, claiming her skill has been earned by endeavour rather than bestowed as a gift. In fury the goddess reveals herself and challenges the mortal to a contest. Mortal and immortal weave tapestries, submitting them to the judgement of Persephone. Athene’s work is faultless and beautiful but Arachne’s tapestry exquisitely displays all human emotion, and Arachne is declared the winner. In fury Athene turns on Arachne and condemns her and her descendants to be spiders, forever weaving.
- Starting points
- Further activities
This story is as much about Athene as about Arachne so a little research into her role on Mount Olympus may be helpful before listening to the story. Students will find out that Athene is a very powerful deity, goddess of war (as a baby she sprang fully armed from the head of Zeus), wisdom (her symbol is the owl) and handicrafts (with responsibility for the arts of women, such as weaving, and also of men, such as carpentry and metalwork).
Another way into the story is to discuss the nature of rumour, which plays an important part in this story. If rumour were a creature, what sort of creature would it be? Is there anything wrong with being a gossip?
Initial exploration of the story:
- What is it that angers Athene so much at the start of the story?
- Is Arachne’s skill a gift from the gods (as Athene says) or a talent developed through effort and practice (as Arachne claims)?
- What transformation(s) happen in the story?
- What message is conveyed by the story?
- Which is worse, Athene’s jealousy or Arachne’s pride?
At the heart of this story lies a strong contrast between the goddess, Athene, and the mortal, Arachne. However, before exploring their characters in detail it might be interesting to start by getting the class to give a snap judgement. For instance, ask them to select and record one adjective for Athene and one for Arachne that sums up their initial impressions. This could be followed up by splitting the class into small groups and allocating them one of the characters to study in more detail. After discussing some/all of the questions listed below each group present their findings to the class. Have they changed their opinions? Are they aware of the different facets of the characters?
Athene uses gossip to form her opinion of Arachne. Should Athene be so quick to judge Arachne? Who might have been the original source of the rumours about Arachne's skills as a weaver? Do we ever make judgements based on rumours and gossip? Why does Athene not reveal herself immediately? What does this suggest about her character? Does her opinion change or soften when she is greeted with kindness and hospitality? Is this generous welcome the reason she issues a warning? Why does she offer Arachne the choice of judge and retain for herself the choice of theme? Why does she overrule Persephone's decision? Do you think she is remorseful when she looks upon the spider's exquisite web?
Is Arachne responsible for the rumours? Is pride in her talent really arrogance? Is Arachne disrespectful? Is she boastful? Does her response to the disguised goddess reveal a different side to her character? Is she brave, stubborn or foolish to incur the wrath of Athene? Should she have acknowledged her skill was a gift? Why does Arachne choose Persephone to judge the weaving contest? Was it a wise choice? What does this tell you about Arachne? Does her pride result in her fall? Does the ending prove her point?
Class discussion can lead to a range of written outcomes: biographies, auto-biographies, character profiles and letters to characters. Whatever the written task, students can use the transcript to examine the language closely, and identify the words and phrases used which help to create striking images and strengthen the characters e.g. she snorted with indignation, she seized her spear, she flashed down, owl-eyed Athene snarled, with owl talons she ripped.
Velasquez’ painting, Las Hilanderas (The Spinners), makes an interesting point of comparison with Ovid’s story. For information on and a high resolution image of the painting go to the Wikipedia entry for Las Hilanderas (Velázquez).
Students can explore a number of possible avenues, for instance:
- How much do we learn about weaving from the painting?
- Where is the focal point of the painting?
- Does the painting bring out the rivalry between Athene (the old woman on the left) and Arachne (the young woman in the white top on the right)?
- What do you think made Velasquez choose the story of Arachne as subject-matter for a painting?