In Metamorphoses the Roman poet Ovid writes that Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter who began weaving at an early age. She became a very talented weaver, credited with inventing linen cloth and nets and whose son was said to have introduced the use of the spindle in wool manufacturing. These were incredible discoveries and according to Ovid, Arachne was filled with hubris, boasting that her prowess as a weaver exceeded even that of the goddess Athena, refusing to acknowledge that her skill came, at least in part, from the goddess.
Athena was incensed by this and set up a contest with Arachne to determine who truly was the most skilled. Athena’s weaving depicted four separate contests between mortals and the gods in which the gods punished mortals for setting themselves as equals of the gods. This was to show how wrong Arachne was to challenge the gods. Arachne’s weaving on the other hand depicted ways in which the gods, particularly Zeus, had misled and abused mortals, tricking, and seducing many women. When Athena saw that Arachne had not only insulted the gods but done so with a work far more beautiful than Athena’s own, she was enraged. She destroyed Arachne’s work and hit her on the head three times. Terrified and ashamed, Arachne hanged herself. Out of love for Arachne Athena said, “Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in the future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!” After saying this, the goddess then sprinkled Hecate’s herb on her “making Arachne’s hair fall out. With it went her nose and ears, her head shrank to the smallest size, and her whole body became tiny. Her slender fingers stuck to her sides as legs, the rest is belly, from which she still spins a thread, and, as a spider, weaves her ancient web.”
The myth of Arachne can also be seen as an attempt to show relation between art and tyrannical power in Ovid’s time. He wrote under the emperor Augustus and was exiled by him. At the time weaving was a common metaphor for poetry, therefore Arachne’s artistry and Athena’s censorship to it may offer a provocative allegory of the writer’s role under an autocratic regime.