To spin a tale… To weave a narrative… These common metaphors spring from the essence of language. The word text comes from texere, the Latin word for weaving. Spinning and weaving go hand in hand with metaphor and storytelling.
Spiders, who weave webs to capture their prey — much as an artist or story-teller aims to capture the attention of the viewer or reader, are the daughters of Arachne, who challenged Athena, the goddess of weaving and wisdom, to a contest of skill.
In his Metamorphosis, Ovid (43BCE-~17CE) tells us that Arachne, daughter of a humble shepherd and wool dyer, weaved so wondrously that the nymphs themselves came out to watch her work, creating tapestries that seemed alive.
At first glance, the story of Arachne is a cautionary tale of hubris: yet another mortal daring to scorn a god’s superiority and being punished for her arrogance. Even when Athena appears as an old woman to warn her, a scoffing Arachne re-issues her challenge.
And so the two weavers set to work. Athena weaves the story of her own power, how she prevailed in the naming of Athens, the twelve gods in their glory, and, in the four corners: the dire fates of humans who presumed to confront the gods.
Speaking truth to power
Arachne starts weaving Europa’s rape by Zeus in the form of a bull who carried her across the sea to Crete, a picture so vibrant you can hear the waves and feel the heat from the bull’s flank. She continues with other rapes using deception and force by Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Dionysus, and Chronos.
Athena is furious- at both Arachne’s skill and her insolence. She tears at Arachne’s tapestry and loom, raises her hand holding the shuttle, and strikes the weaver three times in the forehead.
For some reason, Arachne now backs down
Perhaps because it’s one thing to best a god and another to be at the receiving end of their wrath. Perhaps because the blows confuse her, or are somehow magical.
Perhaps because she’s proven her point.
Arachne slips a noose around her neck to hang herself.
But Athena lifts her up…
and sprinkling her with poison, curses her and her daughters to live, always hanging, always spinning.
Arachne’s arms and legs shrink. Her hair spreads to cover her body with stubble. Her thumbs stick to her sides and her fingers grow and grow and grow until she becomes a spider.
Enter the spider
Notwithstanding Ovid’s origin story, arachnids evolved at least 400 million years ago. As did Arachne, her daughters spin. They’re not the only ones. Other arthropods (the phylum that includes arachnids, insects and crustaceans) build cocoons with their silk- a poetic word for protein fibers.
But like Arachne, who is thought to have invented fishing nets and traps for hunting, spiders use their silk to protect their eggs and as draglines, and also for their webs.
Spider webs do many things
They’re used for courtship, to regulate temperature, and as defense, but mostly, they capture prey. The web has to intercept, stop, and retain the flying insects which make up the bulk of a spider’s diet.
To meet these needs, spiders produce up to seven different types of silk with diverse properties. For example, draglines and the outer portions of the web are built with silk that matches the tensile strength of steel. The silk used in the web’s center can reversibly stretch as far as rubber.
Spider silk isn’t just hard to break– requiring 7 to 10 times the strength used to fracture Kevlar- its healing and anticoagulant properties have been recognized since antiquity when it was used to bandage wounds .
The interest in medical and military applications comes as no surprise. However spiders are small and produce proportionately small amounts of silk. (Check out this video from the American Museum of Natural History about an amazing golden cloth woven from the silk of a million spiders.)
Instead of leaving their structures behind, they eat their webs to reuse the material. Attempts to “farm” spiders are challenged by their individualism and their tendency to cannibalism when there’s not enough food. Like Arachne, spiders aren’t meek and subservient.
For now, like in the past 400 million years, Arachne’s daughters sit and spin, endlessly building and re-building their webs.
So what does Arachne tell us?
Like spiders re-creating their webs each day, there’s always more to the story of Arachne. Over the years and the many re-tellings and re-visionings, Arachne’s tale has inspired discussion of arrogance versus ambition, art versus craft, myth versus reality, the teacher-student relationship, and the place of common people and of women.
In The Spinners (Las Hilanderas), one of the last paintings of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), he takes the role of Arachne, while also using her story to examine these topics.
What is happening and who are all those people?
Good question! Interpretations abound, thanks to the many figures and objects, and the action in a split composition. Initially, the prosaic and unpretentious figures of women spinning in the shadowed foreground suggested a direct representation of the tapestry studio of Santa Isabel.
But then, what about the background? In a brightly lit alcove a few steps above the foreground, a woman presents a tapestry depicting the rape of Europa while facing an armored figure with raised arm.
In the 40s, Diego Angulo Íñiguez proposed that the painting was the story of Arachne and Athena: the two spinning in the foreground, the punishment in the background. Others have argued that Penelope is in the foreground , or that it represents the tale of Lucretia.
Within the story, more stories
In a feat of meta-fiction that would make Arachne proud, Velázquez seeds the painting with references to art from the past, from the visible whir of the spinning wheel in the foreground (a direct response to the challenge of artists to depict movement as noted by Jan Baptist Bedaux) to the reflection of Michelangelo’s ignudi in the woman holding the curtain and the spinner in the white blouse.
Arachne’s tapestry in the background is a copy of Titian’s Rape of Europa, part of the Spanish royal family’s collection at the time. Here again, Velázquez acknowledges the masters that came before by making a copy, as Rubens had done years before.
Velázquez goes one step further by placing his copy within a story about paying obeisance to teachers -or not, and about the role of art. He also obscures it with figures, but not so much we can’t recognize the tumbling headlong putti.
And in the foreground, larger than life: the everyday work of spinning women. Ortega y Gassett said of Velázquez that he managed to
convertir lo cotidiano en permanente sorpresa
That is: He turned the everyday into permanent surprise. In doing so, he showed us that surprise – and beauty and art– is also to be found in the day-to-day.
From Velázquez’s Arachne to today
Arachne will always signify the human desire to excel and the courage to speak out. She also tells us, like her daughters the spiders, of the endless everyday work of making, consuming and re-creating. Invention and re-invention.
According to Ortega, Velázquez discovered that
… la realidad se diferencia del mito en que no está nunca acabada.
Reality is distinguished from myth in that reality is never finished.
Perhaps myths are never finished either.