The Myth of Arachne in Ovid and Velazquez

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress was made of spider silk. It wouldn’t have been my choice. I wonder how many died during the production for spiders are inveterate loners and prone to combat if forced into company. Accustomed to sit in solitary splendour amidst their own fabulous creations, they destroy our peace of mind by recklessly darting from invisible holes, dashing across expanses of open floor and leaping into the unknown across vast chasms. Fragile but tenacious, their webs steel-strong but ephemeral, improbably terrifying creators of beauty, they are subversive little monsters of great antiquity. Like all creatures with supernatural gifts, they have been thought to possess powers to create and to destroy and in every way they and their webs are natural symbols for the Arts and artists.

Ovid, that sophisticated Roman poet,* writing in times of state imposed moral rectitude, turns the myth of Arachne into his own message of subversion. His supremely ordinary girl, Arachne, daughter of a dyer of cloth, has a more than mortal talent for weaving. She has acquired it from Athene, but refuses to acknowledge her debt. In the narrative, the challenge to divinity is expressed by Arachne behaving like a truculent teenager towards an old woman who is, no surprise, Athene disguised. Arachne has challenged the goddess to a contest and both roll up their clothes and set to. Athene weaves a tapestry in which the splendid Olympians preside over scenes of hubristic mortals being punished: the status quo. Arachne portrays the subversive view: humans at the mercy of the gods’ arbitrary whims and desires, a world in which nothing is as it seems. 

Arachne’s work is faultless and Athene in a fit of envy beats her. Arachne tries to hang herself to escape and Athene in a moment of pity turns her into a spider, which of course carries its own survival and tapestry weaving kit with it forever. With its very particular descriptions of the craft of weaving, the narrative hovers between reality and an idea of transcendence. The subversive function of art and its persistence in an eternally renewable form (an immortality shared with divinity) has become now almost inextricable from our idea of the artist’s social role.

In Velazquez’ painting, Las Hilanderas, it’s Arachne’s subversive tapestry, showing Jupiter as a bull carrying off Europa, which is ironically on display for the delectation of two grand and respectable ladies, their silken dresses painted in expensive vermillion and ultramarine. Though illuminated, the ostensibly most important scene takes place in the background where the figures of Athene and Arachne are just recognisable: they almost melt into the tapestry behind, while in the foreground the craft of spinning and weaving is shown in loving detail, touched here and there by the light which spills from a window in the upper space.

The tapestry, i.e. the work of art and Arachne, the artist, are in the raised space with the goddess: a luminous and numinous space, while the craft of artistic production is in plain view. Once again we are seduced into entering the artist’s liminal territory where the real and the transcendent are at play and conventions can be subverted.

* Ovid. 43 BCE – 17/18 AD. Metamorphoses Book 6.
Good translators are Mary Innes and David Raeburn.

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