Dr. Bruce R. Magee
Latin 4915: Ovid's Metamorpheses
Dr. Robert Edgeworth
July 1990

Minerva's Arachnophobia in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Did the pantheon deserve worship? This was an issue in the Greco-Roman world of Augustus and one that Ovid took up in his treatment of the contest between Minerva and Arachne (6. 1-145). Several lines of argument could be used in establishing the need to worship the pantheon, or the lack of such a need. This paper is an examination of the ways in which Ovid's treatment of the Arachne myth argues for or against worship of Minerva in particular and, by implication, the whole pantheon in general. Both in their verbal dispute and in the tapestries they weave, Arachne and Minerva debate the gods' right to be worshipped.

The fundamental ancient argument in favor of worship was that the gods would punish anyone who did not worship. They "demand that men render them the honour due to them, their honor (timh, timé), and on any who fail to do so they take a terrible revenge" (Lloyd-Jones 4). Thus Minerva in the disguise of an old woman warns Arachne to pay the goddess her due homage.

                        "tibi fama petatur 
inter mortales faciendae maxima lanae; 
cede dea veniamque tuis, temeraria, dictis 
supplice voce roga: veniam dabit illa roganti." (6. 30-33)
                       "seek all the fame you will among mortal men for handling wool; but yield place to the goddess, and with humble prayer beg her pardon for your words, wreckless girl. She will grant you pardon if you ask it."

Minerva's demands arise out of a society that based status on birth. The text repeatedly stresses Arachne's humble background:

     non illa loco nec origine gentis 
clare, sed arte fuit (6. 7-8), 
Neither for place of birth nor birth itself had the girl fame, but only for her skill.
occiderat mater, sed et haec de plebe suoque 
     aequa viro fuerat; Lydas tamen illa per urbes 
     quaesierat studio nomen memorabile, quamvis 
     orta domo parva parvis habitabat Hypaepis. (6. 10-13)
Her mother was now dead; but she was low-born herself, and had a husband of the same degree. Nevertheless, the girl, Arachne, had gained fame for her skill throughout the Lydian towns, although she herself had sprung from a humble home and dwelt in the hamlet of Hypaepa.

The gods "treat men as the nobles of an early stage of a rural society treat the peasants" (Lloyd-Jones 3-4). From Minerva's point of view, Arachne's low birth eliminates her from being a potential equal no matter how skilled Arachne is. A high-born mortal like Hercules could on occasion beat a low god like the river-god Achelous (9. 1-88), but the idea that a low-born girl like Arachne without any divine or noble blood could compete with a high goddess like her is odious to Minerva. She insists that the girl recognize their proper places in the scheme of the universe and worship the goddess of weaving to protect herself from the goddess's wrath.

However, wrath alone was not enough of a basis for worship. In the opening lines of the Odyssey,Zeus is at pains to defend the justice of the gods, while Aeschylus' Prometheus Boundis an attack an divine justice.  From the time of the early Greek poets and philosophers, people recognized that the pantheon's right to rule must be based on more than sheer power; monstrously unjust gods were inadequate (Lloyd-Jones 4, 26-27).  In contrast to Minerva's reliance on her divinity, Arachne relies on skill alone as the proper measure of the craftsperson. Minerva claims that she taught and inspired Arachne and that therefore Arachne owes her worship. The text recognizes her claim by the statement, "scires a Pallade doctam," "You could know that Pallas had taught her" (6. 23). The conditional force of scires (You could know) leaves open the question of whether Minerva actually did teach Arachne. The pro-worship argument has shifted from the raw power of the gods to punish to a quid pro quo argument. The assertion that Minerva has blessed Arachne with her ability places a burden on Arachne to respond with worship. Instead Arachne responds with a challenge. She tells her acquaintances, "Let her but strive with me; and if I lose there is nothing which I would not forfeit." ("'Certet' ait 'mecum: nihil est, quod victa recusem!'" 6. 25). She asks the disguised Minerva, "Why does she avoid a contest with me?" ("'Cur haec certamina vitat?'" 6. 42). Her argument is that if she can equal or surpass Minerva in a contest, she will have established that Minerva did not teach her. She would also undermine the contention that the gods do anything benficial for humans.

The debate between Arachne and Minerva as an old woman does not settle the disagreement but merely sets up the contest between them. This contest is a trial by combat that will determine who is correct. A weaving contest is a form of conflict appropriate to women since their culture saw weaving as woman's work (Ahl 224-225). The goddess and Arachne compete on an equal footing. Minerva does not use her divine powers to create a tapestry out of thin air; she uses a loom identical to that of Arachne. "They both set up the looms in different places without delay and they stretch the fine warp upon them" ("Constituunt diversis partibus ambae/ et gracili geminas intendunt stamine telas" 6. 53-54). The only divine powers Minerva uses in the contest are her technical and artistic skills, the skills that are in dispute. The text first describes the technical skills of the two. In a similar fashion the two set up their looms, work the warp and woof, gird up their garments around their chests, and move their skilled arms (bracchia docta) in their tasks (6. 53-60). They exhibit a similar level of skill in dealing with colors (6. 61-67). Since they have a similar level of technical expertise, the contest must be decided on the artistic content of their tapestries.

The women's choices of themes for the tapestries again demonstrates a similarity between the two. Each one chooses to illustrate her tapistry with the past actions of the gods.  "There, too, they weave in pliant threads of gold, and trace in the weft some ancient tale" (Illic et lentum filis inmittitur aurum/ et vetus in tela deducitur argumentum 6. 68-69). Neither chooses to portray other potential themes of tapistries, such as scenes from nature. Instead, both women weave wordless narratives into their tapestries. Since woman is able infuse her voice into the work that she must do, "it is therefore hard to deprive woman of her voice--though gods, men, and even goddesses try hard to do so" (Ahl 225). The divergent voices of Arachne and Minerva emerge through the events that they portray in their tapestries as they construct history from their own points of view. Minerva constructs history in the manner of dominant classes everywhere, whether they be divine or human. Arachne subverts that history with the view from below; she shows another, less noble side of the rulers.

In both tapestries, form and content are interrelated (Galinsky 82-83). Minerva's tapestry has a symmetrical arrangement: one central scene and four corner scenes. This arrangement supports the established, divine order and conventional religious piety of the content of the scenes (Galinsky 82). Arachne's tapestry subverts that order in both form and content. Her work has no specific structure; its juxtaposition of various scenes has thematic unity but no structural balance. The content of Arachne's tapestry depicts the desire of male gods for human females in circumstances that reveal the unseemliness of the gods. Minerva's tapestry is somewhat similar to Vergil's Aeneid, which is "Augustan" in its balance and proportionality; Arachne's tapestry is more like the first section of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which also lacks strict structure and also centers on the loves of the gods for humans (Galinsky 82-83).

Minerva picks scenes that support her claim to human worship. Minerva's central panel shows twelve gods, six on either side, flanking Jupiter as he presides over the dispute between Neptune and Minerva/Athene as the two perform miracles to assert their claim to Athens. The whole scene exhibits "august magesty" (augusta gravitate 6. 73). Such an august scene lends support to the gods' demands that humans worship them. Aristrocrats from many cultures have recognized the value of pageantry in lending them legitimacy in their reigns, and this lesson was not lost to the Augustan age in which Ovid wrote. If the gods can look regal, they can claim to be regal.

In Minerva's central panel, she and Neptune were involved in a dispute. Both gods in the scene were anxious to become the patrons of Athens, and they engaged in a listo determine who would be the patron (6. 71). Each created a gift to offer Athens in return for the honor of being Athens's patron; Neptune created a salt-water fountain (later versions of the contest replaced this useless gift with the horse) and Minerva the olive-tree. (The tapestry allows Ovid to work two other etiology myths into the etiology myth of the spider.) Thus Minerva is able to add the quid pro quo argument to the majesty argument in her tapestry; she deserves worship from people because she gives them gifts, such as the olive-tree, the ability to weave, and even the soul (animus) that gives them life (Downing 103-104).

Minerva's depiction of the dispute between herself and Neptune is blatantly self-serving. (Fortunately, megalomania is a virtue in a god or goddess.) In this contest, she vied with her uncle, a Cronian who ruled the third of the world consisting of ocean. Thus her contest was with one who could claim to be superior to her. The obvious argument from the greater to the lesser is that if she could overcome as great a god as Neptune, she could not fail to overcome as common a mortal as Arachne. She further stresses her status in the pantheon by her garb, especially the aegis that guarded her breast (6. 79). Her father Jupiter let her wear his aegis as a token of their special relationship. This aegis was also a sign of her majesty. The shield, spear, and helmet stressed her function as the goddess of war; they also signified the raw power that threatened any mortal who was foolhardy enough to anger her. Neptune's horse was no mean feat, but when the gods saw the olive-tree, they marveled (mirarique deos 6. 82). The decision in her favor is obvious in the tapestry; "the result of the work is victory" (operis victoria finis 6. 82).

Minerva works in four cautionary tales into the corner so that Arachne may better be aware of the fate awaiting her. The four scenes foreshadow Arachne's punishment by showing what happened to other mortals who challenged the gods. Rhodope and Haemus became mountains; the Pygmy queen became a crane and warred against her former people; Antigone became a stork, and the daughters of Cinyras became marble steps (6. 87-100). Thus the four scenes show instances in which metamorphosis was used as punishment, as would be the case for Arachne. The raw power of the gods to destroy their inferiors is a threat that literally brackets Minerva's regardless of how much beauty, balance, and beneficence may fill its center.

In her tapestry, Arachne does not dispute the power of the gods since she lives in their mythic space, but she does dispute the other elements of Minerva's argument; she argues that power alone is enough to make the gods worthy of worship. This is a dangerous argument since in her world the hegemony of the gods is firmly intact; dissidence can be very costly. Ovid was aware of the skeptical argument that the gods did not exist, but he does not use that argument here. He does examine that possibility in the Amores, where he also asserts that if the gods are real, then beautiful women can make fools out of them.

aut sine re nomen deus est frustraque timetur 
et stulta populos credulitate movet, 
aut, si quis deus est, teneras amat ille puellas 
et nimium solas omnia posse iubet. (Amores 3. 3. 23-26)

Arachne's argument is closer to the latter approach, but she does not take such a benign view of the way that male gods treat mortal women. To call her tapestry a depiction of the "loves" of those male gods for female women, as does Galinsky (82), is at best a reflection of the male point of view, the view from on top. The women who were impregnated by guile and violence might have chosen some other term for the process, and Arachne's is a subversive history that takes the view from below. However, Arachne's tapestry does not so much indict the violence as it does the deportment of the gods, for rape is a paradigm for Greco-Roman heterosexual relationships. Sex was a contest between man and woman, and the man should be the winner. The ideal man was viril and aggressive with his sexuality, while the ideal woman was passive and reticent in her sexual response. Thus rape exhibited the ideal traits of both the aggressive man and the resistant woman (Foucault 2: 162-165, 215). Arachne's indictment (crimina 6. 131) of the gods largely consists of the ways that they conducted themselves in satisfying their lusts.

One of the central themes of Minerva's tapestry is the augusta gravitate of the gods (6. 73). Arachne chooses another editorial policy in determining what gets in her tapestry; she uses the same body of myths that Minerva uses but presents an entirely different picture of the gods, one characterized by theignobility of beastiality and deceit. Minerva constructs the gods as they like to appear to themselves; Arachne constructs them as they have appeared to humans. She subverts the gravitas and maiestas (majesty) of the gods by presenting them as subhuman in their activities (Galinsky 83, 161-163). Her tapestry shows nine affairs of Jupiter, six of Neptune, four of Apollo, one of Bacchus, and one of Saturn. Although the gods sometimes appear as humans, they generally take the forms of animals, plants, or natural events (6. 103-128). She replicates the approach that Ovid takes toward the gods in the Metamorphoses in that both make the gods appear so subhuman that they lose their dignity and thus their respectability (Galinsky 161-163).

The other consistant trait of the gods in Arachne's tapestry is their deceitfulness. These are not the gods who guarantee the sancity of oaths or heed the prayers of their human worshipers. These are gods who exercise their power for their own advantage heedless of the wishes of others. They use their shape-changing ability to help them get the women they desire. On this level, the tapestry serves as an indictment of Minerva as well as the gods actually depicted, for Minerva herself had come to Arachne in a disguise.

Pallas anum simulat: falsosque in tempora canos 
addit et infirmos, baculo quos sustinet, artus. (6. 26-27)
Then Pallas simulated thhe form of an old woman, put false lacks of grey upon her head, and took a staff in her hand to sustain her tottoring limbs.

Arachne commits the unforgiveable sin of telling the truth (Ahl 199). Rulers, be they gods or people, like to think that they rule for benevolent reasons and that they are doing the ruled a favor by bringing them civilization, pax, or, in this case, textiles. Confronted with dissidence, they can become quite dangerous. This danger is evident in Minerva's response to Arachne; Minerva is outraged at the success of Arachne, whose tapestry has come out flawless (6. 129-130). Minerva lives down to Arachne's portrayal rather than up to her own self-portrayal, proving the truth of Arachne's accusations. She asserts her power at the price of her legitimacy. The reader comes away feeling sympathy for Arachne, not Minerva (Galinsky 67). Arachne becomes a spider, retaining her isotheistic weaving skills but losing her voice, her ability to narrate through her loom (Ahl 226). However, while Minerva could silence the singer, she could not silence the song.

Lydia tota fremit, Phrygiaeque per oppida facti 
rumor it et magnum sermonibus occupat orbem. (6. 146-147)
All Lydia is in a tumult; the story spreads throughout the towns of Phrygia and fills the whole world with talk.

The tapestry no longer existed, but the indictments of the gods hung in the air, including the story of Minerva's bad sportsmanship. Such stories about the gods tended to undermine their authority and were in part responsible for the conclusion by many of Ovid's day that ("sine re nomen deus est frustraque timetur et stulta populos credulitate movet" Amores 3. 3. 23-26).